How I learned to like Twitter


The Washington Post

I used to hate Twitter.

Actually, I still hate Twitter. But I used to, too — to maul a Mitch Hedberg quote.

I don’t hate Twitter the way people who never use it do, like Jonathan Franzen, frowning contemptuously at “the ultimate irresponsible medium.” As Margaret Atwood quipped, “How would he know? Is he peeking?” My objection isn’t the usual “You can’t possibly hope to say anything sensible in 140 characters.” The trouble isn’t the character limit. Most people have difficulty saying anything sensible in the first place. The limitations of the medium deserve only so much blame.

No, I hate Twitter the way you can only hate something you first loved, like a trendy haircut or your spouse. It’s like what Anakin Skywalker must have felt when he was being buckled into that Darth Vader suit. “Well,” he surely said to himself, “I’m going to be stuck in this thing for the rest of my life. I can decide it’s kind of cool, or I can be miserable forever.”

Twitter lets us do things we couldn’t do before. It’s great for discovering breaking news, for watching TV with large crowds of strangers and shouting jokes from the back of the classroom. It’s great for giving extremely public compliments. We used to have to write letters and emails in order to be ignored by celebrities; on Twitter, you can be ignored by them in real time.

Most of modern life is defined by the creeping fear that everyone else is hanging out without you, having a better time. And nowhere is that brought to life better than on Twitter, where you can watch your friends gleefully piling into canoes of jokes you missed.

The Wait But Why website recently noted that millennials are more expert at unhappiness than any previous generation because, while our predecessors also spent their 20s in an unfulfilled daze, they at least were spared the requirement of posting daily cheery updates about it. Sure, our ancestors died of plague, consumption and dysentery, but they never had to read notices from their friends that JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT JUST KISSED MY HAND AND IT’S ALL FOR THE BEST IN THIS BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS.

Before Twitter, you could suspect that other people had said everything that was worth saying faster and better than you. Now, you know this for a fact.

I don’t hate Twitter all the time. Sometimes I feel the kind of Stockholm Syndrome-y affection that one has for anything you’ve been stuck with too long, be it another human being (“Quasimodo is a sweetheart when you get past the grunting”), vinyl records or a small town in which you are trapped by the economy.

Twitter has all the flaws of a cafeteria with none of the advantages. In real life, you can leave the cafeteria. In the Twitter cafeteria, there’s constant hubbub, everyone talking at once, little clans together. You can see the corner with the cool kids. It is just as awkward online when you approach and they ignore you. Then there’s Weird Twitter, hanging out behind the bleachers. There are all the journalists swapping notes and in-jokes. There are the celebrities. There are the crazy celebrities. There are the authors who are friends with other authors and the trolls and the #TCOT conservatives in their unironic bow ties and the people with cats for avatars and the people who think changing their names for Halloween is a hilarious joke and the politicians who deleted a tweet and hope no one will notice and the obscure people who say racist or sexist or other terrible things and get put into compilations and fired from their Applebee’s positions. Periodically, it falls silent, everyone gasps at whatever has just been “said” and someone prominent (Anthony Weiner, Gilbert Gottfried) loses his job.

Sure, Facebook has more ad revenue. But what does that mean? Facebook is uncool. Your mom is on Facebook. On Twitter, everyone’s a celebrity. Followers? Favorites? Twitter lets you know exactly where you stand. You know what table will let you sit down. There’s something reassuring, and terrifying, about the numbers.

What’s the point of hating it? It’s ingrained in our lives.

In that famous graduation speech, David Foster Wallace tells the story of one fish asking another fish how the water is, to which the second fish answers, “What’s water?” His point was that it’s fantastically easy not to stay awake for many of life’s guaranteed experiences. Good or bad, you’re stuck. Notice the water you live in, approach it with some philosophy. Twitter is water. Good, bad? This is where we live now. In the course of writing this piece I’ve checked Twitter eight times.

Follow me. Help.

© 2013, The Washington Post

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