19 June 2009
The Twitter Oxymoron: Isolated Connectedness
I was on assignment in Albania for 3 months at the end of 2008. I had been to Albania a number of times before, so it was not new to me. My assignment was an extension of the work I had done in neighbouring countries such as Macedonia and Montenegro related to telecommunications. While I was technically assigned to work within the Ministry of Education I was, in actuality working for the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister and his boss. The goal was to design an approach to provide 2800 schools with Internet access, and determining the best model to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately for me, the assignment was not going well for a number of reasons most of which were out of my control. I found myself 6 time zones away from the East Coast and all alone. I decided to break my sour mood by writing stories about Albania and tweeting them to my Twitter group of about 500 people. I tried not to let on how bad things were going, but I found solace in being connected to a group of people for whom I could post stories about my everyday life in Albania -- after all, not many people get to Albania. I did not receive any return tweets so I wrote a specific tweet out of sheer desperation basically stating that tweeting was like the tree which falls in a forest when no one is there to see it fall. I felt alone in Albania and I was using Twitter as a wall against which I could throw my observations but no one responded. The following day there were at least 15 messages awaiting me letting me know that my tweets were being received and that I should continue to share my stories and pictures from Albania. While it didn't make my job any easier, it did replenish some of my optimism and spirit.
Since returning from Albania I have met some of those people with whom I share a Twitter bond. I enjoy meeting people who I either follow, or follow me. But here is an observation about Twitter and Facebook. When I was in Albania, my use of Twitter did not come at the price of not spending time with someone in the flesh -- someone with whom I have a real interactive face to face relationship. On the other hand, when I use Twitter in the United States is does mean that I am not interacting with the people around me and that is a choice that can bring with it unintended consequences. I fully admit that I love Twitter, and I use Twitter every day and worse, I feel a sense of loss when I am not posting a message, or even more, every single day. I love finding articles and sharing them within my group on Twitter and Facebook plus I love writing blogs of all lengths. The truth of the matter is that I find it difficult to reconcile the time commitment I give to all of this. I am keenly aware of how Twitter is playing a significant role in making people aware of the riots in Iran; the earthquakes in China and Italy; the improvement it brings to many businesses, NGOs and governments. I can honestly say that I get “it” but it is no doubt that unless we make a living at "selling" social media solutions or we simply have nothing more urgent in our lives then we must stipulate to the fact that Twitter isolates us just as much as it connects us.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the back of the auditorium listening to a political process at my daughter's school. The candidates for class president and vice president were making their stump speeches which shared many of the same desires. They all spoke about how they would like to have a bit more time each day to spend with their classmates. They wanted to accomplish this by extending the lunch period by 15 minutes and the end of school by 15 minutes. Each candidate also wanted students to be able to use their phones during lunch, and listen to their Ipods during lunch and the 5 minute period between each class. I was struck by the incongruity of their desires -- they want more time to be social yet, at the same time, they want to be able to use the tools which would isolate them from each other. It is fortunate that the school is unlikely to change its ways and acquiesce to the "demands" of the rising 8th graders. I don't want my daughter to be isolated from the children around her. She needs that social interaction in order to become a more mature and loving person. It is interesting to see how technology is used by young, and old, to distract both from social interaction.
I am writing this passage because I had the extreme pleasure of listening to a presentation made at the 140 Character Conference by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio), founder, oneforty inc. and co-author of Twitter for Dummies. Pistachio was one of the first people I followed and she shared with us a very compelling story about her love affair with Twitter. She recounted that she went through some very difficult times and that her Twitter friends provided comfort to her during three very difficult weeks in her life. It was then that I was struck by the incongruity of Twitter. She found solace from her Twitter mates, some who even came to her and lent her support. But what did Pistachio give up in order to develop those relationships with people near and far? I intend no slight to Pistachio at all, I am just trying to make a point about Twitter specifically, and technology in general that it creates the oxymoron of isolated connectedness. I am as guilty as anyone else who spends time on social networking sites, perhaps even more given the extensiveness of my participation. Just other day my son was sitting next to me using his laptop to access Facebook as I was using mine to access Twitter. Am I a bad influence? Am I a neglectful father? I think that the next time I find myself doing this I will close my computer and see whether the two of us can actually communicate in real time rather than through emails and IMs.