Saturday, September 12, 2009

What are you doing?

By now we’ve all heard just a little too much about Twitter.

Questionable wisdom, breaking news, hot gossip, and vicious rumors are served up continuously in easy-to-swallow 140 character doses.

What is Andy Dick doing? What does Anderson Cooper think? What did Oprah eat? And where’s my remote control?

Let’s chalk up the phenomenon to the death of the global attention span. Time to click on the x, close the application, and go on home.

Even though its promoters (who are legion and rabid) have credited Twitter with all kinds of feats great and small—from promoting democracy in Iran to improving customer service on kitchen appliances in Poughkeepsie—it’s really not all that.

Here’s the secret: there’s something icky about Twitter.

The kids have sniffed it and turned away. Sensible people try it for a week and abandon it, baffled. Corporations, carnival barkers, and ambitious spammers are drawn to it like voracious meat bees to a hamburger patty at a Labor Day picnic.

So I should’ve known better. And at first I did.

I started off slowly and with all due skepticism sometime in 2007: a few tweets lamenting my commute on 101; several documenting workplace HVAC anomalies; and a couple more rhapsodizing the crunchy goodness of Cocoa Puffs. Then some random salvos from a conference or two. A few non sequiturs and literary allusions dribbled forth. And of course I resorted to a bit of harmless name dropping just to demonstrate that even if I’m a consummate nobody, I do rub elbows with the important nerd elite.

Bob Kahn says that the Internet is still pretty fragile, I wrote in June, 2008.

See what I mean about the name-dropping? Utterly shameless, except that you probably have no idea who Bob Kahn is. Some people credit Bob with inventing the Internet even before Al Gore did.

The view of Cape Cod evokes Spalding Gray & the neuroses specific to a happy WASP childhood, I burbled later during that same Woods Hole boondoggle.

What would Charo do? I asked on August 21rst, 2008, apropos of nothing.

My tweets were sparse—maybe a tweet per month—and tentative.

Then I went quiet for six months.

Unfortunately, the next time I tweeted—a seemingly innocuous tweet to the effect that I was heading to the cold & soggy mothership in Redmond—the habit took hold. There was nothing special about the tweet; but I had crossed over an invisible threshold, a one-way portal.

Tweeting is like smoking. The first time you try it, you get the twirlies and it’s all you can do to keep your lunch down. So you try it in secret a few more times. It’s still not pretty, but you stop feeling like you’re going to toss your cookies. After awhile, you can do it at parties, striking an awkward pose with a cocktail in the other hand to loosen you up. Replace that cigarette with an iPhone and you’re ready to tweet.

Yes, it gets easier, but it seldom gets better. An amateur smoker lights the filter end of her cigarette. She takes a hard drag; an ember falls; and she sets fire to her lap. She blows smoke in her date’s face.

And an amateur Tweep twitpics cute photos of the cat. Or chirps about a yummy sandwich.

There is little more embarrassing than being unable to sustain a proper vice.

But then, without knowing when or how it happened, an amateur becomes a pro. A smoker lights the next cigarette off the butt of the last one, inhaling as smoothly as if she’d been born with a Winston affixed to her lip.

And when Twitter takes hold, a Tweep issues a steady stream of connected tweets all day long. Good morning, Tweeps, she says upon awakening. Have you made coffee for me yet? And she brackets the day’s tweets with a Good night, all y’all. If I go to bed right now, I’ll get 5.5 hours’ sleep.

Sure, neither smoking nor tweeting is a pretty habit, but there’s something to be said for doing it right.

And that’s more or less what happened to me. It took awhile, but Twitter caught me unaware and became an ugly, ugly habit, dictating who I hung out with and what I did in my spare time.

You wonder why I haven’t blogged in the last two months? All my efforts have gone into Twitter. It’s like scouring grout. Time-consuming. Unfulfilling. Thankless. Compulsive. Soul-destroying. And utterly engrossing.

Some days are fine. Topics arise organically out of what I'm actually doing: Say you just had your teeth cleaned. How long would you wait before you had your lunch? I mean, hypothetically.

A witty conversation about flossing might ensue. One of my so-called followers might offer to meet me for lunch. I might learn something new about dental hygiene.

Other days are bleaker. It’s not that nothing's happening; it’s just that the real events of the day aren’t suitable fodder for consumption by the @1nOnlyMrFamous or Mlle. @Sharkdoctor. So I'm forced to come up with preposterous tweets like restaurant names (The Bacon Grotto) or non-events (I’m procrastinating as fast as I can) and darkish photos of port-a-potties (When I take a walk late at night, I realize just how many portapotties there are in the neighborhood).

They ring hollow. They have no hook.

Then about three or four months ago, I turned another corner in a devastating direction. I started taking my followers’ actions personally.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to delete you from my Twitter list,” Sara told me.

“Oh, no. Of course I don’t mind.” My heart was beating just a little faster. “Did I say something offensive?”

“No, no, no. You just post too much. I open my Twitter page, and all I see is you,” she said.

Of course I did mind. I minded a lot. I felt rejected. But I knew what she meant; I’ve had the same feeling. I open my twitter feed and all I see are the tweets from a few tweeps who will remain nameless (I'm certain they know who they are). The infrequent tweeters are lost under the musings of those with twitterrhea.

I mentioned this problem to Gene. “Why don’t you use Tweetdeck?” he asked and proceeded to show me the application and his own complicated strategy for sorting his friends from his foes.

“Hey! That’s pretty cool,” I said to him, but to myself I thought, Wait a minute here. That app takes up THE ENTIRE SCREEN. Does Gene have a Twitter habit too?

I know without asking that the answer was yes. Gene has fallen down the Twitter hole.

It’s a sharper descent than you'd think.

Right after Sara gave me the ol’ heave-ho, I’d become frustrated with Gene (his own tweets seeming to me to have been posted automatically by an ambitious bot interested only in promoting his recent blog posts) and I had unfollowed him. Unfollow. It’s one click. Much, much easier than letting a ringing phone go to voice mail or routing someone’s email into the dead letter box.

Gene wrote me not long after that asking me if I’d deleted him by accident.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him what had happened (beyond a lame explanation that involved words like app and bot).

Reader, I re-followed him.

I had apparently taken Sara’s rejection rather too hard to successfully unfollow a friend myself.

But wait. It gets worse. When the pretty and popular @Princess_Holly told her numerous followers that @JackGrayCNN was hilarious, I felt a twinge that I first incorrectly ascribed to gas.

He’s hilarious? HILARIOUS?

She didn’t say that he works for Anderson Cooper and so might have a scoop on breaking news: a twister in Eunice, Missouri or a kitten flu outbreak in Shoelace, Arkansas. Nor did she say that he’s young and attractive (judging by his profile photo he is). Nor did she say he's a hip Manhattanite, and we all do hang on to the pronouncements of hip Manhattanites.

No. She said he’s hilarious. And @Princess_Holly is the indisputable queen of the Twitters.

It's not gas. It's jealousy. I’m so jealous that my vision clouds from an uncontrollable surge of adrenalin.


@Princess_Holly herself is exuberant. Tweets flow from her iPhone all day. I can’t believe she has time to do much else. She tweets while she’s driving (WTF? School starts and traffic goes to shit), while she’s eating (Yum! I love pizza!), while she’s shopping (Someone in the Apple store could use some iDeoderant. Big time! Gag!), while she’s working (Triscuit party in my office in 15 minutes! by my "office" I, of course, mean "belly"), and while she’s watching TV (Kevin on Top Chef reminds me of Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. That's all).

My first impulse was to control my jealousy. I played along with @Princess_Holly’s directive to follow @JackGrayCNN for awhile. He’s mighty darned funny, I told myself. Shoot. The guy has over 500,000 followers. He’s got to be funny.

Then I grew critical. Okay, fella. I’m waiting for that belly laugh, that ROTFLMAO guffaw.

Breakfast always tastes better with mint chocolate chip ice cream, he tweets.

I’m still waiting. I’m a harsh judge when I’m jealous.

Interested to hear what Chris Brown has to say for himself. His interview with Larry King @kingsthings starts momentarily on CNN, @JackGrayCNN tweets.

Oh, for godssake. It’s not even a scoop. Even my detested satellite TV provider can give me that much information. Chris Brown. Larry King.

News at 11. He might as well have tweeted news at 11.

“SUSPENDERS,” I shout with Tourette’s-like conviction at my Twitter stream. “Larry King wears SUSPENDERS.”

@JackGrayCNN sends a link to a video of a Saint Patrick's Day news story about a leprechaun sighting in Mobile, Alabama. On September 2nd a leprechaun story just doesn’t have that swing. I feel vaguely embarrassed as I watch the neighborhood interviews.

As everybody else’s tweets roll by, my mood makes a gradual transition from jealousy to dejection.

I probably just don’t get it. Maybe I’ve been out of the pop culture mainstream for too long.

I vigorously click on @JackGrayCNN’s unfollow button.

Better yet, I tell myself, not only will I unfollow him; I’ll block him. Then he can’t follow me either.

If you want to feel better about yourself, I’ve found that it helps (just a tiny bit, I admit) to BLOCK a celebrity with a large number of followers.

Take that, @aplusk. BLOCK. Now Ashton Kutcher can NEVER follow me. Never, never, never. Take that, @aplusk! Take that! You can’t read my brilliant tweets. You can’t even see who I follow. Ha!

And this behavior seems to be emblematic of what’s wrong with me. I’m taking Twitter way too seriously. Whatever hole it’s filling in my life should be investigated because it is sure to be both deep and wide. I mean, I'm in worse shape than those people who post forty tweets per day. I’m worse.

Much worse.

I came to this stunning realization the other day. There I was, in the midst of a gaggle (a goggle?) of my co-workers at the Dodgers-Giants game. Chandu, who had just carefully wiped his hands off after eating garlic fries and a crabmeat sandwich in rapid succession, was sitting on top of his copy of The Wall Street Journal to keep his nice trousers clean. Doug was wearing a fancy Giants cap I had never noticed him wearing before. Rama was watching the game intently too, as if he really cared about what was happening and who was winning. The interns were at the other end of our group, in a tight knot, drinking beers and perhaps even whooping and shouting.

Despite any apparent incongruity between them and the other fans in the centerfield bleachers, they all seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Mark and I were not having the time of our lives. We huddled at the end of the row as the evening fog swirled around us. We could feel the crowd’s intensity grow as darkness descended and the Giants’ score slipped. And slipped.

I was at the ball game. THE BALL GAME. A game involving projectiles, dangerous-looking fans, and super-sized players hopped up on human growth hormone. I was at the ball game why?

Yes: why?

As I typed I've gotta start taking steroids. They really seem to work into the Twitter input window, it became absolutely clear to me that I was at the baseball game simply to have something to tweet about.

As the score slipped further, the crowd’s mood seemed to change. In the course of an inning or two, it had gone from sweetly rambunctious to belligerent. The guy right behind us began to heckle Manny Ramirez, #99, evidently one of the Dodgers’ star players.

The crowd was receptive. On the heckler’s first try, which in some way impugned Manny Ramirez’s masculinity, he got a big laugh.

Manny Ramirez did not look like a drag queen to me, as the heckler’s yell implied. Not at all.

I aimed my Blackberry's camera at a cotton candy vendor old enough to be a Walmart greeter. I caught a vast span of the heckler’s nose in the photo instead.

“Drat.” I muttered. The vendor, spry for his age, had scampered further up the bleachers. I shot a photo of some miffed-looking fans across the aisle.

The guy behind us yelled about Manny Ramirez again.

Another laugh, although this time it was more half-hearted.

The guy behind us roared louder, this time adding something vulgar about Mr. Ramirez's use of a feminine hygiene product. He was reaching. You could tell he was running out of jibes.

Manny Ramirez and tampons. I winced. The heckler might’ve gone too far. The heckler’s fans, such as they were, got quieter.

The corners of Mark’s mouth were turned down. The shouting six inches from the back of his head was beginning to get to him.

I twitpic'd the miffed-looking fans across the aisle.

The heckler’s cries became less specific, less organized, but even louder.

What happened next confuses me slightly, because I was looking at my Twitter stream rather than attending to the game.

Something happened on the field, something exciting. One of those baseball things. A run, perhaps. Maybe two runs. The guy continued to yell into the back of our heads. He’d given up the femininity theme, but he was still awfully darned loud. I was typing frantically on the Blackberry’s chicklet keys.

All of the sudden, Mark turned around and roared at the guy behind us, “Would you SHUT THE FUCK UP! You’re screaming in my ear.”

On second inspection Mr. Loud Voice did not appear to be a thug, but rather a sloppy-drunk twenty-something guy who probably had a day job developing firmware or writing reference manuals for routers. He must’ve outweighed Mark by a good seventy-five pounds of hard fat and sinew.

He yelled back, “You’re in the fucking bleachers at a baseball game, not at the opera! Get a fucking grip, dude!”

I started to sweat in spite of the chill foggy air. Now this was something to tweet about!

Another play. The crowd stood up. The crowd sat down.

We continued to stand.

I knew what was happening by now. Mark and I have been together for a long time. Something very much like this, you can be certain, has happened before.

Now the heckler was pissed off. If we had been in a normal situation, he would’ve just been indignant, perhaps miffed. But we were at a sporting event and the air was full of testosterone, Miller Genuine Draft, and garlic fries.

“WOULD YOU FUCKING SIT DOWN!” the heckler screamed.

A small look of satisfaction crept across Mark’s face, “IF YOU FUCKING SHUT UP.”

The heckler shifted on the bleachers to see around us and continued to yell.

Mark and I standing together don’t make much of a wall. Really we don’t. No matter how much we call ourselves lard-asses, we’re actually both quite small. Many of the fans in the bleachers were bigger than both of us together.

I envisioned Dodgers and Giants fans uniting in a lynch mob to snuff the effete snobs who’d had the nerve to tell them to quit yelling in the bleachers at a ball game.

I was becoming too nervous to tweet.

“Maybe we should leave now,” I said to Mark, “It doesn’t look like anything’s going to change score-wise.”

The score was 9 to 1 in favor of the Dodgers. Giants fans streamed out of the ballpark, heading for the Muni stop.

I couldn’t resist. One last tweet: Eighth inning. I'm rooting for the seagulls now. Dodgers up 9 to 1. Everybody's leaving except those too drunk to walk.

“Okay. Put your phone away. Let’s go,” Mark said. He looked slightly relieved.

“Let’s leave this guy to his screaming. I’m cold.” I said.

Muni was jammed. We were on an N bus, which doesn't make the closest approach to our house, but instead dumped us at Duboce Park. But I was relieved to be away from the baseball game, away from the big dangerous baseball fans, back in my own neighborhood.

Why is it that every time I ride MUNI, the first thing I do when I get home is wash my hands? I tweeted after we got home, having learned exactly NOTHING from the experience.

Nothing. My group went to a baseball game and all I got were 16 entirely mediocre tweets.

I scrolled back through my baseball game tweets. I had told @meganwinget the thought of a moist bacon bra even now makes me urp up those garlic fries in advance of actually eating them. And I had told @leroyfishhead GO ROIDS! The score is now 6-1. I bet neither of them will ask me to do a toast at their respective weddings. The game proved to be nothing but a non-constructive distraction from basic tweeting.

What’s worse, through that entire traumatic misspent evening, I only gained one follower, @drunkjournalcom, who dropped me shortly afterward like the ugly girl in a round of speed dating.

And this brings me back to the crux of the problem: I pay way too much attention to the ebb and flow of my followers.

Want to break my heart? Drop me. Unfollow me. It’ll work every time.

When my followers number goes down, I’m crushed, and I immediately expand the list to figure out who might have dropped me. I’m praying that it’s a spammer—I don’t work too hard to eliminate the spammers when they sign up to follow me because the boost they give to my numbers feels so good—or a stranger, and not someone who knows me. Then I speculate on what I’ve said recently that has moved someone to unsubscribe.

I know I can be offensive.

I follow a headline service called @BreakingNews. It’s mostly good for keeping up on obits and natural disasters, stories where the headline tells you all you need to know. I’m old enough that I don’t want to know the cause of death (it could happen to me!) and neurotic enough that I don’t want to know the particulars of the disaster (it could happen to me!).

Just the fact, ma’am. I just want one fact.

That way, I can be the first to know. And even though I seldom retweet the items, subscribing to a news feed makes me feel so current.

Right after Michael Jackson’s death hit the Twitter feed, I had the temerity to tweet that for the last two decades he’d been the product of clever taxidermy. Several followers disappeared right away. Then I started reading the tsunami of tweets that were appearing in my Twitter window.

Michael Jackson was apparently a vital part of many Tweeps’ childhoods. Now they were openly weeping over the loss. An important cultural icon of my generation was gone. Tweeps were Moon Walking. Tweeps were playing Thriller. Tweeps were dancing to Beat It. Tweeps were singing Billie Jean.

Who knew?

I erased a half-written tweet and deleted the one I’d already posted.

Shoot. There goes my ‘how are you related to Michael’ cheap shot.

But it’s probably worse to be boring than offensive.

Then I recoil in horror as I ponder that particular nugget and realize what it means.

Did they delete me because I’m BORING?

Oh no!

Of course! It’s much worse to be BORING than OFFENSIVE. Truman Capote knew that. Andy Warhol knew that. Even that poor anorexic pedophile Michael Jackson knew that.

Instantly, I scroll back through my tweets.


I break out in a sweat. Every neurosis I have nurtured for these many years has been brought to the surface.

I need to say something interesting RIGHT NOW.


Maybe I should give up and join Facebook instead. You don’t have to be interesting on Facebook. You can just join and connect.

I can join Facebook and admit to myself why I was not invited to my own high school reunion (this in spite of the fact that at the time of the reunion, if you searched for Rolling Hills High School reunion, the very first hit on Google was—and is—my blog).

I’ll just sit quietly and wait for invites from my high school friends, from junior high frenemies, from my 4th grade BFF Susie Pendleton (who recited A.A. Milne’s poem Disobedience with me in front of Mrs. Savage's class) and from Cheryl Parana (whose mother had carpeted their house with stunning white shag that needed to be raked, an exotic care regimen that I instantly appreciated). Surely some of these people—people who would quickly dispense with me on Twitter, people who wouldn’t stop for a chat if we met late at night at Safeway—would friend me on Facebook.

They’d friend me. Ah, that sounds much less threatening than follow. Friend.

In Facebook, no-one cares if you’re boring. You just have to be friendly.

If I promise not to say anything, will you be my friend?


Blogger Fairy Princess Holly said...

You ARE hilarious, rest assured!

7:36 PM  
Blogger Michael L. Nelson said...


3:22 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

@MichaelLNelson BLOCK. Ha! I may be hurt, but not so hurt that I won't try to get even.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Michael L. Nelson said...

blocked?! does this make me a celebrity? ;-P

2:45 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

That's indeed what it means. Better watch out--next thing you know, you'll hire someone to tweet for you.

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just recently decided to give up Twitter. It really is creepy. The lack of room for content is a useful constraint that can sometimes improve writing, but mostly it just squeezes all the substance out. Bleck.

(I don't know if you remember me, Cathy, but I was a summer intern from Caltech at XSIS Pasadena in '84 and '85, hacking ST-80 stuff in the Analyst app along with my pal Josh Susser. I do remember you and your exceedingly sardonic sense of humor, and that crazy 'hypertext' program, NoseCarp, you were working on. I eventually followed Kurt Piersol to Apple, where I stayed for a very long time, and for the past year I've been at Google.)

What was my point? Oh yes -- FaceBook is not the answer. I tried that too and it was worse than Twitter. FaceBook is the McDonalds, Disneyland, Leave It To Beaver of social networks. It's almost as pointless as Twitter, twice as ugly, is blatantly a corporate theme park, and is populated by everyone dull from your past that you'd ever tried to forget about, but are now coerced by social norms into mutually friending.

Ideally there would be some sort of decentralized P2P DIY social network medium; I've tried my hand at designing such things in the past. Until then there's LiveJournal, which is and always has been the FaceBook for weirdos. It pioneered the social-graph stuff ten years ago and does it pretty well, even if its overall UI is really clunky. It's done a great job of accreting a dense network of artists, writers, hackers, pervy otaku and the like.

You can friend me there and I'll friend you back -- I'm snej.

11:54 PM  

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