It’s possible to have a clear attitude toward Twitter if you’re not on it. Few things could appear much worse, to the lurker, glimpser, or guesser, than this scrolling suicide note of Western civilization. Never more than 140 characters at a time? Looks like the human attention span crumbling like a Roman aqueduct. The endless favoriting and retweeting of other people’s tweets? Sounds like a digital circle jerk. Birds were born to make the repetitive, pleasant, meaningless sounds called twittering. Wasn’t the whole thing about us featherless bipeds that we could give connected intelligible sounds a cumulative sense?
The signed-up user is apt to have more mixed feelings. At its best, Twitter delights and instructs. Somebody, often somebody you wouldn’t expect, condenses the World-Spirit into a great joke, epigram, or aperçu. What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed, you think, and favorite the tweet. Or: So funny, and you retweet. Pretty nice, also, when the ricocheting retweets say that the witty one is you! As for instruction, you can learn a lot from Twitter. Your Facebook or face-to-face friends may let you know what they think you should read, hear, watch. But are you friends with the famous environmentalist who, live-tweeting the apocalypse, tells you each time a new locality sets an April heat record in March? Or with Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose ghost had a feed? It’s an education to follow an experimental poet in Calgary obsessed with the digitization of art; a lefty Keynesian who’s crunched the numbers on student debt; an Occupier who reports whenever one of her comrades gets attacked by the NYPD. A tweet’s a narrow window, but nothing says that one of those can’t disclose — or, by way of URL compressers, link to — a big terrain.
Look at your Twitter feed at the wrong moment, however, or send a dumb tweet yourself, and a bad infinity opens up onto the narcissistical sublime. What tweet is that, flashing, subliminally, behind the others? In exactly 140 characters: “I need to be noticed so badly that I can’t pay attention to you except inasmuch as it calls attention to me. I know for you it’s the same.” In this way, a huge crowd of people — 40 percent more users since last year — devalue one another through mutual self-importance. The much-tweeted-about Lena Dunham has said her father finds Twitter “infinitely unrelatable”: “He’s like, ‘Why would I want to tell anybody what I had for a snack, it’s private?!’ And I’m like, ‘Why would you even have a snack if you didn’t tell anybody? Why bother eating?’”
As with many of Dunham’s jokes, this one both satirically indicts and indulgently excuses the narcissistic symptom on display. When Beckett wrote, in 1930, that it was every bit as illogical to expect tomorrow’s self to be gratified by today’s experience as it was to expect your hunger to vanish at the sight of your uncle eating a sandwich, he could take it for granted that nobody expected one person’s sandwich to satisfy someone else. That was then. Lots of people on Twitter do think you’ll enjoy the spectacle of their snacks. They tell you what they’re eating, where they’re going, what they’re consuming, never mind why you should care. Or — an apparently opposite genre to the hyper-banal tweet (“Lunch again today!”), but identical in effect — they tweet something cryptic to the point of senselessness. This is the tweet that says, whatever its actual content, “I have nothing to say but I want to say something.”
Possibly it’s the automatism, the compulsiveness, that’s depressing. Because another variety of bad tweet is the one that would actually be pretty good if the tweeter hadn’t taken it upon himself to shtick-ify his personality. Thus a funny person, alive to the wisdom of building your brand, calcifies into a humorist, or a clever person into a witticist. It can be very amusing, Dickensian, when a fictional avatar has a narrow, caricatured personality: the girl who says, exclusively, shit girls say, or the tween hobo or out-of-touch masculine blowhard who is always true to type. It’s a lot less funny when a real person, supposedly the many-sided hero of his own life, decides to say only one sort of thing, and say it all the time.
The Rise of the Tweet takes place amid an internet-induced cheapening of language, in both good and bad senses.
The economic cheapness of digital publication democratizes expression and gives a necessary public to writers, and types of writing, that otherwise would be confined to the hard drive or the desk drawer. And yet the supreme ease of putting words online has opened up vast new space for carelessness, confusion, whateverism. Outside of Twitter, a coercive blogginess, a paradoxically de rigueur relaxation, menaces a whole generation’s prose (no, yeah, ours too). You won’t sound contemporary and for real unless it sounds like you’re writing off the top of your head. Thus: “In The Jargon of Authenticity, Adorno went bonkers with rage, and took off after Heidegger and the existentialists with a buzz saw, loudly condemning the sloppy word that these dumb existentialists sloppily use to brag about how they know what is real and what isn’t.” This appeared on a blog (The Awl), so its blogginess shouldn’t be held too much against it. But all contemporary publications tend toward the condition of blogs, and soon, if not yet already, it will seem pretentious, elitist, and old-fashioned to write anything, anywhere, with patience and care.
The accidental progenitor of the blogorrheic style is David Foster Wallace. What distinguishes Wallace’s writing from the prose it begot is a fusion of the scrupulous and the garrulous; all of our colloquialisms, typically diffusing a mist of vagueness over the world, are pressed into the service of exactness. To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth, as — in an opposite way — the flat declaratives and simplified vocabulary of Hemingway were for a different generation. But an individual style, terse or wordy, can breed a generalized mannerism, and the path once cleared to saying things truly and well is now an obstacle course. In the case of the blogorrheic style, institutional and technological pressures coincided with Wallace’s example. Bloggers (which more and more is just to say writers) had little or no editing to deal with, and if they blogged for money they needed to produce, produce. The combination discouraged the stylistic virtues of concision, selectivity, and impersonality.
Enter — ambiguously — Twitter. The strict 140-character limit (shorter if you want retweets), established at the length of a text message, has defined the service since its launch in 2006. The tweet is a literary form of Oulipian arbitrariness, and the straitjacket of the form has determined the schizophrenia of the content. A tweet is so short that you can get right to the point — but so short, also, that why should it have one? Twitter’s formal properties bend, simultaneously, in opposite directions: toward the essential but also the superfluous, the concise but also the verbose.
There’s not much point in deploring the over-tweeters of the under-important. Just unfollow them. (Except, of course, where the elaborate social politics of Twitter forbid unfollowing.) But two-faced Twitter has also brought about, in its opposite aspect, the very last thing to have been expected from the internet: a renovation of the epigram or aphorism, a revaluation of the literary virtues of terseness and impersonality.
This means that Twitter, officially a microblogging platform, in practice has often functioned in a way opposite to the blog. Of course a tweet is just a tweet, not to be made too much of. Even so, La Rochefoucauld, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Cyril Connolly, the Kafka of The Blue Octavo Notebooks, Cioran — they would have been excellent tweeters, and the best tweets, today, rival their greatest one-liners. (In fact to encounter their sententiae parcelled out as tweets would have made for a better experience than reading The Unquiet Grave or The Trouble with Being Born straight through. Aphorisms are ideally consumed like nuts or candies, a handful at a time.) So Twitter doesn’t only have the widely recognized usefulness of providing updates on news and revolution, and illuminating links, and many laughs and smirks. It has also brought about a surprising revival of the epigrammatic impulse in a literary culture that otherwise values the merely personal and the super-colloquial as badges of authenticity. “Write as short as you can/ In order/ Of what matters,” John Berryman counseled in a pre-tweet of 44 characters. Favorite that, followers.