T he mayor of Toronto sends me messages all the time. It's neat. He had a great workout with Tracey this a.m. No wonder he's lost weight! Then he took the kids to school (good family man!) and made a big announcement about potholes. He's going to fill them in. Yay.
Mayor Miller loves to Twitter. Or is that tweet? It's the latest thing, so I thought I'd do it, too. He has 4,490 followers. I have 9.
The reason for these short paragraphs is that Twitter messages can be no more than 140 characters. They're ideal for folks with short attention spans. Tweeting lets everybody know what you're up to at any time, although why they'd care is a mystery to me.
I'm going to grab a tuna sandwich from the cafeteria. Can't decide between rye bread and brown. More thoughts later! In case you've been residing in some non-digital cave, Twitter is the latest rage.
It is "a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real time." It also helps explain why the newspaper as we know it - along with most of what we regard as higher thought - is heading for extinction. There will soon be no one left with an attention span that exceeds 140 characters at a time.
Twitter is alleged to have genuine social usefulness. For example, if you're kidnapped by bandits, you can use your cellphone to send a tweet that says: "I'm being kidnapped." Sadly, though, most tweets are unspeakably banal. Usually they go, "Busy day!! Need to go to the gym before I go into cardiac arrest from all the cheeseburgers I eat."
If you thought Facebook was banal, try Twitter. It makes people who write their thoughts on Facebook sound like Shakespeare. Of course, it's also possible I'm too old and out of it. According to new-media experts, the medium is greater than the messages. Twitter and Facebook are creating a new world of digital intimacy.
"Each little update - each individual bit of social information - is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane," says new-media expert Clive Thompson. "But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting." He calls this experience "ambient awareness" - an invisible dimension floating over everyday life, like a type of ESP.
Sounds great. Except that even over time, my friends' and family members' lives just aren't that interesting. The lives of people I scarcely know are even less interesting. Spending time with them on Facebook is like having to sit through a detailed recital of someone's winter vacation. I have tried and tried to get the hang of it, but I have failed miserably. I don't care about any of these so-called friends. If I did, I'd actually spend time with them.
Twitter was started in 2006 by a couple of young guys. Although it has no revenues as yet, Facebook recently offered $500-million to buy them out. They turned down the offer.
Between four million and six million people have signed up on Twitter. Famously, Barack Obama Twitters. Or rather, his people do. A lot of celebrities are now using Twitter as a marketing tool to create an air of faux authenticity and faux connection. They hire flacks to feed content into their Twitter streams and blogs. The New York Times reports that a gentleman named Broadway (not his real name) thumbs tweets for rapper 50 Cent (not his real name), who has nearly a quarter of a million followers. "He doesn't actually use Twitter," Broadway says. "But the energy of it is all him."
Among the more astonishing revelations in the Stefanie Rengel murder trial was the staggering volume of instant messages exchanged between the teenaged boy and girl accused of killing her. In only four months, they called or messaged each other around 25,000 times. The contents were often pathological. A teenaged boy interviewed on radio said he routinely gets more than 400 messages a day - many of them during class, when, you'd think, he's supposed to be learning something.
This compulsive desire to connect in real time means people are spending less and less time in the real world interacting with the people right next to them. Sometimes, the results are fatal. The other day, a young woman talking on a cellphone walked right into traffic on a busy Toronto street and was killed by a truck. Death by cellphone is no longer rare.
Why, then, do people tweet? Is it really hunger for community? Is it, as one Twittering friend suggested, a safe substitute for talking to yourself, something that other people tend to find disturbing? Is it one more symptom of mass attention-deficit disorder - yet another excuse to distract ourselves from the dull or difficult tasks at hand?
Is it really fear of dying, as my colleague Ian Brown suggests? Maybe Twittering is just another way (like getting and sending e-mail) to reassure ourselves that we exist: Ego tweeto, ergo sum .
Or maybe the drive to tweet is just the logical extension of our narcissistic age, in which nothing in the world could possibly be more fascinating (to us) than what we're having for lunch.
But here's the problem: What happens when broadcasting your life becomes a full-time job? When you're always Facebooking and Twittering and blogging and instant messaging, where do you find the time to live the life you're supposed to be describing? What happens when we completely disappear up our own navels?
I guess what happens is we write about that. The first Twitter autobiography has already been published. It's called My Life in Tweets .