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What the Hell Is a Tweet?

January 30, 2012

“There are actual Tweeting stations set up so that the players can Tweet.” – NBC sports journalist Bob Costas during Sunday’s broadcast of the NFL Pro Bowl

When I left the United States for Africa in September 2009, Twitter had yet to explode. True, it had caused waves politically, serving as a valuable organizational tool during Iran’s Green Revolution. Yet, it hadn’t become the ubiquitous phenomenon that it now is. Fast forward to 2012. On television, when someone’s name is listed onscreen, so too is their Twitter handle. For example, Joe Buck, Fox’s play-by-play announcer, is not just Joe Buck, but @JoeBuck. Even restaurants tweet! (See photo below).

This is what I'm talking about.

When did this happen? Look at this:

Illustrative twitter timeline

You can clearly see that from July 2009 to July 2010, the number of tweets per day increased by 53 million! Even more astounding, from July 2010 to July 2011, just one year, the number of tweets per day increased by nearly 150 million! 150 million! It’s no exaggeration to describe that as explosive growth. From 2009 to 2010, Twitter grew at a steady pace of about 20-30 million tweets per day over each six month period. But by late 2010, the number of tweets per day grew by nearly 50 million during each six month period!

Interestingly, in 2009, most of Twitter’s growth was in an older demographic (for example, “adults between the ages of 35 and 49 comprise almost 42 percent of the site’s audience” in 2009). According to the Pew Research Center, since late 2010, the number of 25-34 year olds using Twitter has more than doubled, while the number of young adults (18-24) using the service has remained stable. Twitter is here to stay, and is now the preferred method of instant communication across nearly all demographics. For instance, according to the same survey, blacks and Latinos are even more likely than whites to use Twitter.

So, what the hell is a tweet any way?

According to Twitter’s official guide, a tweet is “a small burst of information” that is “140 characters in length” and  “don’t let the small size fool you—you can share a lot with a little space.” OK. But what is a Tweet, really? In other words, what does it mean to tweet?

If you’ll permit me to use the example of train-wreck actor Charlie Sheen, then to tweet is to lay your soul bare several times a day, every day, to over one million followers. It means microblogging about every little aspect of your life. It means articulating your innermost thoughts; thoughts that perhaps ought to never have been articulated (or read) at all.

But this is the exception, not the rule. For the vast majority of Twitter users, to tweet is to keep in touch with friends. This means sharing links, advice, and general thoughts about pop culture, your life, a trendy restaurant, etc. What people realized was that tweeting was better than texting. It casts a wider net. You can not only communicate instantly with all of your friends, but you can even communicate with people on the other side of the planet.

With social networking services like Twitter and Facebook, there’s a fine line between communication and out-and-out pseudo-solipsism (I use this term loosely. Solipsism is more correctly defined as a belief that only one’s own mind surely exists. When I say pseudo-solipsism, I mean the selfishly delusional belief that one’s own thoughts and ideas are all that exist or are relevant.) When does the tool cease to be one of communication and instead becomes a vehicle for selfish indulgence? What happens when users cease to dialogue, and instead use Twitter as a platform for constant self delusion? Can we speak of an ethics of tweeting?

This last is one of those important questions that we need to be asking in the face of rapid technological change. What are the ethics of Facebook? Twitter? What effects will these technologies have on us individually? Culturally? Changes are happening so quickly that it’s difficult to process the effects that they’ll have on us; adapt or die, we’re told (sometimes by this writer). Still, it’s necessary to pause and reflect on where exactly all of these new technologies are taking us.

Tweeting may be innocuous. Or not.

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