the road to hell

I’m trying to make good use of Twitter, but it’s oddly difficult for me to keep at it.

Why? The usual reasons – the incredible anxiety I feel when I see the cascade of new! interesting! stuff raining down on me, the urge to give up when I don’t compulsively check my feed every couple of minutes, come back to it, and discover another dozen bon mots have landed, the overwhelming sense that everyone there is so much more plugged in than I am or could possibly ever hope to be.

And mind you, I follow a miniscule 14 other people and organizations. 14. On Twitter, that’s less than “statistically insignificant.” It’s probably less than “failure to launch” or “what did you do with your second hour on Twitter?” And it’s still too much for me to follow, what with all the retweets that get added in.

I’m sure most people use Twitter the way it’s meant to be used, to be scanned, flitting from item to item until the pull of gravity from one of them is strong enough to make you look at the attached link. I’ve done it – do it – myself, but have decided I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I think you’re supposed to just go with it (“Look at me! Riding this wave of information!) but what I increasingly notice is what’s missing. Twitter not only cuts into the time I would otherwise devote to books, it seems to stand in opposition to the act of reading them.

I know, I know. There is a lot out there these days about the bad effects of the internet, and more specifically, social media. The case is overstated, as reactions to technology tend to be. But there is something worth paying attention to here: I read, at least in part, to relieve anxiety. To successfully read a book you have to quiet your mind some to start, and then the reading itself acts as a kind of bootstrap. The more you’re absorbed by the words on the page, the more able you are to take in more of the words. You experience the peculiar effect of having the universe shrink to book-size, and yet grow at the same time. Not every book does this fully of course, but once your brain establishes the “reader pathway,” you know how to get there, even if imperfectly.

Twitter works at cross-purposes to reading because it increases anxiety – on Twitter, you can never know enough, be current enough or be following enough. You’re always at risk of missing the most important thing of the moment, so you’re always reading with one eye on what’s next, what you could be scanning instead of what you’re looking at now.

So maybe it’s surprising that I want to make some sort of peace with Twitter; I hold out hope that I can wrangle it into serving as a personal wire service, without it killing the host. In honor of this hope, I spend time on Twitter every day, and usually find one or two things to tweet or retweet – but that presents another problem. I try really hard not to, but I find myself looking for things to pass along, and subtly evaluating what I look at in terms of whether it’s fit grist for the Twitter mill. And because there’s so much stuff to consider, I’m tempted to give an item the quick once-over and if it seems ok, pass it along. Taken together, I think of these things as the central tendency of Twitter, the compulsion to redistribute whatever you’ve taken in, no matter how slight your attention.

But I’m pushing back: my personal rule of thumb is – don’t retweet anything I haven’t read carefully, all the way to the end (silly to say, but I’ll bet a lot of things get tweeted after the first third is digested) and I try to avoid most things that are of the moment. Also, it has to be something I have more than a passing interest or expertise in, which narrows the possibilities greatly. I’d like to say it works, but I don’t know yet. I’m finding it hard to keep my balance – use the medium for my own ends, and not let the means take over.


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