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Michelle Haimoff

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The Opposite of Voyeurism: Why People Twitter

Posted: 06/24/08 12:07 PM ET

Remember when people used to be freaked out about divulging personal information over the Internet? Wasn't that like, a minute ago?

In Internet terms a minute is too long to wait for anything.

One of the latest online social networking trends is Twitter, where you tell strangers (and non-strangers) where you are and what you're doing at any given time. It's like having GPS on your cell phone, or a government-implanted chip in your head.

I haven't joined Twitter yet. I'm still unclear on why anyone would care about what I digg. I was wary of Facebook. I never thought YouTube would take off. I pretend there's no such thing as Second Life.

I'm in the camp of people who find the proliferation of personal information over the Internet disturbing and intimidating. Whenever I hear about a new way to spend the dwindling milliseconds of free time between emailing and text messaging I imagine a dystopic society in which people don't pause to think, where we transcribe our lives instead of live them, and where human contact is quaint and rare.

What's most troubling is that I feel as though I'm the only one that sees this society as dystopic. The only one choosing the red pill, or hiding out in the shabby room above Mr. Charrington's shop.

The Matrix grossed $456,500,000 at the box office, 1984 is high school required reading, and Twitter currently has about two million members, so someone else must have thought about this.

But that someone probably isn't Robert Scoble. One of Twitter's top five users, Scoble mentioned at Monday's Personal Democracy Forum that he microblogs so frequently he barely has time to sleep.

I asked him to speculate on the psychology behind his compulsion to divulge and I was surprised at the romantic nature of his answer:

"We want to tell other people who we are . . . that we were there . . . that we exist."

He portrayed this assertion of the human experience as an timeless need, not dissimilar to cavemen drawing in a cave. As a time saver versus a time waster.

When his wife was in labor for 27 hours and he didn't have the inclination to update every friend and family member individually, he didn't have to; he simply Twittered. And strangers in his 27,000-person network sent words of encouragement and support. Same for when his mother lay in a hospital dying.

"It kept me sane a little bit," he said.

Observing large-scale technological phenomena informs us about where the culture's at these days. YouTube, for example, demonstrates that people are killing a considerable amount of dead time during the workday (I receive most links to YouTube videos on Monday-Friday, 9-6pm).

Twitter might indicate that people are lonely. Maybe not all people all the time, but isn't it wild when you realize that a kid you never even really knew in high school is heartbroken right now listening to Nick Drake?

I finally gave in and joined Facebook and became one of those users that refreshes the homepage anytime she looks up from something else that she's doing.

And it turns out that reading that my business partner Dave is watching the largest raindrops he's ever seen fall out of the sky, or that my friend's little sister is excited about seeing her boyfriend tomorrow, or that my college roommate is reevaluating life makes me feel less alone too.

Even if just for an Internet minute.