The Madness of Crowds: Twitter

People say social media are enormously important. Yes they do. Presumably they tweet this sort of thing to one another: “Social media are enormously important because they create new virtual communities that offer all the advantages of propinquity without the drawbacks of phys prxmty.” I say “presumably” because I’ve never actually tweeted myself, so I don’t know if they compose their pithy 140 character apothegms intuitively – or aim for an approximate count then abbreviate as above. In the giddy months when Twitter was trilling up and up to its current state of cacophonous ubiquity, I was asked on a radio panel show if I’d ever consider tweeting and replied that the only circumstances under which I could imagine doing such a thing would be if a songbird flew into my mouth.

Nowadays, I’m not feeling so secure on the matter. A friend who works in publishing told me recently that use of social media is now part of her regular job assessment; and furthermore, claimed that in 10 years no one would be able to have her sort of career if they couldn’t tweet. It does seem surpassing strange to me that an ability to discover, assay then disseminate 140,000-word texts should be predicated on the broadcasting of 140 character slogans – but then what do I know? I wasn’t even aware that F Day had been reached on 13 February this year – hell, I didn’t even know what F Day was. My next door neighbour filled me in: “F Day is when the number of Farmville players in the west officially exceeded the number of actual farmers.”

But when will Peak Farmville occur? This being the point at which so many people are engaged in playing Farmville, Angry Birds and all the other little time-wasters embedded in social media sites, that there’s no one left to produce the food necessary to keep them alive. And if Peak Farmville, why not Peak Twitter? Apparently the tweets currently posted on the Twitter site each day could fill 8,721 copies of War and Peace.

Twitter seems to be a way of getting together with people and showing off, or having a good old gossip. On Twitter some tweet streams are open-access, others are confined to followers, still more are mere birdbaths sipped on by a pair. An adept twitterer can shift between all these conversations, scanning the tweet deck as a socialite of old might’ve worked the room – dropping in on this colloquy, passing by that chronic bore, peering over this obstructive and insignificant shoulder to see if anyone more important is in the offing.

I know all this because I’ve been talked through the practice and considered it anthropologically, as Mauss did the sexual goings-on of the Trobriand islanders. Thus all the things that happen in the messy world of physical propinquity do end up – albeit distorted – taking place in the realms of social media: people buddy-up, seduce, bully and ostracise; the Twittersphere fuses and fissions like a murmuration of birds hovering over the tidal flats of our culture.

Is all this human twittering in any meaningful sense crazy? Not, I’d argue, if you see it for what it is – but if it’s considered to be an advance of some kind in the sphere of human relatedness, that has to be nuts. I spent a great deal of the 1970s avoiding bores with slide carousels who wanted their holiday slides writ large on suburban walls – why on earth would I want to reacquaint myself with such tedium in the form of Facebook’s petabytes of snapshots? I think it was the anthropologist Robin Dunbar – one of the proponents of the “social mind” conception of human cognitive evolution – who theorised that language developed as an outgrowth of the group cohesion that other great apes cement by picking parasites from each other’s fur.

I always find parties, dinners and meetings go with a certain swing if I visualise all the attendees naked and nit-combing one another . . . The other day my wife, who has a long tail of Twitter followers, looked up from her laptop to say that she’d been tweeted by a man who asked whether I might be prepared to engage with my followers on Twitter a bit more directly, rather than palming them off with automatic tweets generated by my website, to which the only possible response is, Sorry, I’m fully occupied visualising naked furry humans grunting – oh, and imagining what it would be like to have a live songbird in my mouth.