Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Twitter Gets To Me: An Offline Manifesto

With this post, I am outing myself as a Twitter heretic. I officially am sick of Twitter. From curious, to experimenting, to diving in, to just sick of it in the course of three short weeks.


Well, it might feel hypocritical coming from Your Google Guy, but I'll get to it, if you have the patience to read more than 140 characters.

Basically, after 20+ years of being online, having emailed and IM'ed (at IBM, all done on mainframes, before the Internet - it was called PROFS) for most of it, I can see the course of Twitter. I think it represents a nuclear arms race of online ubiquity. It is a quantum leap in the race to be constantly online, and become a persona, rather than a person.

Perhaps I should say that this is not a new concept, really. For years, videogamers have fallen to this weakness. Especially those in such social and all-encompassing games like EverQuest (aka EverCrack) and World of Warcraft (WOW) and the text-based games that preceded them, fully jumping into a virtual world was not unusual. I had an ex-girlfriend who (after we broke up) spent months arranging her "online marriage" to some German guy in EverQuest (this was 1998 or so).

But to this point, those sucked into that life were the computer people to start with. People who maybe didn't have the best social skills or social standing. The strange thing now is watching the business-people do it.

My experience with Twitter thus far has been like being at a Multi-Level-Marketing expo! Everyone has a booth! Or is selling! Or is buying! Or is promoting their business of coaching you on how to sell or buy! Follow me! Then I'll follow you! Then we can race to see how many followers we can get! Oy vey. (I say this, admitting my attempts at Twitter have been based around extending the Your Google Guy brand, and my Nice Guy counseling biz). It's like a gold-rush where everyone is selling picks and pans, and I have yet to see the gold.

The second agenda of Twitter seems to be the cleverness contest. Look how smart I am! Ugh, I get really sick of this too. I guess I see that true friendship, true relationship-building, is *not* what I see going on on Twitter. (I contrast this to Facebook, but I keep Facebook as an extension of people I know/have known in the physical plane).

Twitter makes me ponder ideas like how much information we can take in? as well as how many relationships we can simultaneously handle?  This amazing story from The Economist says we have an internal mental limit at 148 "friends". It's called the Dunbar number. But even with 148 Facebook "friends" they found people only really connect with (keep up with) 7-10 of them.

On Twitter, people are reaching for "followers" in the thousands. I repeat, THOUSANDS. There are of course new tools springing up to help you manage all the followers, and all the "tweets". Ugh. I truly believe Twitter will collapse under its own weight, a victim of its own success. When are all "friends" of everyone, it will be cacophony. The other option is an intermediary layer. A filter. Someone to separate wheat from chaff and help you decide what to attend to. This is no different than a newscaster/reporter/blogger, folks. And thus we re-invent the wheel.

I know I was just blogging about Twitter optimistically a few days ago. But as I get around the Twitter culture, I've gotten disturbed. Oh yeah, and the culture says you are a jerk (my nicer word for a word that begins with an "A") if someone follows you and you don't follow back. There are now online social-media consultants. I guess this should be expected. Hell, I do SEO, and that's what, five years old at most? I shouldn't throw stones. But to me, all this has always been to try to create more non-virtual relationships. To see more people in my counseling office, and for you to too. To keep in touch with people I have known in all 5 senses.

I'm not sure what all is driving this in me. It may be the arrival of our baby, now some 3 1/2 months old. It's an extremely visceral and sensory experience with a baby. Drool and warmth and spit-up and poop and skin and rocking and cooing. I've always been an Attachment guy, and I am experiencing it as it is created in a little person right in front of me. It also could be the feeling of pressure in me to keep up with the unending flow of new Tweets and tools and direct messages. I've survived the pressure email, MySpace, texting and Facebook so far, but nothing like the snowball that is Twitter. I come in, sit down at my PC, and am 10 feet away from my lovely wife as she is emailing too. We are close but not connected. It is disturbing to me as a marriage counselor, and as a human being.

Some years ago, when I was at IBM, I saw Clifford Stoll speak - he was a guy who famously tracked down a hacker in Germany, and his talk was rousing for us techies (he wrote a book about it called The Cuckoo's Egg). Later he changed his position on technology and the Internet, and wrote a book called Silicon Snake Oil - in which he extolled the virtues of the physical, slow, face-to-face world over the virtual. I believe he too was strongly influenced in this new position by becoming a father.

So, as someone who has seen tech fads come and go (I worked for a dot-bomb, sorry, dot-com here in Seattle, and that's just one of many things that have lit up the tech sky like a shooting star) I think all the heat here may burn out.

If you want to help your search engine rankings by starting an account, go right ahead. Want to try to drive traffic to your blog, Twitter when you post. If you have something national to sell, yup, dive in. But for the local therapist, I think Twitter is not going to be much of a business tool for you. 

I shall now don my bullet-proof vest, as the Twitter-holics find me an take aim.

Best, Your Google Guy


Samuel said...

Peter. Well said.

My approach to the "online persona" world is to create a facebook account that is a tool of networking, and use my twitter account as a tool of existential or philosophical thought (much akin to your post here about the perils of the online world). I limit the followers of my twitter account to those that I have a relationship with, and I only follow those with whom I really care to know what they are thinking/doing (which isn't many, I might add).

As a fellow techie (dating all the way back to local BBS 'internet' when a 4800 Baud modem was the envy of the neighborhood), and therapist, I wonder when the social crash will happen. I'm annoyed at the quickness by which I can dull/escape my loneliness by checking facebook/twitter/etc on my laptop or my cell phone. Most times, I'd rather read about someone else than face the fears and anxiety of my current life. There are days that I want to move to an 'offline' village/town/community where sitting on the bench outside the gas station is considered 'tweeting'.

When will we realize that the shallowness of our relationships is only furthered by our technological attempts to make them more real, deeper? I fear for my kids, who will not know life aside from cell phones, texting, tweeting, and blogging. Will they know real, 5-senses as you put it, relationships?

Thanks again for the thoughtful post

DeeAnna Merz Nagel said...

Hi Peter,

I do get your point but the flip side of the twitter experience is the access to so much information instantly. Twitter has almost become a search engine for me- Clearly I can't keep up with all of my follower's posts and would not even attempt. I track my favorites using a twitter app (tweetboard.com)and RT what I like. My website and blog stats have doubled in the two months I have been on twitter, and I have had the opportunity to participate in 3 media interviews. Clearly, I am not soliciting clients from twitter so for the therapist who is strictly wanting to increase their client base, I have a hard time grasping the use of twitter. But for my consulting business, twitter has been great. So here's another's experience!


P.S. I track your tweets and find them very informative!

Peter Hannah MA LMHC
Your Google Guy

@Samuel - I was just about to type and my response when my son started crying (first overnight bottle for the evening). Glad to know I'm not the only one thinking these thoughts.

@DeeAnna - I agree there is info on Twitter but my experience and guess is we are heading quickly to an overload point, and it hasn't even really hit that many users yet. I think for some businesses, Twitter *can* be a useful business tool - especially online-based businesses. I think for most therapists, it won't be, though.

Lisa A. Riley said...

I hear your frustrations and concerns. Tweeter for me is simply experimentation. Not really expecting a whole lot of clients from it, but what I am getting is lots of hits to my site, blog and articles. I see it with the sole purpose of maintaining SEO.

I'm in agreement with you & Samuel, being an advocate for healthy relationships, how is technology hindering the future generation from developing the skills for "real life" relationships. It's as if this "abbreviated" form of relating is replacing actual face to face interaction.

Hmmm...perhaps the next diagnosis in the DSM (ie. Interpersonal Deprivation Disorder) :-P

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Well written, Peter. You're making me think about something. You mentioned the life-changing experience of having a child made you re-consider your online relationships. I wonder if part of the Twitter fanaticism lies in using the medium to replace relationships lacking in the real world ... myself included ...

Thanks for your comment on my article.