A (digital) return to village life?

Microblogging with services like Twitter could be having a humanizing effect in modern society – or at least the classroom. Here's what I mean….

by Anne Collier

Did you ever hear someone speak nostalgically about "the good ol' days" of small-town life, when neighbors and people you cared about kept tabs on you? It had its downsides, but there's no denying everyday life (at least in the developed world) has gotten so much less personal. It's almost dehumanizing in some ways. People sometimes argue that the Internet has contributed to that. It can also be argued – I believe more persuasively – that the Internet is reversing that and bringing back village life in a non-geographical sense.

Case in point: the Twittersphere (Twitter's the fast-growing social-networking service, CNET cites the latest Nielsen figures as showing). People microblogging through their days while "following" their relatives, friends, colleagues, and other interesting people doing the same. A superficial glance by babyboomers yields predictable reactions like "narcissism on steroids." But there's more to this phenomenon. It de-isolates. It creates "ambient awareness," as Clive Thompson recently described it in the New York Times Magazine – a growing (sometimes sustained, sometimes intermittent) awareness of the thoughts and moods of people who interest you wherever they are, even on the other side of the world (you can unfollow anyone any time, and it's up to you how much you say what's on your mind). It gives fresh meaning to the term "global village" and challenges the old saw, "familiarity breeds contempt." For one thing, you're only hearing from people you care about and they're only hearing about you if you allow them to.

"Taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce," Thompson writes, "like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting" of the people you follow, Thompson writes. He tells of a person who twittered about what sandwich she made each day. Another person he mentions thought it all sounded silly. Then he "discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner…. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click [maybe slightly comforting] that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day" and would miss if it weren't there.

All this raises so many questions – you really have to read Thompson to see many of them thoughtfully considered…. Are all these weak ties superficializing friendship or affection, or adding to it – on personal and global levels? Does microblogging increase self-knowledge or the potential for narcissism? Does it help to objectivize personal troubles, get perspective, find solidarity, make us more vulnerable? Probably all the above – it depends on the individual. Experimenting with it myself, following fascinating thinkers in my general field of work (none of my relatives are on it!), I have found it to be a positive experience. There is this unprecedented sense of sort of intimacy being trustingly conveyed by people you only knew from a distance ("trust" is a key word in all this), as well as a sense of stimulation but also a bit of overload – people you respect posting so many links worth checking out.

One thing's certain: Twittering has a way of keeping us honest. You'd have to be an extremely gifted pathological liar (or actor always in character) to be someone other than yourself microblogging to a well-developed following even once a day (tell me if you disagree, anyone!). Thompson tells of a student of Zeynep Tufekci, a University of Maryland sociologist, who posted that the difference between Web 1.0 and being under the microscope of the social Web is that – as the old New Yorker cartoon showing two dogs conversing points out – on Web 1.0 no one could tell you were a dog. On Twitter, the social Web to the 10th power, everybody knows you're a dog!

[Tufekci's student might've read Michael Kinsley at Slate. See also: "Just because they crave attention?"]

Twitter in the classroom

Also see how Twitter is making classes – and thereby education – more village-like (see ArsTechnica. A communications professor approached Twitter the way many of us baby boomers do, thinking microblogging's all "solipsism and sound-bite communication," but after using it realized that it "brought him closer to his students, creating a personal connection that helped to increase their involvement in his classes." In this blog post is the experience of a Central Connecticut State U. professor who, after each class, twitters a reflection about how the class went. "Students who see the messages often give him a reality check." He said that if he twittered that he didn't think something got across, for example, sometimes students would twitter back that they "understood that fine" but were just distracted by … [something outside of class] or they were tired.

Powerful things can happen when people can come to understand each other on even slightly deeper levels afforded by the kind of fairly frequent, candid, humanizing communication that happens in microblogging. Empathy emerges.

Think about what can happen when people feel empathy toward one another: compassion, civility, encouragement, empowerment, engagement, etc. Disinhibition – that condition of online experience that allows for cyberbullying, harassment, hate, etc. by dehumanizing people – becomes less of a factor. "Users" move through being mere participants to being citizens and community members.

Related links

* But is Twitter a teen thing? Not really, Anastasia Goodstein of Ypulse.com suggests. It seems to be more for young professionals, with Plurk of more interest to teens, a 20-something told Anastasia. However, when I went to Plurk: of the dozen "recently joined members" featured on the home page, one was under 30 (she's 20) and the one other didn't declare his age. The other 10 were all in their 30s or 40s – even further away from being teens. Anastasia's theory makes sense: "If you think about it, since teens' social networks are mostly comprised of friends they know in real life, and the majority are teens they go to school with, they sort of already know what their friends are up to at any given moment."
* "Who am I on Twitter?" The Financial Times calls Twitter "social networking around mutual stalking." I think writer Peter Whitehead doesn't quite get it yet, but he asks good questions: "My biggest concern, however, is over who I am on Twitter. Am I just me or am I representing the FT? Can I say outrageous things?" On that last one, some Twitterers actually do, but remember: "Everybody knows you're a dog!" In some ways, online anonymity is going away.
* "Twittering from the Cradle"?! The teeniest tykes are twittering with the help of their sleep-deprived parents, the New York Times reports. When they become old enough to send their own tweets, they probably won't have Whitehead's sort of Twitter-induced identity angst.
* Twitter grew 343% from September '07 to September '08, according to Nielsen. Over the same period, nos. 2-10 in the Top 10 fastest-growing social-networking services were Tagged (330%), Ning (251%), LinkedIn (193%), Last.fm (121%), Facebook (116%), MyYearbook (115%), Bebo (86%), Multiply (59%), and Reunion (57%). CNET reports.

Readers, feel free to disagree – send your comments to anne[at]netfamilynews.org or post them in our forum at ConnectSafely.org!

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