Friday, July 30, 2010

The Slipstream

In many things I was an early adopter -- CDs, Tivo, tragic Met fandom -- but I was a longtime avoider of Twitter.

Even though I knew Shaq and Justin and Lady Gaga were on there, the few times I saw tweets by people I knew, they seemed both embarrassing and time-consuming. Besides, Facebook, which I joined in fall 2007 partly to reconnect with the world during the Writer's Strike and just after my mom died, seemed a big enough sinkhole.

Then I started this blog, and several people I respect told me I had to tweet to get more traffic. Besides,
now all tweets are bring preserved for all eternity in the Library of Congress! Then I was told that Twitter itself is a terrible website, that I had to download "TweetDeck" to better manage my tweets (especially to modify my retweets of other people's tweets).

I installed it, and now if I'm logged in, every time there's a new tweet (or Facebook update) a box pops up on my computer screen -- just like the ads that I had worked so hard to block. But tweets were ads from "friends" or famous people or organizations I liked, right?

Best of all, when I replied to tweets by people like singer/author Roseanne Cash [left] and Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield and one of my strike heroes), they responded right away! Gone are the gatekeepers, the publicists, the agents!

So why do I feel like Lucy and Ethel in the famous chocolate factory episode [above]?

With Twitter, stuff is cascading past me, pouring out on me and I am gorging, destined to explode. A joke from a former colleague. A link to a funny Zach Galifanakis clip. A query from a critic I respect. And before I can even click through to those, more, more, more.

And I am only following about 150 pages or so, but between them and their retweets, I already can't keep up. (I only have a handful of followers, but I'm not trying very hard and keep dumping the spammers.) I started mentally calculating a Twitter Metric of sorts: number of followers divided by the number of people one follows. Justin Timberlake, for instance, has 2,647,567 followers, but only follows 31 tweeters. Doesn't that say something?

I also find myself trying to picture the beleaguered enthusiastic young wannabe journalists who got hired to do the New York Times story tweets. On the one hand they got jobs in a shrinking market writing for a prestigious publication with 2.5 million followers and have, as I write this, tweeted 48,000 times. On the other hand, they are writing Cliff Notes in 140 characters or less: "NYC: The Clintons, Quiet About the Wedding? What Torture!" (And that's one of the few colorful ones.)

Recently Susan Orlean (right, a beloved former colleague from both Rolling Stone and Vogue), who has over 67,000 followers as I type this, tweeted that she was about to type her 7,000th tweet, and she is still not finished with the Rin Tin Tin book she's been working on for years. The Twitter page is getting her blog writeups and has led to Wikithink projects like #BooksThatChangedMyWorld but sometimes also feels like she's metaphorically feeding chickens.

A few weeks ago Susan tweeted that she had become as bored with her email inbox as she had her voicemail. And that kind of nailed it for me. I sometimes get so caught up in Facebook that I forget to log on to my actual email. And those are people I actually know. Or knew. Or grew to know on Facebook. Or who liked one funny comment I made on someone's Facebook page. Or.....

In the pre-Facebook era, if friends had a baby, you got a phone call, or maybe a nice printed announcement in the mail once the couple recovered. Now you get a nearly instantaneous photo from the delivery room uploaded from iPhone. Instead of visiting the hospital or hugging them or sending them a gift, you just comment: "Adorable! Congrats!" When a friend's parent is sick or has died, the news gets communicated faster, as do the condolences, but it all starts to feel like a slipstream of emotion.

It was bad enough when I stopped talking to friends on the phone and just emailed them. Worse still when we became satisfied with text messages. And the Facebook/Twitter era, despite its illusion of connectedness, has actually made me less and less likely to have physical or verbal contact with anyone.

Right now I'm spending the month in a cabin that's out of cell range, so just to make a phone call requires some orchestration. The other day I participated a WGA conference call that took me on a comical journey: I was driving, talking handsfree, and learned we'd been emailed a file we had to discuss. I stayed on the line while carrying my computer into a free Wi-Fi location so I could download.

The call itself seemed quaint (and inefficient) but felt more humane than a series of emails. And it made me all the more certain that for the rest of the summer, I am going to both unplug and replug as much as I can: Unplug from Twitter, reduce time on Facebook (buh-bye, Scrabble!) and try to maximize actual writing (and talking on the phone).

After several snail mail letters and furtive text messages to and from my daughters in sleepaway camp I am arranging (via email, natch) to talk to them on the phone Saturday. I can't wait.

Now it's time to plug this post on Twitter. Maybe on Susan Orlean's page. Yeah, that's the ticket....


barbara said...

Another benefit to FB, for me, is its become my news aggregator. I no longer spend hours on HuffPost or RawStory or any of my other go-to news sites. Now I just scroll my FB newsfeed and I'm good to go.

David Handelman said...

For sure. But if you tried Twitter you'd find a runaway train of news. The Times alone posts nearly every story. So you have to start deciding who your non-news news sources are.

Also, reporters are tweeting info that used to be saved for actual published pieces, so even the online version of a story is "old news" by the time it gets written.