Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Narcissistic Side of Twitter

In thinking about Twitter, and the reason it lives on despite its core functionality being replicated by services like Facebook and Google Plus, two things occurred to me. First, Twitter achieved its initial rise due to an influx of celebrities. Second, Twitter allows ordinary people to follow, or even be followed by, celebrities, to engage in what seems like a conversation, and perhaps even to experience the excitement of having a celebrity respond to or re-tweet something that they have said. Second, it is the faux relationships that continue to drive Twitter. The sense that somebody you have seen on television "knows" you, cares about what you say, or is even reading and writing her own tweets. Yes, some celebrities manage their own feeds. Others have publicists or staff members who handle that for them, yet even when they're known to use proxies other Twitter members still seem to feel the thrill of contact.

Twitter serves celebrities, in that much of celebrity is built upon a false sense of communality or camaraderie, and now you can have "proof" that a celebrity likes you and cares what you have to say. It's an automation of the historically slow process of receiving fan mail, perhaps responding to it, perhaps dropping in a head shot. It's like being a member of a celebrity fan club, but where the celebrity actually "knows you you are" and "shows up". Twitter may be the virtual equivalent of the butler at the door or, for those who tweet through proxies, the virtual equivalent of the intercom between the butler at the door and you outside the locked exterior gate. But if you can't see all of that distancing, is it really there?

What brought this to mind today? A smart person who probably should know better than to care about Paris Hilton in the first place:
Paris Hilton is tweeting up a storm about how much she loves Bali. It's her first visit. She tweeted a few hours ago, "Make a wish. 11.1l.11"

Since I've stood up for Paris on TalkLeft so many times during her various legal difficulties, I thought I'd ask her a favor. I tweeted her in reply:
@ParisHilton I wish you'd visit Aussie Schapelle Corby, doing 20 years for pot in Kerobokan Prison in bli, Pls Google her name.
"I've blogged favorably about her," meets, "She's on Twitter", and somehow that seems to become, "She may listen to me and perhaps even share my outrage at Bali's legal system". Even if we assume Paris manages her own feed, and doesn't pass that task off to a publicist or intern, what about Paris would make you think that her trip to Bali and her raving about the wonders of the country is being driven by her amazement? Would it not be a safer bet that she has been comped or compensated to promote the nation or certain of its attractions, and won't be saying anything negative? (Call me cynical, but I believe Paris's raving is a thinly disguised sales pitch from a somewhat over-the-hill celebrity spokesmodel. Bali isn't under FTC jurisdiction.)

If a celebrity "friends" you on Facebook or, if we're to that point, adds you to a Google Plus circle, you can see (or search for) your face among the tens of thousands of others. Yes, if you want to browse the members somebody claims to follow or his list of followers, your account will be every bit as difficult to find. But Twitter puts the feed, not the faces, front and center. And due to occasional celebrity retweets or responses, people do get reinforced that their tweets are being heard.

I heard a celebrity being interviewed recently (it may have been Louis C.K.) and he mentioned both that he didn't like Twitter and that people got angry at him because he didn't follow anybody. (Solution: Hire an intern?) To me, this highlights the extent to which Twitter flourishes upon the false sense of "He likes me too". Even if you never look at the feed, you'll have a happier population of followers, and probably a much larger one, if you make them think you care what they say. Twitter makes that easy.

I don't mean to diminish Twitter's value as a communication tool. There are people who like it for following news, politics, business tips, etc. I just happen to be coming to the conclusion that the thing that allows Twitter to continue is the false sense of community it creates between its high profile members and their followers and that, absent that, it would be a shadow of its present self. A mere year ago, Justin Bieber was responsible for a full 3% of Twitter's traffic. What does that tell you?


  1. "A mere year ago, Justin Bieber was responsible for a full 3% of Twitter's traffic. What does that tell you?"

    That my opinion of Twitter (and Twitter users) was justified?


  2. It's just another silly fantasy.


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