Twitter dot dash

And so at last, after passing through Email and Instant Messaging and Texting, we arrive in the land of Twitter. The birds are singing in the trees – they look like that robin at the end of Blue Velvet – and the air itself is so clean you can see yourself in it.

Twitter is the telegraph system of Web 2.0. Like Morse’s machine, it limits messages to very brief strings of text. But whereas the telegraph imposed its limit through the market’s will – priced by the word, telegraph messages were too expensive to waste – Twitter imposes its limit through the iron law of code. Each message may include no more than 140 characters. As you type your message – your “tweet,” in Twitterese – in the Twitter messaging box, a counter lets you know how many characters you have left. (That last sentence wouldn’t quite have made the cut. It has 146 characters. Faulkner would have been a disaster as a Twitterer.)

Only on the length of each message is a limit imposed. Because there’s no charge to send a message and no protocol governing the frequency of posting, you can send as many tweets as you want. The telegraph required you to stop and ask yourself: Is this worth it? Twitter says: Everything’s worth it! (If you’re sending or receiving tweets on your cell phone, though, you best have an all-you-can eat messaging plan; Twitter is, among other things, a killer app for the wireless oligopoly.) You can also send each tweet to as large an audience as you want, and the recipients are free to read it via mobile phone, instant messaging, RSS, or web site. Twitter unbundles the blog, fragments the fragment. It broadcasts the text message, turns SMS into a mass medium.

And what exactly are we broadcasting? The minutiae of our lives. The moment-by-moment answer to what is, in Twitterland, the most important question in the world: What are you doing? Or, to save four characters: What you doing? Twitter is the telegraph of Narcissus. Not only are you the star of the show, but everything that happens to you, no matter how trifling, is a headline, a media event, a stop-the-presses bulletin. Quicksilver turns to amber.

Are you exhausted yet?

Dave Winer has succeeded in creating a New York Times feed through the Twitter service, as if to prove that everything is equal in its 140-character triviality. “All the news that’s fit to twit,” twitters Dave. The world is flat, and so is information.

my dog just piddled on the rug! :-) [less than 10 seconds ago]

Seventeen killed in Baghdad suicide bombing [2 minutes ago]

Oh my god I cant believe it I just ate 14 double stuff Oreos [3 minutes ago]

A conflicted Kathy Sierra explains why Twitter is so addictive. Boiled down to a couple of tweets, it goes like this: using Twitter presents us with the possibility of a social reward, while not using it presents us with the possibility of a social penalty – and the possibility of a reward or penalty is a far more compelling motivator than the reality of a reward or penalty. Look at me! Look at me! Are you looking?

Tara Hunt says, “Twitter is a representation of my stream of consciousness.” What used to happen in the privacy of the mind is now tossed into the public’s bowl like so many Fritos. The broadcasting of the spectacle of the self has become a full-time job. Au revoir, Jean Baudrillard, your work here is done.

Like so many other Web 2.0 services, Twitter wraps itself and its users in an infantile language. We’re not adults having conversations, or even people sending messages. We’re tweeters twittering tweets. We’re twitters tweetering twits. We’re twits tweeting twitters. We’re Tweety Birds.

I did! I did taw a puddy tat! [half a minute ago]

I tawt I taw a puddy tat! [1 minute ago]

Narcissism is just the user interface for nihilism, of course, and with artfully kitschy services like Twitter we’re allowed to both indulge our self-absorption and distance ourselves from it by acknowledging, with a coy digital wink, its essential emptiness. I love me! Just kidding!

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.”

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.

I did! I did taw a puddy tat!

11 thoughts on “Twitter dot dash

  1. benbarren

    Walter Sobchak: Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos. (Big Lebowski)

  2. benbarren

    Nihilist: We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and we cut off your chonson.

    The Dude: Excuse me?

    Nihilist: I said


    Nihilist: “We’ll cut off your johnson”!

    Nihilist: Just you think about that, Lebowski.

    Nihilist: Yeah, your wiggly penis, Lebowski.

    Nihilist: Yeah and maybe we stomp on it and squoosh it, Lebowski.

  3. Sergey Schetinin

    Maybe I don’t get the context, but the mention of the nihilism was kind of inappropriate. Nihilism is a belief that the world (and human life in particular) has no inherent meaning or value. Which relates to Twitter (or narcissism).. how?

    I don’t think that anyone sincerely nihilistic would use Twitter or anything of that kind in a way ridiculed in the article. Well, maybe only to banter some snob.

  4. Nick Carr

    If you’d prefer, you can always follow Geert Lovink (and benbarren, for that matter) and see the nihilism as a form of heroism:

    As a micro-heroic, Nietzschean act of the pyjama people, blogging grows out of a nihilism of strength, not out of the weakness of pessimism. Instead of time and again presenting blog entries as self-promotion, we should interpret them as decadent artifacts that remotely dismantle the mighty and seductive power of the broadcast media. Bloggers are nihilists because they are “good for nothing”. They post into Nirvana and have turned their futility into a productive force. They are the nothingists who celebrate the death of the centralized meaning structures and ignore the accusation that they would only produce noise.

    “They post into Nirvana and have turned their futility into a productive force.” That’s so good I’m almost willing to believe it. And what goes for blogs goes triple for tweets.

  5. John Koetsier

    Holy sh*t Nick you just set off a happy atom bomb in my brain. Never mind the point, the writing was outrageously delectable – what a joy to read.

    And about the point? I’m sadly, sadly, sadly afraid that you’re right. But at least I know I exist because I’m posting this.

    Now where’s my thin white chai khacki’s?

  6. Nick Carr

    Rough Type: delivering happy atom bombs daily since 2005.

    That’s my new tag line. Thanks.

    But at least I know I exist because I’m posting this.

    Whatever gets you through the night.

  7. Sergey Schetinin

    Nick, as soon as we hit “micro-heroic” in the text it becomes clear that the author is delusional. Some people think of themselves as nihilists because they need a rationalization why they are so irrelevant (which has a simpler explanation), but that doesn’t make it a true nature of nihilism, which is exactly my point.

  8. KevinFarnham

    Yeah! Finally someone as “dumb” as me, who simply doesn’t “get it” when it comes to Twitter. I was beginning to think something was wrong with me. So good to know I’m still a real person, even if I don’t twitter :-)

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