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May 18, 2009

A Twitter Breakthrough: The Long Search for Self-Significance -- A Now-Former User Comes Clean

I tweet; therefore, I am. Really?

Funny how we let technology define us, grant us a fleeting sense of significance.

I signed up for Twitter without the slightest feel for what it was or why I might actually care. All I knew was that some buddies had been using it. I’m now several months down the road, and even though I’ve done the footwork, learned the basics and become a small-time user of the service, I’m still haunted by my original question. Why care?

In all brutal honesty, I still don’t know. None of the relationships I have tried to cultivate through it have come to any sort of fruition, and its capacity to do ministry (beyond just handing out information) seems limited for the moment.

Yet until lately I continued, in very irregular spurts, to fill in the blank at twitter.com that demands 140 characters or less. “What are you doing?” it asked with a chirp, and I would freeze up.

What should go there? Any value in talking about my housework? My career changes? My car needing an oil change? My kids being loud?

What was I to do if I couldn’t use this medium to establish myself as being original or pithy or educated? What if I came across as too mawkish, or overbearing, or – God forbid – myopic? What was off-limits, and what was merely stupid?

Each time I peered into the update void, it was as though a fun-house mirror were being offered up to accentuate all my flaws – the pedantic tone, the fear of rejection, the tired need to overexplain myself. I didn’t need a therapist or a spiritual director anymore - I had Twitter, gracelessly refracting my psyche to my “followers” (wait – was I in a cult? [A cult of one?]).

There was a pre-backlash time not so long ago. Every time you heard about Twitter, it was about how useful it was: how it compiled news resources, connected old friends, and so on. But I had this nagging feeling that for the most part, no one was really reading because we were all too busy posting.

Could it be just another way of screaming to the world that we matter? Is it a technologically acceptable means of asking for attention, whether or not we actually have something to say?

Recently, after he threw a particularly nasty tantrum about something, I asked my son what it was he thought he was accomplishing.

"Well," he said, and took a long pause. "I guess I just wanted attention."

"Any kind of attention, right?" He nodded vigorously.

That gave me the chance to talk about the difference between "good attention" (the kind we enjoy when we do things together, like reading a book) and "bad attention" (the kind he earns by being loud, rude, or destructive). And that's when I made the Twitter breakthrough.

Twitter is fundamentally about two distinct values: the competition for attention, and the wish for self-significance. Oh, it's an uplevel version of my own crude child psychology, to be sure; it's sophisticated and cool and fairly hip right now. But in the end, it just feels like millions of people clamoring to be affirmed at the same time.

Notice me! I matter! Please! I'm over here! Look!

I tried everything I could think of to fit into the Twitterverse: satire ("The difference is between your ears"), news ("I'm about to become an Iowan"), poetry ("Palm Sunday: Bombast and pomp, inconclusive violence"), obscurity ("Printer cables"), faith ("In Luke 4, Simon's mother has the right idea: If you're healed, go ahead and get up and start serving.").

Now I have a hundred postings total, and, at least for now, number 100 was my penultimate. (#101 will just link to this article.) It actually feels pretty good to type those words, like a tiger's off my back.

So now I speak not without experience, exactly, but not exactly as a seasoned Twitterer ("tweeter"?). In any case, the label "former user" sticks. Still, in all it seems safe to draw the following analogy.

Imagine you are at a party with, say, 100 people whom you think like you enough to hang out with you. You stand, drink in hand, and offer observations to no one in particular.

"My plaid shirt doesn't match my pants," you say.

"These clouds outside my window look ugly," says another.

"My dog is great," says still another partygoer.

It goes on like that. And if we were completely honest about this strangest of parties, we might be willing to say that we didn't much care for a room full of navel-gazers; that despite its label it is not a social network; and we'd grab our coats and make our apologies, and go get a burger.

From the outside it would look like a party. On the inside it wouldn't amount to much.

In Mark 10, Jesus is approached by an earnest man who wants to know how to inherit eternal life. The man is so earnest that he readily attests to following all the commandments. Then Jesus really puts the screws to the poor guy. He tells him to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, and then to come back and follow Jesus. Then, the kicker: The man can't do it. He has too much money he can't bear to part with.

An intriguing vignette, to be sure. But catch this detail: The text tells us that before he responded to the man's request for information - before he explained to the man exactly how it was that he could get the one thing he lacked -- "Jesus looked at him and loved him."

He was obviously a "good man," for his moral credentials were well burnished. He shined his shoes and ate his vegetables and sent out thank-you notes. He just had wads of cash, that's all, and felt he had to choose to hold on to them, even though this aggrieved him mightily and put him in the wrong -- put him out of relational integrity with Christ.

Yet he was looked at, and that's the key. Looked at, and loved. Looking at him, Jesus could not help but love him. Such is the destiny of divine DNA.

All of which is the rub with Twitter. Somehow I can't "see" you through it enough to love you. Perhaps it's the clipped tone or all the ironic pithiness or just the bloody randomness of the whole thing. There's just something about Twitter that keeps you from me, and I from you, and I don't want that. I'm tired of that.

I want substance and people and generosity of conversation. My imagination and my spirit have grown tired of navigating the postmodern condition of inborn isolation and soundbyte.

In a word, I want you, not your persona or your sardonicsim. I want to look at you and love you.

If you can show me a way through the mess, I'd be happy to do it with you.

Until then, my Twitter account will be inactive, and I'll be breathing easier.

1 comment:

joemcbee said...

Brilliant! What an excellent post.

I have not signed up for Twitter, not because I am taking some sort of moral high ground or anything, but because I have honestly been afraid that no one would "follow" me and then my already low self-esteem would take an even greater hit and why set myself up for that kind of disappointment?

I didn't even feel really comfortable on Face Book until I had over 100 friends.

I think you say it well when you write that "in the end it feels like millions of people clamoring to be affirmed at the same time."

Again, great post, it is well written and it really rings true.