For a long time now I have been urged to tweet. I was assured that the world was on Twitter. Indeed, after a few weeks I have found that it is so. There exist a diversity of voices speaking in blessed brevity. After a few years of building a FB community I dipped my toe into the determinedly shallow waters of the tweet. What I did not expect was the subtle, insistent pressure to shape one's views to the fast-clicking community.
We have long frowned upon those who are politicians by poll. Now we have become people by poll.
Politicians who think according to metrics -- is this going to be popular? -- run the risk of losing their convictions. Gradually they come to shape policy by what is popular. Graphs replace gut.
The same insidious process is happening more broadly in society. Twitter enables you to see -- obsessively, repeatedly -- the reaction to each posting. You know who liked it, retweeted it, ignored it. There are services that enable you to tell who dropped out of your followers. There are tweets of personality and tweets of content -- some are about issues and others about my favorite coffee drink -- but both are ruthlessly measured. As you discover that this or that tweet does better, the temptation to adjust your opinions and perhaps your personality to the maximum potential for retweeting grows.
Gauging the reactions of the others is always a vague and imperfect practice. When I deliver a sermon or lecture, I try to "read" the audience but can never be certain of the reaction. There exist some pressure to accommodate to the convictions of the congregation but since those remain ill-defined, there is also room to stand apart and speak one's mind. The more reaction one gets, the harder (and more essential) is the practice of autonomy. I shudder to think what would become of preaching if there was an instant approval or disapproval button in the hand of everyone in the congregation.
Yet that is what we give to the world when we tweet. Despite the diversity of voices on Twitter and its many merits, I wonder if social media is not ultimately also a force for conformity. The desire for acknowledgment and approval is insatiable. Twitter is a metaphorical dopamine drip tapped into the vein of the tweeter. There are endless bits of information, entertainment, even enlightenment to be had, but in addition to the risk of diversion and time wasting, there is the reality that other people's instant reaction is hardly the best smithy for one's soul.
Granted, that there is a certain salutary discipline in 140 characters. I don't believe that the only worthy thoughts are prolix ones. Still, there is a danger in becoming a nation -- or a world -- of one-liners. Comedy always split between the one-line masters, the Henny Youngman's who essentially tweeted, and the novelists, the Richard Pryor's, who drew you into a narrative and allowed you to live there. The narrative permitted more wildness and difference; it did not rely on each line hitting with surgical precision. Now, as we are all the Henny Youngmans of news, narrating our lives in tiny slices, we have to get each bit right by an exacting measure of electronic applause.
The independent minds were always those willing to be "unliked." Some thoughts lay dormant for a long time, languishing before discovery. In other words, some of humanity's best thoughts would not have been retweeted. Something to consider next time we trim our tweets to prefer approval to integrity. Tweeters of the world, disunite. You have nothing to lose but your stats.