Thru Andrew, the latest attempt to supply the Twitter phenomenon (and Twitter, along the way) with meaning:

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.

Whatevs. Even if this turned out, in some hypothetical way, to be testably true, it — like most of what’s on Twitter — is knowledge not quite worth knowing. Cold comfort that it’s not even supposed to be worth remembering for longer than a minute or two. Getting warmer, though, if we recall that scads of info exchanged face-to-face or over the phone has already been similarly fugitive by design. The downside of Twitter isn’t a paucity of ‘rich’ content so much as a poverty of medium. Twitter is social networking for the postapocalypse, a Spartan chatsystem for survivalists suffering from a radical scarcity of face-to-face information. There’s a reason so many zombie enthusiasts tweet. But until we are legend, Twitter is mostly a great way to kill five minutes. Despite the supposed death of the newspaper at the hands of changed reading habits, Twitter functions best as a sort of YouBroadsheet. As Facebook has unglamorously learned, the joy of converging by tweet on a common location is of essence rarer, thinner, and more redundant than that of sitting down over breakfast and scrolling through the day’s — or last night’s — news of your world.

The dirty secret of newspapers is how often they’ve already long been browsed, not read — fit into life not as a discipline of horizon-expanding focus but as an experience of ingestion woven into the fabric of our other quasi-ritual experiences of everyday life. For Tocqueville, remember, the great civic virtue of American newspapers pertained as much to making them as to reading them. It’s still unclear how much a robust Web 3.0 ecosystem differs in terms of content from a robust local-regional-and-national newspaper network; the most that can be said is that the biggest loser would appear to be the civitas — and, again, my suspicion is growing that the days of the politeia as the architectonic unit of political theory are numbered.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Twitter grows easier to enjoy — in smaller doses — the less one worries about enjoying the Twitter phenomenon. But the latent cognitive dissonance here is strong: at our heights of self-consciousness, we can hardly stand the thought of being oblivious so . . . obliviously. We need halls of mirrors for our halls of mirrors: bad infinity, ladies and gentlemen. What drives this monstrosity? The profit motive’s addictive hookup to virtual value, I’m afraid. Twitter qua phenomenon — an ugly phrase for an ugly thing — took off because Big Media started latching on. It’s cool to realize, say, Christopher Walken has been quietly tweeting for God knows how long. It’s deeply uncool to watch CNN mock Fox News for doing advance-team PR for the tea parties while herding a million twerps into Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter pen (all for the inevitable good cause).

It isn’t a matter of telling the MSM that the tweeting class is too exclusive for the TV masses. It’s the transparent way in which the MSM, with choreographed unanimity, jumped aboard Twitter for fear of being Left Behind. Our obsessive consensus that the medium market is the only bonanza in town implies rather disastrously that the market for messages is tapped. The case of Twitter — and Facebook, where you can ‘friend’ corporations and official celebrity pages — hints that our riot of new media is disfigured by the integration of every and all messages, and ruined by the presumption that, corporate person or otherwise, you are doomed unless you jump on every and all bandwagons. It’s child’s play to flip this gloomy warning into a chipper commandment: Thou Shalt Not Spurn Sociability . Everyone owes a duty to everyone to be everywhere! And so we channel our whipped-up energy into the busienss of creating new wheres. If Twitter is any indication, these wheres end up amounting to little more than styles , ways of performing together but being apart. That might be a nice release valve for the pathologies of overmeaningful physical togetherness — I’d rather have Farhad Manjoo railing about the duty to Facebook instead of the duty to communal celebration — but it’s a stalkerish standing invitation to befriend collective overmeaninglessness.

More on: Media, Pop, Smithereens

Articles by James Poulos

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