08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Twitter: Revolutionizing Information or High School All Over Again?

Just about everyone, at least everyone who has something to sell or promote, has tried Twitter. Many people see it as a democratizing tool that will radically change how people share and receive information online. Others see it as the epitome of banal, meaningless posts and self-promotion run amok.

Now that it has hit the mainstream, it is fair to ask, "Is Twitter revolutionizing information or is it High School all over again?

It's the Stupidest Thing Ever

Twitter can easily be seen in either perspective: as a sad, almost juvenile, endless popularity contest, with users doing just about anything (complimenting, bragging, offering money) to increase their number of followers. It is like an online version of American Idol, with everyone trying to "win" votes in their category, be it in coaching, social media consulting, or just about any other subject under the sun.

It's the Greatest Thing Ever

On the other side, it can also be seen as revolutionizing how people share information, giving us access to news that in the past was filtered by major news outlets, from personal accounts and photos of protests in Iran to non-profits running campaigns to raise awareness on important issues. People now have a means of being in direct contact as never before, allowing for a new type of information sharing and engagement.

The Missing Piece: the Mind

Though on first glance Twitter can appear pretty silly, it is hard for me to understand someone having an issue with an empty box on a screen to which someone can add content. I can understand someone getting upset about how a person uses the site; a man at his wife, for example, for paying less attention to him and their children because she is increasingly distracted due to her constant tweeting. But the site is not the issue; the issue is in the mind that is using it. Take away Twitter and she is likely to find something else to distract herself.

Similarly, does it really make sense to praise this same empty blank box? It is like singing the praise of the telephone. OK, it is kind of a neat invention, but there is nothing inherently good about it. It can be as easily used to share porn or organize terrorists plots as it can to spread information on social causes. The tool is much less important than the quality of mind using it.

What is Moving?

It reminds me of an old Zen story of two monks getting into a debate on seeing a flapping temple flag.

"The flag is moving," the first monk argued.

"No," said the second, "it is the wind that is moving."

This went on for some time until a third monk arrived and responded, "Actually, it is your mind that is moving."

There are a lot of minds moving on Twitter, sharing everything from what they had for breakfast to their favorite quote. The question, at least for those of us who seek to engage consciously with it, is "What aspect of our mind is using it?"

Know Your Mind

Some years back while participating on a silent seven-day meditation retreat, the teacher told of a time when he was a monk and had the chance to meet one of the most renowned meditation masters of the time. He was told that he would only have time to ask the teacher one or two questions. At their meeting, he began by asking the master what he thought was the most important question:

"Please tell me, what is the essence of your teaching?" he queried the master.

"Know your mind," the master answered.

Wanting a little more information, he followed, "Why? Why know your mind?"

To which the master replied, "For the benefit of all beings, know your mind."

When we do not know our mind, when do not know how we lose focus and get lost in greed, selfishness, and hatred, no matter whether we we use a social network like Twitter or not, we will inevitably create suffering for ourselves and others.

Therefore, "to tweet or not to tweet?" is not the question. The real question, at least to me, is, Do we know what truly matters to us and are we willing to live based on that?

If we don't know, our use of Twitter is likely to be yet another distraction; and if we do, we can use anything, including Twitter, to express and bring forth what we most value.


Soren Gordhamer is the author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected (HarperOne, 2009).