Not everything has to be boiled down to 140 characters.
After some initial skepticism a few years ago, I have to admit we’ve come to like Twitter. The micro-blurbing platform is fun, easy to use, and offers a way to connect with people we might never “friend” on Facebook. But Twitter, like all forms of communication, has good uses – and limits. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most effective use of 140-letters:
- Look! Over here, at this shiny [website/video/graphic]! Tweets are fantastic for drawing others’ attention to something cool, interesting, controversial or just plain fun. Consider Twitter a weathervane, indicating which way the wind is blowing (trending).
- Arrrrgh! That [service/flight/company] sucked! Most tweets in this vein refer to customer service disasters. Popular targets include cell phone companies and airlines, but restaurants, hotels and even technology companies often feel the wrath. Occasional joyous tweets pale in comparison to the “talk to the hand” moments.
- Yay! Go [team/friend/celebrity]! Sunday tweets are mostly filled with obscure, meaningless outbursts of cheer for something happening on a fourth-screen out of sight from most followers. Rooting for someone on a news show and playing field, even Presidential debates, has become a tweetable moment.
All fine and well. These are the moments when outburst-communication makes most sense. And while Twitter has been cited as a tool that did wonders during disasters and political revolutions of late, it’s still true that, in case of fire, most people exit the building before tweeting about it.
Which brings me back to the question: Should everything be a tweetable moment? In an era where mobile technology has so radically altered interpersonal dynamics, forever changing dinner tables and cocktail parties, does it follow that people should now start talking in such a way as to anticipate being re-tweeted?
Talking in tweet-bites isn’t entirely new: it’s an evolution in the “sound bite” or headline-news approach to communicating information. But is it useful, or even damaging, when we find ourselves thinking: How do I say this to get tweeted, rather than to be understood?
This phenomenon came to the forefront at a technology and marketing conference I recently attended. Like all conferences these days, only about 10% of the audience was actually watching the presenters and panels; the rest were busy staring down into their laps, tapping out the discussion like human teletypes. Maybe some people process information by retweeting it, much like we used to learn our lessons by writing them out by hand, but so much human communication happens through the body – facial expressions, hand movements, posture – that I wonder what was lost when nobody was looking up.
Additionally, since the conference had an official team of Tweetsters whose job it was to relay into cyberspace the happenings of the realspace, a fascinating phenomenon occurred on stage. Whether the presenters were solo or part of a panel, they started talking in tweetable bursts. They knew they were being tweet-cast in real time, and they adjusted their speech and vocabulary to match. They spoke in short, clipped sentences. Some spoke in painfully contrived phrases, designed for maximum reaction, by the online audience. With a few exceptions, I felt like I could have attended the conference from my room, or the bar, or ten thousand miles away; the actual presence of humans was irrelevant.
But that’s not all. After shaking my head, feeling like I’d attended a Morse Code workshop, I caught up with some of the panelists in the hallway. And it happened again! Some of them just couldn’t stop talking in Look! Arrrgh! Yay! phrases. I could tell from their eye movement that they were mentally adding #hashtags to the words coming out of their mouths. They even punctuated the discussion with staccato body movements that made me think: Is he quoting someone else, in a kind of arm-waving-RT?
Of course, not all of my interpersonal interactions at the conference were tweet-a-likes. There were plenty of hugs, smiles, laughs and even a few tears. Quiet, intense conversations and moments of silence taking in the cityscape or a glass of fine wine. Excitable, fierce arguments that got the blood boiling and the mind humming. These connections felt right, genuine, and valuable; They happened in complete sentences, punctuated with eyebrows and smiles. Most smartphones remained in pockets and purses.
They were the moments when I learned the most and laughed the hardest. The best connections didn’t have a hashtag.
(Was that last bit a tweetable phrase?)
Still, it’s worth wondering: Is something happening to our language, or deeper, to the ways we think? When we start talking in the hopes of being quoted, does the popularity imperative distort our content? Have we become obsessed with going viral, rather than being understood?
I don’t know the answer, yet. Perhaps you do. But for now, I’m more aware that something has changed, just slightly, to the way some of us talk. The impulse to have everything shared, approved and favorited by others has affected our social interactions. It may not be new; it might just be hyper. For me, it seems just a little weird.
And as usual, we’re back to Marshall McLuhan: Diaper backward spells repaid.
Think about it.