Twitter: What's It Doing to Us?
By David Barratt
April 14, 2009
Since last year, Twitter has managed to grow by 700 percent. The social networking micro-blogging site has ballooned to a staggering 10 million users in its first three years of existence. And unlike some other social networking sites, it isn't merely drawing the young. In fact, just over ten percent of the site's users are aged 18-24. The age group that seems to be leading to Twitter's incredible growth are those from 45 to 54. According to new research by web monitoring company comScore, they are 36 percent more likely to visit the site than any other age group. Moreover, this age group tends to spend much longer on the site than younger users.
So, is Twitter the dawn of a new age of connectedness? A community builder? Or is it a subtle slide into narcissism? The way Twitter seems to be most commonly used is to provide updates on the minutiae of our daily lives to no one in particular. Twitter seems to have the capacity to be more self-gratifying than community-building. If we're honest, a lot of Tweets are more of an inner monologue than an update for the benefit of anyone else.
There's also some fairly disturbing indications that this growing self-absorption may be dulling our society's conscience. Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences have found that the lightning pace of media brought on by Facebook feeds and Twitter has made the average person increasingly indifferent to human suffering. Constant updates give us little time to reflect upon the information we're receiving. The study found that humans have the capacity to sort information very quickly, but complex reactions like compassion or admiration take much longer to process. When we're constantly inundated with tiny bits of information, we rarely take time to think or feel deeply about it.
But Twitter can also be an amazing tool for news and community. In fact, the use of Twitter last year during the deadly Mumbai siege helped to coordinate police and emergency response. Victims and bystanders of the attacks used Twitter to give real-time updates of the events as they unfolded, and the on-the-spot reporting it provided helped to hasten response. Moreover, when James Buck, an American journalist, and his translator Mohammed Maree were arrested in Egypt last year, they used Twitter to alert friends and family. They were released the next day after widespread protests on their behalf.
It seems that Twitter can aid in the democratization of the media. It offers anyone the ability to give up-to-the-minute news on situations. Eyewitness accounts can be given in real time. It's a powerful tool for providing information and organizing response.
The Church has also jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. New York's Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church used Twitter to update parishioners unable to attend their Good Friday service. Seattle's Mars Hill has encouraged parishioners to Twitter their thoughts and feelings during the service.
Time will tell how Twitter affects the Church. It has the capacity to make church a more immersive experience. Moreover, it can connect people across distance. It can update parishioners on events, and bring the community closer together. However, it can also make an increasingly individualistic Western Church even more individualistic.
So, is Twitter numbing and isolating us, or is it bringing us closer? It's not a clear-cut question. Used properly, Twitter can be an amazing tool for shrinking our globe, quickening international response and building relationships. When used in a self-centered fashion, it's one more piece of technology increasing the individualistic streak we see so much in Western culture and making us islands unto ourselves. In short, it has the potential to do great good, or make us far more narcissistic. The solution is to check our motives, and—as with any technology—to steward it properly. The proper use of Twitter is a fine line to walk, and figuring it out takes a lot more than 140 characters.