Twitter is like moving to New York City – forever


facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)

Via @kottke, I discovered this great piece by Matt Haughey: “Why I Love Twitter and Barely Tolerate Facebook”, which perfectly encapsulates my own feelings about the two different social networks.

His critique only really works if you’re old enough to have lost touch with a bunch of people. So, for example, by the time you get to university, there will be school friends you might well not see as much, or at all. When you start work, same thing. I’ve gone through life burning most of my bridges, so apart from my family, I am in touch with exactly no school friends and just one university friend. As for my various jobs, I’m vaguely in touch with a few people from the last one, just because of Twitter, and, er, that’s it.

Facebook, though, is all about keeping in touch. Anyone you add as a friend will appear in your news feed (unless you mute them), pretty much forever. So Facebook tends to be (as Haughey puts it) “mired in the past.” Twitter, on the other hand, is all present tense. It’s hard to even find your own older tweets, let alone anyone else’s. You discuss what’s on your mind right now, what’s in the news, what’s on TV, but you don’t reminisce much. In other words, Twitter allows you to be whoever you are right now, whereas Facebook still anchors you to your past self.

There’s no memory at Twitter: everything is fleeting. Though that concept may seem daunting to some (archivists, I feel your pain), it also means the content in my feed is an endless stream of new information, either comments on what is happening right now or thoughts about the future. One of the reasons I loved the Internet when I first discovered it in the mid-1990s was that it was a clean slate, a place that welcomed all regardless of your past as you wrote your new life story; where you’d only be judged on your words and your art and your photos going forward.

Facebook is mired in the past. My spouse resisted Facebook for many years and recently I got to watch over her shoulder as she signed up for an account. They asked her about her birth and where she grew up and what schools she attended, who her family might be. By the end of the process, she was asking me how this website figured out her entire social circles in high school and college. It was more than a little creepy, but that’s where her experience began.

When you leave school and go to university, it should be an opportunity to reinvent yourself, throw off the shackles of the past, and be someone new. You shouldn’t have to keep justifying that beard, those tattoos, the West Coast Gypsy look you’ve adopted, the fact that you’ve stopped listening to landfill indie and are now into something else.

Jason Kottke, via whose Twitter feed I found the Haughey post, adds a useful coda to it by referring to Scott Schuman’s street fashion blog, The Sartorialist. In particular, @kottke links to two photos of the same woman taken three months apart. Take a look. I’ll wait. In the first photo, she’s just arrived in New York City from the mid-west, and doesn’t know many people. She’s just finding her feet. In the second, she’s totally reinvented herself. Kottke explains,

For a certain type of person, changing oneself might be one of the best ways of feeling free and in control of one’s own destiny. And in the social media world, Twitter feels like continually moving to NYC without knowing anyone whereas Facebook feels like you’re living in your hometown and hanging with everyone you went to high school with.

For those who don’t like Twitter, it may be because it feels a little like being all at sea. You don’t know what’s going on, it’s hard to keep up with, you keep feeling like you’re seeing one side of a conversation (e.g. when someone tweets about what they’re watching on TV without telling you what it is), and it can feel like it has no point and no structure. But its lack of structure is the point. Twitter is a busy city street full of people you don’t know living lives of which you can only catch glimpses. It’s “Overheard in New York” but as if you were actually living it. While some people are overwhelmed by the city and yearn for the streets of their home town (not that there’s anything wrong with that), others thrive on it.

Enthusiastic girl: Hi! I’m in your class. Can we be friends?
Burn out boy: … Yeah I guess.
Enthusiastic girl: Can we study together?
Burn out boy: Sure…
Enthusiastic girl: Great! What are you doing right now?
Burn out boy: Uhh…

–Bleecker St. and Mercer St.

Overheard by: Bruce Lee