Saturday, September 28, 2013

Twitter Is Not The Problem

I always thought Twitter was a terrible idea.

What could you possibly say in 140 characters or less that means anything? Why have we become a culture that collects tiny, vulnerable fragments of other people’s lives and judges them as worthy or unworthy based on how witty we think they are? How can we value questions without easy answers if we cater to attention spans that stopped reading this blog after the first sentence?

In some ways, I still have those concerns. But I also see the value in Twitter for several reasons I won’t get into here.

More importantly, though, I realized that my concerns about Twitter were completely hypocritical.

Let me explain.

Today, I started a Twitter account. (@mondayheretic after Be a Heretic Monday.)

Today, I also passed by hundreds of strangers in a big city, most of whom I will never see again. Some of them talked too loudly or smelled bad or didn’t do a good job of managing their children, and I resented them for this, or for the simple fact that they were in my way. I did not meet their eyes. I did not wonder what their stories were.

I smiled and said, “Have a nice day” to the sales clerk even though I really didn’t care if she had a nice day or not, and the smile barely flickered to my eyes before dying.

I experienced life in 140 characters or less, and I was okay with that.

Maybe the tragedy of modern society is not that we compress complex observations into a few words, but that we compress complex people into flat, lifeless stereotypes, cardboard figures that only exist in the ways they affect us.

Can you summarize a classical work of literature into one sentence? Sure, but you end up losing a lot. (On the plus side, thanks to the website that did that, I read the entire Wheel of Time series in five minutes flat.) 

Even though those kinds of summaries are amusing, they’re amusing because we know it’s not really that simple.

The joke of this book cover is that we know there’s more to War and Peace than this. But this is all of the novel that I personally care about from my limited perspective. So why not cut it down to just that?

With literature, it’s funny. With real live human beings…not so much.

The truth is, people (like me) who talk about how dangerous social media is because it distances us from those around us are already living miles away from our neighbors. And it’s not a new problem.

You know what distances us from other people? Technology. Twitter. Facebook. Cell phones.

And also social customs. Class differences. Saying “fine” to everything. The rat race. Stereotypes. Daddy issues. Small town gossip. Big city anonymity. Competition and distrust and selfishness and the fear that if you love someone, they might not love you in return. And a hundred other things that have always been with us and always will.

We do not love people less because we love our gadgets more. We love people less because we love ourselves more.

The solution to this problem isn’t not buying a computer (nice try, Wendell Berry), or railing against this new generation of tech-consumed people, or even boycotting Twitter.

It’s choosing, in the tiny, everyday actions of daily life, to love others. To think about them as real people. To show concern, do something when you can, mean what you say, be present where you are, and slow down enough to realize that every single human being around you is just as complex as you.

They have hopes. They have fears. There are things they’ve done that they never thought they’d do. There are dreams they’ve buried deep inside themselves and all but given up on. They are real.

Could I have said all of this in a tweet, in 140 characters or less? No. But you know what I could have said? “Have a nice day.” And meant it.

It’s not about length. It’s about love.

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