There has been quite a lot of Internet buzz in the last month or three over Twitter. It’s a Web 2.0 service that encourages you to publicly post (via Web, IM, or text message) very short descriptions of whatever you happen to be doing at the moment.
The craze appears to be spreading like wildfire — a sure indication, I guess, that it is already over. Lifehacker noted it in January, everyone at SXSW was nuts over it in March, and yesterday there was a Slate story about Twitter. For a quick demonstration of people Twittering right now, in real time, all over the world, take a look at twittervision.
My experiments with some of these popular social networking services have yielded varying results. I have, for example, been found and contacted by friends through my MySpace profile. On the other hand, I seriously doubt anyone on Earth cares about the extensive list of music that Last.fm has collected (or “scrobbled,” as they call it) while I listened.
One dilemma posed by all of these innovations is the same one facing anyone who takes a camcorder along on a vacation: Would you rather spend your time personally experiencing the vacation, or documenting it? Every second spent with your eye in the viewfinder is a second you might as well be watching Hawaii on TV. The same applies to blogging and scrobbling and Twittering. It amounts to more of your attention diverted from this moment, right here and now. Add this to time spent watching TV, worrying about the due dates of next month’s bills, or remembering that conversation from ten years ago, and you may be missing more of your own life than you realize.
Another question is whether these personal documentation activities are at all useful. Sure, you have 200 hours of vacation video, but will you ever look at it? Will anyone else? What about the 8 mundane things you did this morning? A moment ago, I was sipping coffee and glancing at CNN. Now I’m blogging about it while a winter storm rages outside and you’re wasting your time reading about it. Last month, a Times of London piece unveiled Jittrr, the next facetious step beyond Twitter to “gigablogging.”
To be sure, people are also doing important and fascinating work right now, but do they really want to share the details with the world at large? Would their bosses mind if they Twittered up the secrets behind Apple’s next big project or link to a Google map of the property they’re considering? Probably. So instead, posts on Twitter typically announce that the author is “working and jamming away” or “off to grab some lunch” or “logging into MySpace.”
In this age of GPS tracking, RFID, and Bluetooth earpieces, there is still something to be said for being out of touch. In one of my favorite books, Journey to Ixtlan, Carlos Castaneda struggles to follow his mentor don Juan’s techniques for augmenting one’s personal power, including “not-doing,” “erasing personal history,” and “being inaccessible”:
I told him that in my day-to-day life it was inconceivable to be inaccessible. My point was that in order to function I had to be within reach of everyone that had something to do with me.
“I’ve told you already that to be inaccessible does not mean to hide or to be secretive,” he said calmly. “It doesn’t mean that you cannot deal with people either. A hunter uses his world sparingly and with tenderness, regardless of whether the world might be things, or plants, or animals, or people, or power. A hunter deals intimately with his world and yet he is inaccessible to that same world.”
“That’s a contradiction,” I said. “He cannot be inaccessible if he is there in his world, hour after hour, day after day.”
“You did not understand, ” don Juan said patiently. “He is inaccessible because he’s not squeezing his world out of shape. He taps it lightly, stays for as long as he needs to, and then swiftly moves away hardly leaving a mark.”
With that, I’m off to grab another cup of coffee and look at the snow.