Henry David Thoreau wished to separate himself from community and society and live, for a time, alone. Not because he did not enjoy, appreciate, or benefit from his participation in it. He did so because he knew the only way to best evaluate his place within it was to live and observe it from the outside. So he built a small cabin in the woods, a brief walking distance from town, on a small pond called Walden. The land on which it was built was actually owned by his friend and contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. I consider both literary and intellectual heroes of mine.
It is through this lens that I have been putting a lot of (read: way too much) thought into Twitter, and my place within it, lately. For months and, perhaps, years now something about it has not felt right with me about it. Iâ€™m beginning to understand that it is not just one thing but many, many, things that have led me to feel this unease. Here are some of the few I have identified.
â€œWhat are you doing?â€ (A Brief History)
From the beginning, Twitter was a place to post a personal status update and nothing more. It was modeled on Jack Dorseyâ€™s long time fascination with the way New York City taxi cab services transmitted their status and location (Here is a fascinating interview about this early history). The question asked by Twitter, at the top of the post text field was, â€œWhat are you doing?â€. This was great for a while and, in the early days of Twitter, this is how most people used the service. Seeing a tweet that was simply â€œ@ lunchâ€ or â€œCodingâ€ was commonplace and such simple updates were the majority.
As more users poured into the service and big companies, activists, governments, and more began to use it, the way this new majority used the service began to morph. It became a place to communicate, organize, and report â€” thanks in no small way to replies and hashtags, both of which were community created and then later adopted as features by Twitter. In this new usage, revolutions were supported, stars were made, news was broken. There was power in the new communication paradigm that this new usage and these new features allowed. It was through this new use case for the service that Twitter also likely began to see the power and possible business model for the service. As such, they changed the questionâ€¦
Ask A Different Question, Get A Different Answer
In November of 2009, they changed the question to â€œWhatâ€™s Happeningâ€, thus, the role the company expected users of the service to play. It was arguably their first not-so-subtle communication of intent. They no longer cared to ask about you, or what you were doing. They wanted you to take the role of reporter. No longer a participant, but a spectator. And, letâ€™s be honest, the fact that you are having lunch is important to a very small few and likely only you. The concert, or story, or brand, or movie, or revolution, or whatever else is â€œhappeningâ€ is important to many.
More to the point, they can build a business around making certain brands, stories, movies, concerts, etc. seem more important than others. They can sell these â€œpromotedâ€ topics as a form of advertising. They can insert them into your timeline. They can give them more to say than they give you. If you want to know â€œWhatâ€™s happening?â€, just ask them and they will be more than happy to tell you. In fact, they would prefer it.
Who am I? Why am I here?
The header above is a quote by Vice Admiral James Stockdale from the 1992 Vice Presidential Debate. He had been picked as Ross Perotâ€™s running mate just a week before appearing. He was a decorated war veteran, former POW, a true American hero. Yet, most people watching the debate had no idea who he was. He was hoping that by leading with these questions, he would have a chance to tell them. Instead, he was widely ridiculed. Why? Because no one really caredâ€¦
It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with, â€œWho am I? Why am I here?â€ and I never got back to that because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people. It was so different from Quayle and Gore. The four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam, seven-and-a-half years in prisons, drop the first bomb that started the â€¦ American bombing raid in the North Vietnam. We blew the oil storage tanks of them off the map. And I neverâ€”I couldnâ€™t approachâ€”I donâ€™t say it just to brag, but, I mean, my sensitivities are completely different.
I, too, would like to get back to that. My sensitivities seem completely different from what I see on Twitter today.
What am I doing?
Whenever I look at the â€œTrendsâ€ or the popular hashtags, an aggregate of millions of users combined with businesses that have paid for those spots, I donâ€™t see anything I am even remotely interested in there. I donâ€™t care about what they are telling me is happening. My timeline is filled with lots of interesting things to read or think about, but at the cost of my own ability and time to do so. Twitter is rattling sabers that indicate they are going to restrict the ability of third-party clients to filter and access the service in ways that I find sane and sustainable.
Ultimately, I donâ€™t know if what Twitter has become is for me, or the people I care about, or the conversations I wish to have. The things I want to know are â€œhappeningâ€ â€” like good news about a friendâ€™s success, or bad news about their relationship, or even just the fact they are eating a sandwich and the conversation around such â€” I wish to have at length and without distraction. Such conversations remain best when done directly, and there are plenty of existing and better communication methods for that.
So, therefore, I must take my own sabbatical from it so I can decide if there remains a place for me there and, if so, where and why.