Twitter: the elephant in the room

Let’s talk about Twitter.

One of my friends posted a link on his blog last year (it pointed to The Gospel Coalition, which quoted a bit of another blog post written by an author named Nicholas Carr). I thought it was interesting then, but recently I found myself revisiting and rereading it. I find it kind of amazing that the original analysis on Twitter by Carr happened way back in 2007, before anybody really knew or cared about Twitter. But now I think it’s quite timely for us to rethink these things. Twitter has made its way into the social consciousness of my “network.” If they don’t use Twitter themselves, they at least know of the concept.  Carr has some pretty interesting things to say about Twitter. I don’t think he is a Christian, but his words have implications for believers who use Twitter. Read on…

I read that feature article in Time magazine last June and found the article pretty interesting as it talked about the innovative uses of Twitter that were beginning to emerge as it started to gain a critical mass of users. I think Twitter can be a great marketing tool for businesses. It can make real-time discussion of large-scale events much more accessible and stimulating. I like using Twitter to keep up to date on what law school admissions offices are up to, as well as upcoming projects or albums from musicians. And even though people make fun of Twitter as Facebook status updates on steroids, it consolidates information in a way that makes sharing interesting things much more doable. Status updates on FB get lost in the news feed, and there’s no guarantee that the people you want to see your updates will actually see it. With Twitter, you know that just as you can see every update of the people you follow, your followers can see the same for you. As a way of getting occasional updates from places or groups that you would normally never hear a peep from, Twitter is awesome. But there’s that other side of Twitter, the incessant posting of inane personal details that all of us are familiar with…that’s what the rest of this post will focus on.

What’s a little different with Twitter is that, compared to Facebook, we know our audience with more precision. Especially if we require approval for people to “follow” you, we know exactly who will see our updates. Because all our updates are consolidated onto one concise, constantly refreshing feed for followers, it makes it hard for our audience to miss anything we want them to know. This takes the “look at me” factor of Facebook and multiplies it. One of the snippets in the linked blog post I found spot-on (though maybe a little extreme) was this:

The great paradox of “social networking” is that it uses narcissism as the glue for “community.” Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together. The community is purely symbolic, a pixellated simulation conjured up by software to feed the modern self’s bottomless hunger. Hunger for what? For verification of its existence? No, not even that. For verification that it has a role to play. As I walk down the street with thin white cords hanging from my ears, as I look at the display of khakis in the window of the Gap, as I sit in a Starbucks sipping a chai served up by a barista, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’m real. But if I send out to a theoretical audience of my peers 140 characters of text saying that I’m walking down the street, looking in a shop window, drinking tea, suddenly I become real. I have a voice. I exist, if only as a symbol speaking of symbols to other symbols.

It’s not, as Scott Karp suggests, “I Twitter, therefore I am.” It’s “I Twitter because I’m afraid I ain’t.”

That last line summarizes it all pretty well. “I Twitter because I’m afraid I ain’t.” Do we Twitter because we are afraid our lives are meaningless if we don’t? The typical reaction would be: “No…what the hell are you talking about??” It’s easy to deny such a devastating-sounding accusation and call Carr a Twitter-hater, but I hope that all of us can examine deep down what our intentions are, what our motivations are for tweeting about the tiniest details of our lives. Actually, not why we first started tweeting—because most people start tweeting thinking the Twitter concept is the dumbest thing—but why we started to tweet more. What makes some people go Twitter-crazy?

There is a good side to wanting to share and confide the details of our lives with others, wanting to enjoy pleasurable experiences with others, and wanting to form social bonds with others. But are we beginning to make an idol of this attention, of being “known”? Looking back at my high school and early college years, I think I wrote a lot of my Xanga entries because I wanted to feel significant—to be known and valued by others. This desire, just like sexual desire, is not necessarily sinful. God created us with these desires for relationship and community. But to give it ultimate significance is to make an idol out of it. Maybe deep down it really is narcissism.

Psalm 139 begins this way:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (139:1-4)

You don’t need to tweet about something for it to be meaningful. Does our use of Twitter augment the genuine, in-the-flesh relationships we are nurturing with our friends or do we engage in it just to convince ourselves that we do have friends who care about what we do, our feelings, what excites us, what frustrates us? Why do we have “conversations” on Twitter even with people we see and communicate with regularly through other mediums? Does seeing our @username mentioned in other people’s feeds and tweets give us a sense of satisfaction because we know that others will see? Because as an outsider, it’s weird to see interactions that normally happen in private happen in the palm of my hand (literally). I’m not saying that having them is wrong. I just want to encourage people to think about why they do what they do. There is something very significant that drives our willingness to put our lives on display (or, to put it negatively, our disregard for our personal privacy). We begin to forget who’s “watching” and the implications about ourselves that we suggest to others when we post this or that. All of our tweets form a picture of who we are. Some may complain when people assume this or that about us by reading our tweets. Are we not enabling their misconceptions by tweeting? The more we put “out there,” especially when we’re doing it in 140-character bits and pieces, the more confusing it can make relationships. Then why do we keep doing it?

Verses 17-19:

How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

On first read, I read these verses like this: “How precious to you are my thoughts, O God!” Seeing as how this psalm is a picture of intimacy between the psalmist and God, and how it alternates between God’s knowing of the psalmist and the psalmist’s knowing of God, I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to switch these pronouns. The rest of Psalm 139 is really awesome as well, and I would encourage you to read it and meditate on it as it relates to this Twitter cultural phenomenon.

We must remember that God knows us more than any Twitter feed can make ourselves known to others. God knows that you are really enjoying your latte on a cold, rainy day. God knows that you really don’t want to get out of bed to go to work. God knows that you think the person at the other table in the restaurant is really annoying. God knows that you think the sunset is so beautiful. Your life has meaning because God knows you and cares for you. Those who don’t know and believe this are finding themselves caught up in the existentialism of the Tweety-first century.

Know that the God who created us knows our every thought and emotion. We are precious to Him. We are of more value to God than the sparrows, whom God has not forgotten (Luke 12:6-7). The Lord knows our every need before we tell anyone (Matthew 6:8). And because of this, no longer do we need to look to Twitter or Facebook to feel like we matter in this world. There is freedom in knowing the love of Christ. Let’s share this love with those who are lost and seeking meaning for their lives.

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