Twitter. The very word suggests a lack of substance, doesn’t it? It brings to mind the sorts of mindless squeaky sounds made by a flock of silly birds pecking in the dirt. When I first learned about Twitter, I couldn’t quite believe it. What thought of any worth whatsoever can be communicated in 140 characters?
Displaying my usual lack of ability to discern the true nature of American culture, I dismissed Twitter as another passing technology trend that would be lost in a flurry of cheap celebrities making bitchy comments about each other. Vapid on its best day, simply dumb on its worst day … Twitter will simply evaporate, I predicted to anyone willing to listen.
But then Anthony Weiner’s penis caught my attention. A United States Congressman, a rising star in the Democratic party, got caught Tweeting a picture of his junk to a woman not his wife. So people can use Twitter to send really stupid pictures as well as really stupid short sentences? I vowed to pay closer attention.
I even created a Twitter account. I posted the following two years ago:
The response has been underwhelming. I did have a tech-savvy lawyer friend tell me he found Twitter handy during hockey games to get information about, you know, players and scoring records and other hockey stuff. Okay, fine.
Next development: another black guy was unceremoniously executed by a twitchy cop in Minnesota, and Black Lives Matter protesters organized an event at the Mall of America, a retail barn located near the Twin Cities. The Mall Cops there were reported to have monitored all of the Twitter traffic generated by the protesters. The protesters were shocked, shocked that their Tweets were not treated as private communications.
So people can impulsively blurt out (or photograph) stupid stuff from their phones, expecting it somehow to be private, and blortch it out into cyberspace where it will instantly available to a global audience and … wait for it … archived amd made perpetually available?
Impulse + Instant Global Audience + Perpetuity = fun times ahead!
So when a vendor offered me a free trial of a social media-monitoring tool, I said: Wahoo! Now I can finally see what Twitter is all about.
The screen displayed a map, and with a few left-clicks I was able to “drop a fence” around any geographical area I wished to monitor. Clearly, this is what the Mall Cops do. Why not start there?
While doing yoga stretches at my ergonomically-excellent standing desk, I dropped my first fence around the Mall of America. I stepped back from the screen, somewhat fearing the roar I had tapped into, and held a perfect Warrior I pose as I awaited my first Tweetstorm. Nothing. Warrior II. Nothing!
I pondered Warrior III, but decided what I really needed was a latte. My coffee buddies and I crowded into the elevator, and I told them that while we were in Starbucks my computer would stealthily be surveilling the Mall of America.
Ashley, we learned, is pretty much convinced that Meaghan is a bitch. Donovan and Trevor agree that the new sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings tastes like ass.
That’s all? Geez, I told my coffee buddies, I must’ve screwed something up. As I checked the settings, they wandered away.
Over the next few months, I set up dozens of fences. Around my neighborhood. The state capitol. City hall. A Benedictine monastery where I went to school. Even the campus where a work colleague’s daughter resides (“I want to see if the boys there are up to anything untoward”).
There was nothing untoward. Nothing. Over a few months, I cached and screened thousands of tweets. I did word searches. I did phrase searches. There was nothing at all. There was plenty of insipid, dippy palaver. Without exception. My eyes glazed as I scanned the observations of thousands of my fellow dear human beings, expressed in the most vacuous, vapid and illiterate prose imaginable.
One intriguing side note: while I never observed it with my own eyes, apparently criminals are stupid enough to tweet about their crimes as they’re committing them! This means that my employer at the time (a large public defender agency) could actually make use of the Tweet-fence-monitoring thing. If a client is charged with bashing someone’s noggin outside of a night club, but someone else cops to the crime with a Tweet, wow! Instant alibi! As long as you’ve set up the fence beforehand … (no prob, our lawyers told me; everyone knows the nightclubs where noggins get bashed).
After careful deliberation and, as you now see, extensive research, I returned to my initial state of utter disregard: What thought of any worth whatsoever can be communicated in 140 characters? Aren’t thoughtful people and deliberative leaders drawn to substantive exchanges of ideas where we build on each others’ thinking? Throughout all history, isn’t that how sound public policy has been formed? Don’t we degrade democracy when we reduce public policy debate to impulse-driven blurts?
Such a reduction would empower demagogues, those able to enrage and enflame the public with no thought to long-term consequences.
Joke’s on me, I guess. Sad.
Robert Sykora, Suphanburi Province, Thailand, 5 December 2016