The popular social media website Twitter has turned into the world's greatest cocktail party, and no one has to clean up afterwards, or even pay the tab. It's the new electronic campfire we sit around to talk and laugh and even sing. It's an endless conversation like no other, and it's just starting to pick up steam. We've all heard about how news breaks on Twitter before it hits any of the traditional journalistic outlets, and how it's being used by emergency responders in difficult situations around the world. But the potential overall cultural impact of Twitter is just beginning to be glimpsed.
Twitter is the new water cooler for the creative class -- the social break room for people who don't work in an office. And for those who do, it's the ultimate coffee break. With five or ten minutes of total immersion, you can be socializing with people all over the country and around the globe, sharing quick tales of weal and woe that range from the mundane to the metaphysical. There's instant advice, encouragement, and information to be had any time you stick your toes into the Twitter stream - if you've found a good spot on the bank of this wild new river to perch.
I've been using and enjoying this novel social medium and "micro-blog" website under the carefully devised codename, TomVMorris, for about six months. And I've briefly mentioned it in a couple of previous blogs. But I want to say a little more about the surprising way in which life wisdom crops up on Twitter, a phenomenon I now call "Twisdom."
What Twitter Really Is
Twitter is not mainly about telling the world, or your forty-seven followers, what you had for lunch. And it's not just about Ashton and Oprah, or who can attract the most followers the quickest. It's about building a new form of community. It's about learning. It's about support, inspiration, and daily motivation. And it's also about fun. But the most important aspect of Twitter may be that, if you do things right, you begin to surround yourself with an incredible group of people eager to share their best questions and insights about life. They're all looking for new wisdom and hope. Twisdom is the result.
There's collaborative thinking on Twitter at a level and in a form I've never seen before. Almost every day, and often many times a day, a topic comes up that causes me, as a philosopher and simply a curious individual, to ponder a bit, and then share the results of that pondering in the 140 character increments, or "tweets" that Twitter allows. One comment will spark another, and before long, people of different ages and walks of life from around the world are engaged with me and each other in an extended conversation of brief bursts that add up to new realizations for everyone involved.
I've gone from two followers to several thousand without doing anything to "build a following" on Twitter. It's just happened. This means that, when I send a tweet, that many people in principle could read it right away. And if they like it, they can retweet it, or copy and send it on to their followers, many of whom might then, if they also resonate with what I've said, send it on again, and then maybe even become my direct Twitter followers as well. In turn, seeing their use of my own little thought, I might join their circle. It's almost unimaginable how far a single tweet can go in its effort to do a little good in the world. The new connectivity of Twitter is immensely and surprisingly powerful.
Twitter Is What We Make It
While some younger friends were originally urging me to try Twitter, others were warning me off it. And I now understand both perspectives. As an experiment, I once clicked on the universal Twitter stream named "Everyone" that was available for a while on the basic Twitter web page. This immersed me in the main current of tweets from all over the world. I refreshed the page every four seconds, scanning and reading everything I could as fast as I was able, and I did this for a stretch of ten minutes -- an eternity in TwitterTime. It was quite an experience.
I didn't see any quotations from great thinkers. There were no deeper musings on life. There didn't seem to be much real social interaction. There were just lots of soliloquies on the painfully trivial. There were bursts of profanity. There was ample complaining and venting. There was also some high-pressure marketing. But there was almost nothing like what I see in my own little Twitter stream every time I dip in to it.
Like almost everything else in our world, Twitter is what we make of it. I've met lots of people who want to use it to think, touch lives, work together, and support each other. My little community there is an amazing circle of novelists, cartoonists, comic book writers and illustrators, editors, consultants, corporate and personal coaches, journalists, executives, marketing experts, moms, dads, and various celebrities who sometimes show up as just real people with a strong interest in ideas, and in being helpful with their time. It's a self-selected collection of vibrant and generous personalities thinking and playing together daily. And that has set the stage for what I really didn't expect.
Twisdom: Twitter Wisdom
In the short bursts of thought and commentary that Twitter allows, we can all turn into philosophical aphorists. Critics may be tempted to dismiss what results as nothing more than fortune cookie wisdom, without the cookie. But the nuggets of insight, or twisdom, that Twitter allows can in principle be much more than that.
What we find in Twitter exchanges won't typically replicate the results of a Yale philosophy seminar, or a colloquium at Notre Dame. It's a place not for abstruse theory but for practical insight. And yet the insights can run quite deep. As Steven Johnson recently said in a Time Magazine cover story on the whole phenomenon, "Twitter turns out to have surprising depth." One tweet can change your life, or on a much smaller scale, make your day. If you don't use Twitter already, you may find it at times unexpectedly helpful for a contemplation of the wonder and mystery of your life.
I'm not saying that you'll always find world-historical profundity on Twitter. Twisdom is often more down to earth and humble than that. It's frequently just a reminder of something we know and need to live. Or it's a slightly new angle on an old realization. It's a matter of perspective. Or it's a call to action, and an inspiration to go take some initiative.
I think Twitter has already made me a better thinker. I've experienced new insights there that have arisen in a genuinely novel way, out of the collective thinking that occurs in short bursts, and on the run. But that's how we do most things these days -- in short bursts, and on the run. So perhaps the twisdom that has come about in the same way may be well suited to the situations we confront, and the insights we need, at precisely this moment in time.
If the idea of Twisdom interests you, one way to explore it is to find me on Twitter, as TomVMorris, and I'll introduce you around to the sages there that I already know, the people who inspire me each day. And, who knows, you may even end up pondering some of the mysteries of life with Ashton -- or at least find out what he had for lunch.