Twitter Nation Has Arrived: How Scared Should We Be?
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Welcome to Twitter Nation. What was once an easily avoided subculture of needy and annoying online souls is now a growing part of the social and media landscapes, with Twittering tentacles reaching into the operations of major newspapers, networks, corporations and political campaigns.
Suddenly, our skies are dark with brightly colored cartoon birds. As in a nightmare, they are everywhere.
This has all happened very fast. It was less than three years ago that Twitter hatched as a harmless Web 2.0 curio modeled on Facebook's status-update feature. Twitter offered people a forum devoted exclusively to short blog entries known as "tweets," most of which answer the company's tagline question, "What are you doing now?"
By mid-2008, the San Francisco-based site was garnering feature coverage in national magazines and batting away $500 million buyout offers. With nearly six million users and counting, it is now on a Plaguelike pace to obliterate last year's growth clip of 900 percent. Twitter is growing so fast that 2009 may come to be known not as the year America swore in its first black president or nationalized the banks, but the year America learned to think and communicate in 140 characters or fewer.
For some, the breakout came with the site's role during the Mumbai terror attacks in November. For others, it was the Dalai Lama's decision to start Twittering. Some might point to Twitter feeds featured on cable news, or the dozens of Fortune 500 companies now Twittering their way to better sales and mitigated PR disasters. But there's no debating that a tipping point has been reached. Use of the site is now mainstream standard practice for everyone from national politicians to editors at highbrow publications like Harper's. Sites are popping up that discuss music and economics using the Twitter formula and size. Not a week passes without another creepily overeager New York Times trends piece about the site. Earlier this month, a Twitter style guide was released, and the first national Twitter awards ceremony, known as the Shorties, was convened in New York. Hosted by Twitter's own Walter Cronkite, CNN's Rick Sanchez, the awards ceremony featured acceptance speeches limited to 140 characters.
Can it be long before the entire country is tweeting away in the din of a giant turd-covered silicon aviary? And how scared should we be?
There is evolutionary logic to the building Twitter surge. The progression has been steady from blogs to RSS feeds to Facebook. But Twitter brings us within sight of an apotheosis of those aspects of American culture that have become all too familiar in recent years: look-at-me adolescent neediness, constant-contact media addiction, birdlike attention-span compression and vapidity to the point of depravity. When 140 characters is the ascendant standard size for communication and debate, what comes next? Seventy characters? Twenty? The disappearance of words altogether, replaced by smiley-face and cranky-crab emoticons?
I am a veteran Twitter hater—a "twater" in the cutesy Twitter mode. People like me have shadowed the site since it was still crying blind in the nest. As early as 2007, tech blogger Robert Scoble called Twitter hate "the new black." The first wave of Twitter hatred tended to be visceral and knee-jerk, a reaction to the site's unique ability to make everyone using it sound annoying and pathetic.
How can you not hate a site that encourages people to post, "At the park -- I love squirrels!" and "F@*K! I forgot to tivo Lost last night." How can you not want to slap these people with a mackerel? It's no coincidence that the second-most Twitter-happy people on Earth are the Japanese, the undisputed champions of self-infantilization. Twitter provides the closest thing most people will ever get to their very own paparazzi or reality show, a trail of imagined eyes on their every move, thought and taste.