The other night, I wincingly answered a phone call from my mother, expecting to be chastised yet again for neglecting summer job applications, or questioned for the hundredth time about Parent’s Weekend. As it turned out, the purpose of her call was to proudly inform me, “Emily, I got a Twitter account!”
She clearly expected me to be impressed. My mother, who elicits daily eye-rolls from my little brother with her hopeless attempts to understand the inner workings of Facebook, was riding the crest of a technological trend. With a not-so-subtle note of smugness in her voice, she aked why I don’t Twitter.
If she had asked me the same question a month or two ago, I would have been embarrassed. Back then, I had heard the application referenced in several conversations, seen it discussed in various newspaper articles and noticed links to it on multiple websites, but I had not the faintest idea what it was. As the frequency of Twitter name-dropping increased, I started to get nervous — was the latest social networking frenzy passing me by? Had I missed the memo that Facebook was going the way of Myspace? Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and Webkinz had already forced me to come to terms with the fact that I was no longer in touch with the youngest American consumer demographic, but I couldn’t possibly be too old for the social networking scene, could I?
Luckily I found a floormate who could show me how Twitter works, and quickly realized I wasn’t missing anything. The concept of the site is that users write 140-character-or-fewer updates about what they’re currently doing or feeling, and these messages, or “tweets,” are sent out to all of those users’ “followers” — the Twitter equivalent of Facebook friends. It’s like a Facebook where all you can do is update your status — no wall posts, photo albums, bumper stickers or poking.
Twitter’s sole capability misses the point of social networking services, which aim to make it possible to stay in touch with more people on a day-to-day basis with less effort than conventional communication modes require. While Twitter may make it easier to broadcast our day-to-day activities, unlike other services, it encourages only passive relationships. It allows you to read updates about a friend’s life, but gives you little recourse to respond and relate. Without interactive features, it seems like the constant barrage of status updates would become meaningless white noise.
Perhaps it’s the simplicity of Twitter’s features that is responsible for one of the strangest characteristics of the Twitter phenomenon — it is middle-aged businessmen, politicians and parents who have embraced the service, rather than teenagers who in the past have propelled AOL Instant Messenger, Myspace, Facebook and YouTube to such success. Twitter has reversed the natural order of technology diffusion, in which teenagers were responsible for pioneering new communication mediums while adults scrambled to catch up. Now, several years after Facebook and texting have been widely adopted by tweens, teens and college students, marketers have begun to realize their potential for reaching older demographics.
While adults like my mom have been convinced by the self-fulfilling media insistence that Twitter is the newest rage, and marketers desperate to stay relevant have leapt at the chance to get in on the action, young people don’t seem to be in any rush to join the supposed Twitter frenzy. For once, adults have overestimated our desire for constant and instantaneous communication.
The fact that young adults seem to have drawn a line at Twitter rebuts, at least in some small measure, the accusations often thrown at our generation: that we are extraordinarily self-absorbed and that we have lost the ability to have meaningful relationships because of the impersonality of the Internet.
Even our supposedly self-absorbed, me-first generation can recognize that the mundane details of our lives really aren’t important enough to warrant Twitter’s constant play-by-play. We can also appreciate that sending out mass messages about our whereabouts, and receiving them from friends in return, does not constitute true or worthwhile interpersonal communication.
Our generation’s obsession with connected-ness has often been used to make negative observations about today’s teenagers. However, our unenthusiastic response to Twitter affirms that we are capable of distinguishing between meaningful and empty forms of communication. Our appetite for communication may be great, but Twitter proves that it isn’t insatiable.