so… social networking then

The Discipline Of The Twit is just that. If you’re going to say something inside a limit of 140 characters, with syntax and resonance and everything, it is a discipline and you are a twit if you do it to the detriment of reality. But then life isn’t like that anymore. Perhaps it never was. Whoever spent their time painting animals on the walls of caves in France all those years ago probably thought “Shit. I should be hunting.”

Since opening a Twitter account in March I’ve sent over 5000 thoughts into the micro blogging vortex. Micro blogging is obviously easier than traditional blogging, because each post is a work in its own right, and they don’t take long to do. Grow a tiny thought, snap it off, drop it into the furnace and watch its ore render down into the hot, liquid hive mind. All the while, things are happening in the real world and people are doing things in the real world. Or are they? At first, I found Twitter liberating. It gave me a sense of structure that I’ve always found difficult to create in my everyday life. Accomplish a task, say that you’ve accomplished it and then move on to the next task. A kind of accountability. Before long, though, the tasks are taking longer because you’re stopping to check your Twitter responses and send out the thoughts that you were planning while you assembled the first two pages of your Ikea wardrobe. So then your Ikea wardrobe takes the whole day. (Exaggeration for effect.) I’ve also found myself redrafting tweets in my head, in that soulless void between the blank DVDs and the kitchen utensils in Asda. Which means that putting the shopping away is pretty much an obstacle in the way of committing that tweet to the ether. The cycle unwinds. Your life unravels.

But that’s only if you accept the somewhat Luddite and reactionary distinction between electronic media and real life. It used to be commonplace to accuse people who read for a large portion of their lives of not living in the real world; but literacy will be saved from widespread stigma because of its symbiotic relationship with knowledge and education. Literacy is a requirement for using the internet, and the internet has created new forms of literacy and many new forms of interaction based on those new forms of literacy. Yet people will continue to assert that the internet is not real life. Friends that you have on Facebook are not real friends. People who follow each other on Twitter are not real friends. You converse with them, debate with them, make a conscious decision to read their thoughts, share jokes with them, watch their interplay with each other, look at their family photographs. Still, some would not have it that they are real friends unless you regularly talk to them on the phone or spend time in their physical company.

Anyone who has immersed themselves in Twitter has experienced at least one crisis of Twitter Faith. I’m using capitals there to annoy people who see Twitter as a total waste of time. Many can’t even say “Twitter” or “tweet” without at least a frisson of amusement in their voice – most notably the phone girl on The Wright Stuff. (It is always a girl: I’m not gender stereotyping.) Anyway, Tristram Shandy be damned. I was talking about Twitter Faith. There are times when you think “Wait a minute. This is madness. I’m not accomplishing anything, and I’m running out of things to say.” My latest episode was last weekend. It was prompted to a large extent by the esteemed horror and thriller novelist Sarah Pinborough and the accomplished writer and director Julian Simpson deleting their Twitter accounts almost simultaneously. I was alerted to it by one of Sarah’s updates on Facebook. As writers, I think they’ll both understand and won’t mind me saying that their Twitter presence was in each case based on a constructed persona. I do it too. I decided early on that the medium was meaningless unless I’d adopted a position before the 140 characters were up. That position then has to be compressed and consequently sometimes distorted. These distortions give it an edge – an edge made sharper and more dangerous by the speed of the updates, more so as you follow more people. But the challenge lies in controlling tone and ambiguity so that misunderstandings can be corrected quickly. Doesn’t always work. Hence some people unfollow – an act I confess I have trouble not taking personally. But that’s just me. Julian and Sarah went with the flow, did it effortlessly, did with frequent use of taboo language which as a practising teacher I’m simply unable to match online, did it without giving a flying fill-in-the-missing-word about who unfollowed them. They were entertaining and engaging, notable highlights being Julian’s recent “holiday” and some exchanges I had with Sarah about the most recent episodes of Torchwood.

Twitter is different things to different people. (Yes, I know, but I’ve learned that avoiding all clichés is a mistake.) To some it’s just unwinding over a glass of wine and sharing views on X-Factor contestants. For me, the bottom line is that I have real friends online, who I have never met. I’m aware of all the safety issues, but it is now possible to meet people and become friends with them without ever sharing their physical presence. That may happen. It may not. But it is not a prerequisite for friendship anymore. So, I was sad to lose Sarah and Julian as friends on Twitter, but I’ll be staying in touch with them through the other available channels. The thing that hit me hard on Saturday was that they are both writers. I aspire to write more, to be a better writer, to have the discipline of self-denial that it takes to be successful. I therefore admired their decision and wondered if I should follow them. Quixotically, I hope to develop my writing while maintaining my Twitter habit and new found Facebook habit. I like to think that in specific ways social networking has honed my writing. Facebook is nicer and more chilled. I’m tending to hang there when I need some headspace.

So, for Julian and Sarah, it’s “Time Enough At Last”. Just don’t break your spectacles. As for their tweets – “tears in rain”.