Twitter: it’s really not (all) just mental diarrhea!

ORIGINALLY POSTED AUGUST 10, 2010

Twitter is stupid.  It’s a waste of time.  It’s people self-aggrandizing and trying to make themselves feel better about their pathetic lives.  It’s idiots telling you every little last bit of minutia about their day, as if anyone cares about their boyfriend problems or how lousy their boss is or how they are feeling “down in the dumps” or how they’re thrilled because their baby said their first word or…

Does that sound familiar?  Sound like you?  If so, join the club because that’s some of the NICER things I was saying about Twitter just six or so months ago.

Now, it’s a whole different ballgame.

You know the funny part?  It’s not that any of those comments aren’t true!  Indeed, a lot of Twitter is purely noise.  It’s nothing but a soapbox that any Tom, Dick or Harry can stand on.  It’s a place where people can drop any old thought they have for anyone that wants to see, whether it’s a thought worth putting out there or not.

But folks, I’m here to tell you, that’s exactly what’s so RIGHT about it.

What I’ve come to know over my years of life, as a generality, is that it’s the little thoughts that you have throughout the day, the seemingly insignificant bits of trivia that pop in and out of your brain, that are actually worth the most, you as much as to other people.  Oh, to be sure, most of it, whether it came from your mind or someone else’, is just garbage that you have to filter through (and that includes anything I have to say as much as anyone else).  But, as the saying goes, inspiration strikes in odd places and at odd times, and the fact that you can tweet those thoughts is a blessing in disguise because even the ones that you think are fairly lame after the fact is often-times just what someone else needs.  Sometimes, it’s just the clue as to which thread to tug on to unravel the tapestry of doubt and mental inertia that people frequently get into.

How does it work?  Well, say I’m working on a difficult problem in some area, be it just life in general, something at work or some side project.  Maybe I tweet that I’m frustrated because things aren’t working out.  It’s just me bitching, which is pretty pointless.  However… what can happen is someone sees it… they say something that triggers a new train of thought in your mind and before you know it, and without them necessarily trying to, they’ve set you on a course towards a solution.  It’s those random associations that the best problem-solvers excel at that makes Twitter worth something… free-associating with other people multiplies the effect, and that’s precisely what Twitter lets you do.

But, there’s something else that makes Twitter really something special, and I can illustrate it with a personal example.

I’m a big Kevin Smith fan.  You know, the guy that writes and directs movies like Mall Rats, Dogma, Cop Out, and Clerks.  The guy that’s too fat and gets kicked off of airlines 🙂  He’s a funny guy, and judging by everything I’ve seen of him, I suspect he and I would get along quite well if we ever were to meet.  We share a lot of common interests, have a similar sense of humor and don’t mind making asses of ourselves.  I think we’d get on great, as the Brits like to say.

But, the chances of me running into him are pretty slim.

Unless it happens on Twitter.

That’s what happened the other day: I follow Kevin because he’s entertaining in his tweets, and every now and again I comment back.  Kevin doesn’t follow me, but he does look for mentions of him in order to reply to fans.  This is a cool thing to do, but it’s not the point.  Kevin replied to one of my comments a few days ago.  It was a quick little silly reply, as was my comment to him.  It’s not like we all of a sudden struck up a deep conversation and are going to start dating or anything like that.  It was just two ships passing in the night, a quick little back-and-forth, nothing more, and nothing that Kevin hasn’t done with thousands of other fans.

So, on one level this is nothing special really, nothing unusual, but at the same time, it’s neat just because I’m a fan and it’s cool to get a reply.  But think about what really happened there: I was able to interact with someone personally, albeit briefly and virtually, that I likely never would have otherwise.  Twitter allows for those sorts of connections, even if only fleeting as in this case.  It allows us to make connections with our heroes in some cases, those we look up to, the work of who we respect.  It in a very real sense makes the world a lot smaller, contrary to what some say about all the virtual interactions we all have these days.  Making the world smaller, making more people interact in more ways is a Very Good Thing(tm) in my estimation.  It allows us to understand people and things we otherwise wouldn’t, learn and experience things we otherwise couldn’t.  Twitter is an avenue to that.

Also, maybe Kevin checks out some of my tweets, thinks I’m an interesting guy, and begins following me.  Maybe someday we become friends.  It’s a possibility born of this new form of social interaction called Twitter.  It’s a new way to make friends, possibly friends you would never have had the chance to make otherwise, and that too is a great thing.

Much has been made of Twitter’s utility as a news source, and that’s very much true and another big part of its attraction.  I’ve heard about things before many others via Twitter.  For example, following certain people has allowed me to learn about upcoming Palm releases before the news showed up on any website (we’re not talking a huge lead-time, but still).  Obviously, in big news situations, Twitter is even more valuable.  Being able to see those first-hand accounts of the unrest in Iran earlier this year shows the true power of what is, really, a whole new medium of communication.

You know, it really is an odd feeling to be saying positive things about Twitter, given how against it I was for so long.  In fact, my first 15 tweets or so were absolute jokes meant to expose what I thought of Twitter at the time… they went something along the lines of:

“I’m walking down the hall to the bathroom”

“I’m opening the door”

“I’m lifting the lid”

“I’m unzipping my fly”

“Aaaahhhh, that feels good!”

“Hands washed, returning to desk”

It’s absolutely true that some people do nothing but that sort of stuff all the time.  But you know, those people aren’t really worth following.  They aren’t contributing anything meaningful, not even trying to.   That’s, of course, something you have to decide for yourself on an individual basis… if someone like that is your friend then you’ll clearly be more inclined to want to know every last detail of their life.  Some people don’t think I’m worth following either, and that’s fine, they made that determination and who am I to argue?  I know some people follow me and find that I tend to be entertaining while occasionally throwing in a real, serious thought about various things (and yeah, sometimes tossing in a total clunker of a comment).  I do make an effort to make at least MOST of my tweet something that I think those following me would be interested to read, whether it’s purely a joke tweet (which tends to be most of them) or something more serious in nature.  Likewise, I follow people that I enjoy reading the thoughts of, even if not every one I find compelling.

You know, think of it this way: if you’re in a crowded room, with 100 people yapping at each other and having all sorts of overlapping conversations, most of it you’re going to ignore because its just obvious gibberish that you can’t even make out.  Some of it you can make out and conclude is banal, silly and not worth your attention.  Every now and again though, a stray couple of words will come along and make you go “hmmm, interesting”.  Its those bits of randomness that enrich us in ways we can never anticipate.

I like to tell my kids that learning, in and of itself, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  It’s really kind of a rush when you realize you now know something that you didn’t five minutes ago.  This can happen quite frequently with Twitter.  You get pointed in directions you never expected and you go on journeys of discovery that you would never have otherwise, all because someone tweeted about something they thought was interesting.

There’s another aspect to Twitter though that’s extremely interesting that I think will gain more attention as time goes by, and that’s the amount of influence you gain over people.  The more people follow you the more people you can reach with your thoughts, the more people you can potentially swing to your point of view on things.  You know that saying, “be the change you want to see in the world”?  Well, Twitter gives ANYONE, potentially, the chance to do just that!    Of course, that makes it sad to realize some of the people that have the most followers, people you really wouldn’t want influencing anyone!  But, if these are the people society has collectively decided are its de-facto leaders, whether it leads to riches or ruin, I suppose it’s right.  You’ve still got to think for yourself anyway… but it can’t be denied that if someone has a million followers, anything they say COULD influence a lot of people.  It’s a new form of power that some are beginning to exploit and it’s something that bears watching in the future.  There’s a lot of good that can come from that, but clearly, there’s a lot of bad too.

So, in conclusion: if you aren’t on Twitter yet, give it a shot, against your better judgment!  Follow a few choice people (might I suggest: ME?!?) and see what it’s really all about.  Get involved, post some things yourself and interact with others.  That interaction part is key!  It’s certainly worth something just to see the thoughts of others, but you take it to another level when you start to interact a bit.  Don’t be shy, tell the world what’s going on in that warped little mind of yours 🙂

Take it from someone who never would have been caught dead with a Twitter account just a few months ago: there truly is value there, and possibly a lot.  And don’t let the bits that actually do confirm your worst fears turn you off to the parts that run completely contrary to them… I think you’ll find more of the later.

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