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Karen Maezen Miller Headshot

Death by Twitter

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The other day a Twitter follower messaged me with a question about end-of-life care for a relative.

It might surprise you that a matter this weighty would be the subject of a tweet, but I get questions akin to it all the time. As a Buddhist priest, I get messages about the end of life and the beginning of life. People have contacted me on Facebook when they have a miscarriage or bad mammogram. I've responded to online queries about grief, heartbreak, infertility, sleep deprivation, toilet training, depression and divorce.

Some days my job is to talk people off a ledge. The greater part of talking is listening, so I'm all ears. I responded to the message about handling death with what I believe is the great unspoken urgency of our time: "Would you like to talk?"

So-called friends and followers, we need to talk. We need to talk because the DM, the IM, the chat, the text, the RT and status update aren't working for me. Buzz, we got covered. Viral videos, check. E-courses, hel-lo! Farmville implements, out the heinie. But the vacuum of tortured silence between us could be terminal.

The world we have fashioned will not end with a whimper or a bang, but with the flicker of a cerulean blue screen inscribed with the epitaph, "Twitter is over capacity." Overcapacity is sucking the life right out of us.

I've suffered from vague discomfort with social media for some time. I use it, sure, but I don't buy it. I don't invest myself in it. I struggle to describe the lingering symptoms of my unease.

Facebook is like a nosebleed. You cram stuff into it for a while, and then tilt your head back. Just when you think you have it under control, it starts back up again.

Twitter is like hyperventilating. First, you get dizzy, and then you're breathing into a paper bag. If you hear anything it's only the echo of your own hot air.

I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe that's it. Social media is a finger. It's a flick, a click, a scroll, a hover over a virtual keypad. So very barely there it doesn't leave an impression. It's a finger, when what you really want is what the finger is connected to. Real life.

"That's why I get so upset when I go on Twitter," the caller says when we talk. "I go on there looking for support and what I find is ... "

"Not real," I finish the sentence.

Let me break this to you. Social media isn't real. Even though we call each other friends we're not. Look up, and see that none of us is actually following anyone else. The numbers, even as we chase them, keep revealing themselves to be hollow and meaningless. Most people do social media the way they do everything else: with a beginning burst of interest and activity followed by abject inertia. I don't have to tell you that the bottom 98 percent of your friends and followers beached themselves long ago. Capacity over.

Whenever you take a close look, the twitterverse turns out to be much smaller than you think, and the universe, much bigger.

What about the social media magnets who score six, and even seven-digit followers? Just imagine how many connections they don't really have! A recent study confirms the disconnect between online popularity and influence. In short, the numbers mean next to nothing in the face of overwhelming user passivity.

I know the arguments: social media has transformed news, gossip, spam, stalking, privacy, consumer relations and language itself. Peaceful Tweeples, pls refudiate. I just think these are feeble rationalizations, like pointing to Tang as a product of the space program, or to a Twinkie as the defense for murder.

Tell me how you feel when you're on a steady diet of social media. Say as much as you like: blow through the 140. Call me retro and old school, but I'm all ears. I'm all hands, arms, legs and feet. I'm alive, and I'm really listening.

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