Colorado Springs state senator Dave Schultheis is no longer my friend, and I am no longer his follower. Our Twitter-enabled relationship came to an end in mid-September. As the conservative lawmaker wrote to his followers at the time:
"Important! Many libs and progressives attempting 2 Follow conservatives. Scrub your 'followers' I blocked three more today."
It's unclear why the legislator (whose chosen twitter name, @Sen_Schultheis, emphasizes his role and responsibilities as an elected official) feels the need to hide his public pronouncements from those he determines to be ideologically incorrect. I'd ask him myself, if he didn't make a habit of ignoring my calls.
In fact, liberals, progressives and journalists aren't the only annoyances plaguing the popular social media site. Spammers and scammers abound, as users' lists of followers swell with pornbots, teeth-whitening solicitations and, most recently, a phishing fraud that lured people to click on account-compromising links with come-ons like, "Is that YOU in this video? LOL!" In August, a hacker managed to shut down Twitter's entire site, which led to legions of users tweeting into oblivion.
Twitter has also been the target of much ridicule, as well as the dismissals and doomsday predictions that typically arise in the aftermath of hype and popularity.
But the numbers speak for themselves. On Oct. 21, Adweek reported that 19 percent of all U.S. Internet users tweet. Six months earlier, it was just 11 percent. Most of that growth has been among younger demographics: Over the past year, the number of 25- to 35-year-old tweeters has tripled, while the 18-24 and 35-44 age brackets have nearly doubled. (The surge sinks dramatically at ages 45 and beyond, possibly because they've all joined Facebook to relive Summer of Love memories with old college friends and to hunt for evidence of your debaucheries from this past weekend.)
For more vivid — and bizarre — evidence, you can visit popacular.com/gigatweet, where a real-time counter displaying the number of tweets moves so rapidly that the two right-most numbers are little more than a blur. Last month marked the arrival of the 5 billionth tweet. (It was just approaching 1 billion at this time last year.) And no, it didn't come from a spambot or even from Ashton Kutcher.
Instead it was written by Robin Sloan, a between-jobs San Franciscan who responded to a friend with the inadvertently fitting two-word tweet: "Oh lord."
The revolution will not be tweeted
As the following local profiles illustrate, Twitter users generally fall into three categories: those who treat the micro-blogging service as a kind of online diary; those who see it as a means of professional growth and outreach; and those who use it to connect with others who share a specific interest.
Users also tend to be divided between those who lean toward lifecasting — literally responding to the "what are you doing?" prompt on Twitter's home page — and those who prefer mindcasting, as in "what are you thinking?" The latter group is more inclined to include links to news stories and to forward on (aka retweet) the opinions of others. Lifecasters, meanwhile, can offer some glimpse of actual humanity, but also are more likely to reinforce the Twitter user stereotype. ("I ate a wedge of brie for breakfast," reveals Canadian woman @gapingmaw.)
And then there's deathcasting: In July, three months before Rihanna's "Russian Roulette" hit the pop charts, an Illinois man tried the real thing in his basement. He posted increasingly despondent messages to his Twitter account before each pull of the trigger in a fatal exercise that made it to the sixth round.
Another Twitter user is threatening to kill his or her own cat on Nov. 16 unless Miley Cyrus starts tweeting again. In an interview with a Chicago radio station last week, America's most famous recovering social media addict said that "Twitter should just be banned from this universe." This past Friday, @mileysavefuzzy (who in the time it's taken to write this paragraph has gotten three Twitter messages calling him "pathetic and sick," "a sad sad show" and "a fucking sick bitch") sent a tweet to @RealNoieCyrus claiming "Your sister can easily save Fuzzy. Even one tweet will extend his life by a whole week. Just tell her to come back!" @mileysavefuzzy now has 2,438 followers.
Whether Fuzzy is in actual danger, or even exists, is anyone's guess. But there have been plenty of claims — and this may be where Sen. Schultheis' political paranoia comes into play — that the Twitter phenomenon is having a significant impact on the non-virtual world, the place where most of us spend at least some of our time. Here are a few examples:
• After the post-election unrest in Iran, users sympathetic to the protesters turned their avatars green. In many cases, they also changed their online address to Tehran in hopes of misleading Iranian authorities, who were reportedly going after social media users. The U.S. State Department even went to Twitter and persuaded the company to forego a maintenance shutdown so that Iranian demonstrators could tweet the revolution without interruption. (Months later, there are still protesters, but significantly fewer green avatars. Mine's still green, mainly because I haven't figured out how to change it back.)
• This summer, when abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was gunned down at a Wichita, Kan., church, Twitter users rapidly circulated the license plate number and description of the alleged assailant's getaway vehicle.
• Just last month, Trafigura, an international oil trader, became an unlikely Top 10 "trending" topic after obtaining a secret injunction to prevent Britain's Guardian newspaper from reporting on its toxic dumping case. Time magazine heralded the collective action with its Oct. 13 headline, "Twitterers Thwart Effort to Gag Newspaper."
So what, you might well ask, are folks in Colorado Springs tweeting about? As I write this, here's a real-time sample:
• Listening to swag surfing right now...feeling that one.
• The snow is still falling in COS. Kinda pretty. FOF is closed for the day ... So I am driving my wife Bev around the town. Be blessed"
• I fn hate idiot bit***s ya kno sometimes I wish ida never cam to this stupid a** fn city!
• Can sum1 plzz tell me why I'm @ work and been sitting around not doing shit all day.!? I mean seriously I'm bored and rather b @ hom instead
Yes, I know I've just confirmed your worst suspicions about Twitter, and no, none of those were written by me (or anyone else who appears in this story). Admittedly, it's not Proust, but there is that 140-character maximum and, in a matter of seconds, we do get timely updates on Southern hip-hop, Focus on the Family, and this stupid a** fn city.
And once you look beyond the top trending topics — which have recently included nationalOATMEALday, RIP Kanye West, igottacrushon, and, yes, Balloon Boy — you quickly realize that everyone's Twitter experience is unique. It just depends on whose posts you choose to follow.
Publicity vs. privacy
Rayna Woodman — aka @RaynasaurusRex — is a 16-year-old high school student who's also enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College. At the moment, she has 190 followers, follows 340 people and has, over the course of eight months, sent out 774 tweets. (A recent example: "I hear either a bird that sounds like a bomb or a bomb that sounds like a bird. . .I'm on to you wily terrorists. . .Or wildlife. . .")
"I was hesitant to get on because all I heard was that Twitter was more annoying than useful," recalls Woodman, who tweets entertainingly about her daily life, musical interests and accident-prone tendencies. "Honestly, I started because of a band having a Twitter contest. Then I figured out that it's almost like reading blogs or looking at tour dates or reading a Facebook status, except that it was less congested."
In Woodman's view, the whole lifecasting/mindcasting debate isn't really an issue: "I like to read and write about both. I think it'd be terribly boring if it was just one or the other that people posted. I act and think and thus, if Twitter is little life blurbs, both should be included. I suppose I'm more partial to mindcasting, due to the fact that my brain's constantly working and I enjoy getting feedback."
It is, after all, the social aspect of social media that sets it apart from the more one-way communication mode of mass media.
"One of the best things about Twitter," suggests Woodman, "is that I can use it to talk to anyone from a band member to a friend in very short, controlled statements that don't make me feel like a stalker or a bother or some sort of inconvenience. It's also convenient to be able to hear from anyone very, very quickly."
Of course, the act of sending out multiple communiqués each day — to whomever's out there — tends, over time, to create a kind of surrogate public persona. It's a pervasive impulse in a society where our much-vaunted right to privacy has been supplanted by a perceived right to publicity. (As the British artist Banksy, who has become incredibly influential while managing to keep his personal identity entirely secret, said in a recent interview with Shepard Fairey, "I think Andy Warhol got it wrong: In the future, so many people are going to become famous that one day everybody will end up being anonymous for 15 minutes.")
And while the micro-blogging phenomenon is a far cry from auditioning for reality TV, there's a level at which the creation of a public persona can come at the expense of personal privacy.
"People post things on social networking sites without fully comprehending how many people it's accessible to, or who actually reads it," notes Woodman. "Privacy is definitely in jeopardy.
"But at the same time, the person that posts is responsible for — and in control of — what other people read."
"There are some things I don't tweet about, just to keep certain things private," says Kevin Beck, a 42-year-old local blogger who made the leap to Twitter last spring. "I don't tweet about family stuff for the most part. But yeah, I mean, you do create an online persona, one that I don't necessarily feel I have to live up to. And if I look back over the course of my tweets, I'm sure I would find some patterns emerging, just in terms of who I appear to be on the Internet."
Beck, aka @transmillennial, is clearly among those who've taken full advantage of Twitter's uncharacteristically generous 160-character limit on homepage bios. He is, it turns out, a "nonprofit COO, social creative, author, post-christian, integral, poet wannabe, classical music geek, environmental, tea & coffee drinker, future loving, yogi."
A Colorado Springs resident for the past five years, Beck says he grew up in northeast Ohio and became a "post-Christian" after spending many years as a fundamentalist minister.
"I ministered in northern Ohio primarily, and Arkansas with the Churches of Christ," says Beck. "I was very fundamentalist — I worked at church ministry for, gosh, a decade and a half — and we were pretty hardcore. You know, we were so fundamentalist that we forgot the 'fun' and the 'mental,' and we were mostly nothing but 'duh.'"
Beck's wife was actually the first in the family to get involved with Twitter, using it as a means for networking in the wedding industry: "I didn't necessarily see a place for me," Beck says. "You know, it seemed kind of cool and trendy, and I didn't know if I could leverage that for what I'd like to do."
Beck's vocation is running Presence International, which is described in its Web site as "a center of learning for personal transformation." Eight months and nearly 1,500 tweets after taking the Twitter plunge, Beck continues to send out 140-or-fewer-character messages and shares links about religion, philosophy, politics and coffee with some 455 kindred spirits.
"It's such a bizarre world," he says of the Twitterverse, "because it's pretty much anything goes, and people can all see it. Some resonate with what you're saying, and some get really offended."
Of course, if postmodernism pissed off modernists, then the post-Christian concept is bound to ruffle the feathers of some Christian twitterers. Beck says that he takes the Bible seriously but not literally, and that his group's goal is to "find meaning in the Jesus story, but not be wedded to the delivery system of the institutional church."
Having maintained a regular blog for the past four years, Beck finds Twitter to be more useful when it comes to connecting with a wide range of people. He figures that fewer than 10 of his followers live here in town. The other 445 live in remote locations but share similar interests. He also keeps in touch with people on Facebook, but took a pass on MySpace: "I don't have a band," he explains, "and I'm not a 15-year-old girl."
While Beck figures Twitter has furthered his mission more effectively than Facebook, Bettina Swigger (@bettinaswig) has had the opposite experience: "On your Twitter page, I don't feel like there's much information," says the 29-year-old executive director of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR). "It's mostly content generated by you as instead of things that describe you."
Twitter's more ephemeral nature is well-suited for local event postings from COPPeR's Peak Radar (@peakradar), which Swigger's cohort Kevin Johnson manages. But when it comes to getting the word out about the organization itself, she sees Facebook as more effective: "Twitter necessitates a little bit more depth of knowledge, especially for a younger organization like ours. Somebody's not gonna necessarily know what COPPeR is on Twitter, but on Facebook they can see our page and read about us and then get interested in what we're doing."
The beautiful game
Twitter, for Craig Decker, is all about soccer, as is much of life itself. A 35-year-old devotee of what the Brazilians were first to call "the beautiful game," he coaches four soccer teams — including women's soccer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs — talks about soccer on a Thursday morning radio show at ibsoccer.com, and tweets about soccer to 900 followers, half of whom he figures live overseas. In fact, for the six months or so that I've followed him, I don't recall a single tweet about anything other than soccer.
That single-mindedness carries through to most @ibsoccer followers: "I would say about 85 percent of them are soccer and maybe 5 percent friends. And 10 percent spam."
"I use Twitter for my show to just talk about Colorado soccer or soccer in England," says Decker, whose day job is in the UCCS campus IT department, doing its Web design. "And we also have a Twitter account just for the soccer team. So you can choose to get those updates sent to your cell phone as text messages, you know: 'Hey, practice has moved to the gym today.' And — bam! — it goes right to their cell phone."
But even with an unlimited text messaging plan, you probably wouldn't want to be notified about new tweets from @ibsoccer: "You know, if I'm watching a Manchester United game, they may get, like, six or seven tweets in a single game," says Decker, whose avatar is crimson red in honor of his favorite team.
"I'd say Twitter has exceeded my expectations," he says of his similarly dedicated following. "I've got about 850 followers right now, which isn't a lot, you know, when Ashton Kutcher's got millions, but it's promoted the show. So it's been really cool for that, because I would have never met these people otherwise."
Where Lovecraft meets Orwell
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone attempted to sum up the micro-blogging phenomenon — in his own peculiar way — during a Guardian interview last July: "It's intimidating," said Biz (@biz) of his company's unexpected impact and success. "But it's a great opportunity to advance the idea that we're all earthlings."
That may come as a surprise to @cthulhu, the H.P. Lovecraft god-demon whose posts find him "making a valentine for Shub-Niggurath out of human hearts," "drinkin' forties with Tsathoggua," "destroying a small coastal village," and "waiting for a postal order." Unlike most users, the elder god has restricted his 140-character proclamations to about once a month, possibly due to the time-consuming nature of destroying countless humans while typing with tentacles.
Of course, most of the 17 million entities who log on to Twitter at least once a month are more or less human, although not always what they appear to be. Lots of celebrity tweeters (the Dalai Lama, Osama bin Laden, William Shatner) turned out to be imposters. Others are dead people. In fact, some of the most entertaining tweets are the anachronistic observations of Samuel Johnson (@drsamueljohnson), the 18th-century literary bon vivant who recently suspected Lady Gaga's authenticity due to the absence of a Lord Gaga.
Other celebrity tweeters are less obviously fake. One of my personal favorites is someone who purports to be Mark E. Smith (@markesmith), iconoclastic leader of English postpunk band the Fall. Imposter or not, his tweets are a pretty brilliant mix of bland daily minutiae and surreal outbursts. "FUCKING HELL!! I'VE JUST SEEN AN ELF!" he recently posted. A retraction soon followed: "Sorry - on closer inspection that wasn't an elf, it was my foot."
Not everyone that I follow is completely ridiculous. They include all the people interviewed for this article, as well as a cross-section of musicians (the Streets' Mike Skinner, Questlove from the Roots), authors (William Gibson, Joolz Denby, Dan Baum, Bruce Sterling), media (@URBmag, @nytimes and, of course, @csindependent), and geeks (too many to even begin listing). I've been exposed to a lot of new music, ideas and information, and still have no idea what any of these people eat for breakfast. From my admittedly shielded, user-defined experience, Twitter is anything but the shallow, narcissistic medium it's popularly made out to be.
But that hasn't stopped folks like Garry Trudeau (@Roland_Headly) from grumbling in a recent essay about how Twitter erodes its users' inhibitions: "Look, all of us are narcissists to some degree," argued the Doonesbury cartoonist, "but most find it embarrassing enough to at least try to hide it."
Or do we? You don't have to read Foucault to understand that exhibitionist tendencies are deeply entrenched in Western culture, existing in an increasingly codependent relationship with our post-Patriot Act appetite for voyeurism and surveillance. Under those circumstances, maybe watching ourselves eat Grand Slam breakfasts on closed-circuit monitors while devising bizarre stunts to get on TV — and chronicling it all in 140-character installments — isn't so unusual after all.
"The Balloon Boy incident shows that people will go to any sort of lengths for publicity," says transmillennialist Beck of our ongoing search for Big Brotherly love. "I don't know what Twitter's long-term strategic plans are — maybe it's a giant data mining service where they take a look at what you're posting about and sell the information to whoever — but I expect it'll be around for a while.
"I mean, Twitter's already been here for three years. In the age of the Internet, that's pretty much an eternity."