It's been said often enough regarding our current cultural moment: We've all become a little too desperate for the immediate validation provided by Facebook Likes, comments, and retweets. For various media types and minor celebrities, Twitter especially has become a way to safely interact with fans, gather more fans around you, and promote your latest work to that ever growing band of followers. Your number of followers is seen as a true marker of status and clout, and if you aren't on there every day, posting idle thoughts, funny news stories, or photos of your lunch, you barely exist in the minds of those who believe that Twitter activity now equates with existence. But as much as I have a business obligation to pay attention to Twitter, I've frequently been baffled by those people who appear to spend hours a day chatting with followers, posting their thoughts and reposting those of dozens of their virtual acquaintances, and maintaining disjointed conversations in 140-character bits across hours and days with many more dozens. Without stumbling into Luddite territory here, I just want to ask: Is Twitter truly a useful tool for the majority of us, or is it more just a perfect venue for the attention starved and idle lonely to pretend, together, that they are neither of those things?
I realize that even in asking this question I will incite an onslaught of "you just don't get it" type reactions, and I recognize that Twitter is or has been in recent years many things to many people. But the percentage of people who spend a lot of time interacting on the platform is relatively small only about a quarter of Twitter's billion or so users are considered "active" and 43 percent have not tweeted in the last year compared to those who just use it passively to track news, and jokes from comedians. Twitter's traction even among its especially audience-hungry users may already be fading. The Atlantic published a eulogy for Twitter a year ago, noting that in-the-know media types were already letting their accounts go dormant as the "signal to noise ratio" got worse and worse in their feeds. And according to a new Pew Research survey, teenagers aren't using Twitter nearly as much as they use Facebook and Instagram only about a third of teens report using Twitter at all, versus 71 percent who use Facebook, and a little over half who use Instagram.
I'll admit, there's something about the versatility, community, and usefulness of Facebook that I've always preferred not to mention the algorithm helping to curate posts from those friends and acquaintances who actually amuse or interest me most, and the decade I've now spent building that base of friends, colleagues, and long-ago classmates. And I've been forced, by working in media, to reluctantly maintain a presence on Twitter via professional accounts belonging to sites I've worked for, and my personal account remains pretty quiet most days because I don't have time to look at or think about it though I am occasionally amused to see what news Mia Farrow thinks is important on a given day, now that Mia Farrow thinks it's her job to curate news on Twitter, all day. My friends have all heard this before: I'm a bit of a Twitter hater.
But I get confronted with peers in media who would consider me, still, an out-of-touch stick in the mud for not being omnipresent with my own Twitter handle. Example: I, admittedly, published a snippy open letter last year to two tech writers at the New York Times who printed a conversation they had upon both departing San Francisco a conversation that epitomized what many current SF residents are frustrated by, as the tech-employed and tech-obsessed try to define the city in their image, rather than join and appreciate a culture that has taken shape here outside of laptops and mobile devices. And in response, a defender/online friend of one of these writers lashed back at me with several public @ replies implying that I must be nobody given how long it had been since I last tweeted anything from my personal account. I immediately got defensive, which is the worst thing one can do, because I actually started to question if I had undermined my own credibility by not posting panda photos and Smiths lyrics each day just to maintain a "presence" in this world, and build a following.
Much bigger celebrities than the media types discussed in the Atlantic piece figured out a couple of years ago that being too honest on Twitter (perhaps especially while intoxicated) only led to trouble, and maybe it was best to let one's PR people take charge of one's Twitter account. I'll wager that newly named future Daily Show host Trevor Noah now sees that using Twitter as a place to test out some often edgy, sometimes sexist and otherwise offensive jokes was not such a great idea in retrospect. (Same for that PR woman, Justine Sacco, who tweeted the AIDS in Africa joke that effectively ruined her life.) Not only have people realized that Twitter is increasingly full of noise and bullies, it's also a venue for easy missteps that go too easily viral and are too quickly accessed in the archive. It's a place for strangers to mock one another, facelessly, and for bullies to gather gangs of gleeful mockers behind them in a breathless, often cruel, virtual version of a grade school playground. And it's simultaneously a place where very serious accusations the Farrows' abuse allegations against Woody Allen come to mind can now get leveled and gain legs, in spite of the overall triviality and disposability of most of what takes place on the platform.
Sure a lot of this same stuff occurs daily on Facebook too, but there at least seems to be more accountability and control there you never have to make status updates public, and if you end up with a bully among the people you've called Friends, it's easy enough to remove them and make sure they never bother you again. But give a little fuel to one bully who's clever and entertaining enough to have thousands of Twitter followers behind them, and they could berate you behind your back for days, to their amused audience, and you'd have little or no recourse to stop them. Even Twitter's own CEO Dick Costolo recently admitted in a leaked memo that the company "sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we've sucked at it for years."
So, honestly, the reason I haven't retweeted that witty thing you said yesterday is because I only have time to go on there to pimp links, because that's part of my job description because some percentage of SFist's readers prefer to get their news on Twitter, and that's fine. But I don't foresee myself ever finding that time, or ever warming up to Twitter as a personal platform, because it's just not that important to me to see what Ashton Kutcher's having for breakfast, and I almost never have less than 140 characters to say. Even early adopter Courtney Love skips tweeting for days at a time lately, so now I'm starting to feel like it's a fad I opted out of that's already on the wane.
And if you're still tweeting your vacation pics and chatting up reality TV personalities while drinking your wine and watching reality TV at night, I'm not going to begrudge you that pleasure. I'm sure your Twitter friends are super fun. I just prefer actual friends.