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This Is Your Brain on Twitter

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Two weeks ago, on a Friday night around midnight, I was loitering on the sidewalk outside a San Francisco bar with two friends, about to head home but not quite ready to call it a night. A guy standing nearby on the sidewalk told us that that our red, green, and blue jackets, respectively, made us look like the lightbeams that create a color spectrum on television sets and computers. It's hard to imagine a geekier pick-up line than "You look like RGB!" But that's what passes for flirtation in 2009 San Francisco in the (waning?) era of web 2.0. He wanted to take a picture of us and upload it to Flickr.

As a writer who also works a product manager in social media, I know the web 2.0 type.

I quickly realized that this web 2.0 boy was part of the Twitter cult, or, as they call themselves, the Twitterati.

The Twitterati are in full effect in San Francisco, Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, and Seattle, where members live their lives as performance art. They exist, therefore they tweet.

Whenever they watch a sunset, eat something delicious, or feel disappointed by a product, they tap out a message on their phones or laptops. Some of them tweet a few times a day, some as many as ten. Or they twitpic, uploading photos. They also seem to believe Twitter is going to revolutionize our lives.

I was looking for a bit more excitement to cap off my evening, and now I had found it. My friends went home and web 2.0 and I hung out on the sidewalk for another hour. First we talked about where we live and what we do, but then, about Twitter! His unself-conscious fervor fascinated me. I played anthropologist, listening to him gush about how Twitter was ushering in a new era of connection that we so desperately needed after the Bush era of fear and division.

I explained that I have an account but don't tweet much because my friends aren't on the service. I'm an active user of Facebook. But Twitter freaks me out, or rather, confuses me. It's Facebook stripped down to status updates, published to a bunch of strangers who are "following me." What would I say to them? I wondered, Why do you feel the need to share what you're eating for lunch? How do you ever get into a "flow state" when you are constantly packaging your experience for public consumption? What are you so excited about?

My new friend told me that Twitter is about the sharing of "peak experiences." He said that among the Twitterati, there is an unspoken rule that you don't tweet just about work or to promote yourself. As a result, his social life has been transformed. He goes to parties where everyone tweets, he is able to talk to people in a much more expansive way. He already knows about the luscious tomatoes they are growing, the new band they are crushed out on, the waves they heard crashing down outside their hotel room several nights before. Conversation goes to a much deeper level.

Hmmmm. I asked to see his Twitter stream. Most of it was stuff like "continuing a multi-day crankfest on my game" and "brainstorms with @neb and late night iPhone code frenzy. Successful day complete. going AFK." I couldn't find any obvious peak experiences moments, but hey, maybe one person's epiphany is another person's code frenzy?

A few moments after we parted ways, I got an email that he was "following" me on Twitter. I drove home feeling curious. What were these peak moments the Twitterati were experiencing? Were their lives more fun and enlightening than mine, or were they just marketing their lives 140 characters at a time, and therefore appreciating them more?

On Monday at work I started to amuse myself by searching for peak moments in everyday life. For example, I admitted to my cubemates that I didn't know what "jump the shark" meant. Greg and Adam were amazed. I looked it up on Wikipedia, learning that "jump the shark" means: "the point in a TV show or movie series' history where the plot veers off into absurd story lines or out-of-the-ordinary characterizations."

Adam told me I should have known since just two weeks ago, I sent an (ignored) Facebook friend request to Henry Winkler! He was a friend of a Facebook friend, and as it turns out, "jump the shark" originated with an episode in which the Fonz tried to jumps over a shark while water-skiing. You see how much fun you can have at work? Total peak moment!

Maybe Twitter would become a source of ongoing banal, everyday peak moments if I had a duty to articulate them to others (to accrue more followers). Thus my tweet: "peak moment alert (what twitter is all about): learning the origins of "jump the shark" http://tinyurl.com/82qca" But then six minutes later I tweeted: "feeling insecure: wondering if my peak moments are peak enough."

In a moment of euphoria, I tweeted: "I have finally found the twitter light. I embrace total giddy lightness and time-wasting inanity." I tweeted when I got IM spam: "Best spam im ever, from sloppysalmon: 'Caution: Care Bears do not actually care very much.'" I tweeted in Portuguese. I tweeted six times in a day! Could I give myself a high just by tweeting?

It's my job to understand web 2.0. I decided to move on to the next level of Twitter self-organization, the Twitter version of chatrooms. I joined a weekly event called "#editorchat" where freelance writers and editors discussed the effects of layoffs on publishing and journalism.

I was having yet another peak moment (now that my standards had dropped). Seemingly smart people, even an editor from the New York Times, gather to discuss such a deep topic in 140 characters or less! I joined in, tweeting: "Hi! I'm a writer, wondering what kind of convo is possible here. Is this the trendy version of a chatroom, or . . . ?". People welcomed me. I felt warm, loved, recognized, part of a community!

For a second. Or two.

This must have been the turning point in my love affair with Twitter, from peak to low. I had overdone it. I felt like I was going to have a seizure watching 60 tweets refresh every thirty seconds on the screen. I needed to get away from my computer.

That night, a disturbing thing happened. At 3 am, I semi-woke, finding my brain was restructured into a stream where I was waiting for the latest 140 character outburst from the random collection of people I follow--colleagues, old lovers, the guy I know who is building a space elevator. I was dreaming in Twitter.

The static electricity of all these quick, fragmentary thoughts made me feel more jittery and caffeinated than if I had drunk three lattes before bed. I spent between the next four hours waiting for something, but I couldn't figure out what. All I knew was that I wasn't satisfied. I thought of cradling my cuddly iPhone with me in bed. I could read tweets in the middle of the night. That thought terrified me. I felt like I was being watched, if not by others, than by myself, scanning through my existence for the next Twitterable moment. I couldn't sleep for longer than two hours at a time.

I described dreaming in Twitter to my co-worker Greg the next morning. He provided an apt metaphor: an animal in a cage, waiting for the next sugar pellet. Another co-worker walked by and asked what's going on. I told him things had taken a direction for the worse. "I'm dreaming in Twitter." "Me too!" he said. He confessed that he has always felt like he has ADD, but now, over the last month, his ADD is "increasing exponentially." Mine is too. Writing this essay was like writing War and Peace.

Two weeks after our first meeting, I bumped into my web 2.0 friend again. This time, standing outside another club in San Francisco. "Hey!" we greeted each other. "You've been using Twitter more!" he said, with the gleam of a missionary. "Yeah," I said, "but just professionally." He looked crestfallen.

We waved goodbye, with the unstated implication, "See you on Twitter." Will I be there? Anything is possible if my real friends join. But I sincerely hope not. I already have an email addiction. I don't want another reason to log on last thing at night and first thing in the morning. I'm not dreaming about the next email. I don't want to be dreaming about the next tweet.

Sasha Cagen is author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Learn more at quirkyalone.net and todolistblog.com.