Still Thinking About Now: On Twitter and (Real) Time

Mary Chayko, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and a follower of this blog, asked me several months ago if I’d like to participate in a tweet session with students in her Mediated Communication class.

She assigned them to read one of my posts from the spring, “On Everything and Nothing & Reading and Not Writing,” in which I expressed my Fear of Missing Out, particularly on new ideas and stories shared on Twitter.

Earlier this week, the students sent me tweets over the course of a few days, using the hashtag #com432. I replied at a leisurely pace throughout the first day, but at one point later that evening, a more concentrated stream of tweets came in at once, and I interacted with a number of students in real time for a short while. (Earlier in the semester, the class engaged in a more structured live-tweet session with Cyborgology editor Nathan Jurgenson.)

Our part-live, part-asynchronous approach was a better fit for me — for someone who, as you know from my “On Everything and Nothing” post, thinks and writes at a painfully slow pace. As a result, I’ve been thinking about how people think, learn, and interact differently. In Mary’s recap of her live-tweet session with Nathan,which looked to be successful, she writes:

Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session . . . though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. . . . Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material . . .

In my exchanges with a few students, I mentioned that I was never an active classroom participant in school — and not a “quick thinker.” Michael, the blogger at The Frailest Thing, chimed in on the hashtag momentarily after Mary asked him to join in, and he said he was more a “listener” in this context. I realize I may have inaccurately labeled myself, as I find “listener” to be more fitting. Perhaps I’m too hard on myself — it’s not that I’m not quick, but I take my time to absorb anything, and given the ephemeral nature of Twitter, the lapse there is magnified.

I realize that while Twitter is a great place to listen and lurk, it may be an odd place to lengthen time, to stretch out a conversation of ideas. I wonder, for instance, which approach benefits students more — a real-time tweet session in which ideas, questions, and answers swirl in the air all at once in a dizzying yet stimulated hour, or a more leisurely session like the one I did with the students, in which ideas simmer over the course of a day, allowing them to stick and resonate?

I think of the expiration dates we stamp on produce at the supermarket. How when we place items on shelves, we instantly date their freshness. I think about tweets in the same way: once unleashed for all to see, how long can they sit before they’re irrelevant? Before they’re kicked out of the conversation of now?

I’ve been thinking so much about (the malleability ofnow — how I don’t quite know when now is. Or what it is. I’m reminded of one tweet I received from a student in particular…

…which furthered ideas swirling in my head that now is relative, that conversations on Twitter — and specifically this #com432 conversation — unfold at different speeds.

What does “real time” even mean?

In the four years I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve sensed a handful of times that I’m just not built for it — I’d noticed this on the two press trips for travel bloggers I’d participated in, on a Caribbean cruise in 2009 and a resort stay in Mexico in 2010, when I had to interact within a larger group, from moment to moment, to make my thoughts count, as well as to enhance the bigger conversation. I’m glad to have been part of these collaborative activities, though wonder, several years later, what has stuck from these experiences. I suppose it was exciting to be part of now when now was happening. But long after, I wonder what the takeaway was.

Was there a takeaway?

Perhaps that’s the whole point — to have been part of something that appeared and disappeared, to be in the moment, regardless of what was actually said or done. I’m not sure.

Much of Twitter is quick, mindless chatter. Self-promotional crap. Forced reciprocation. The best of it, however, is the opposite, and I’m glad to be part of little niches and circles within my stream that keep me in the loop about what’s important and interesting to me.

And so I just wanted to thank Mary and her students for “having me” in their classroom; to allow me to participate and experiment with them; to discover new, different ways of communicating and exchanging ideas. Much of what I write on this blog is in direct response to something I’ve read, or something that was said, by someone on Twitter. Despite my ongoing frustrations and complaints that “I can never keep up,” I always latch on to some bit, some idea, some tweet amid an ever-flowing stream of information that inspires me to write.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

17 thoughts on “Still Thinking About Now: On Twitter and (Real) Time

  1. I have avoided Twitter because I don’t think I could manage the “twittering” but it is interesting that it is becoming people’s primary source for news. Now that online newspapers are setting up paywalls, I am finding I can no longer access the news content that I once could. So I am pondering whether to join the twitterverse, although with some trepidation.

  2. I agree with your views and opinions in Twitter. It is important to be responsible in everything that we do online. Think before you click. Love your post. Thanks.

  3. I love this piece, just as I love everything you write. It really made me think about the kind of interactions I value on the internet. Other than Twitter conversations with people whom I already consider friends or kindred spirits, despite not necessarily having met them in person, I find that many Twitter conversations hinge on that “real-time” connection: on knowing when someone picked his children up from school, or when someone else finished her paper, or when someone else and his loved one are having brunch etc. etc. That is what can create so much fear-of-missing-out about the medium… that even if you use it to share/curate your news and to hold on to a couple of conversations, if you are not engaged constantly in the daily chatter of it, you feel like you are standing on the periphery.

    I realized this a while ago, and distilled my two favorite ways of using Twitter (besides those few conversations with friends) to be for sharing beloved pieces of the internet and for those bits of micro poetry: the 140 character renditions of a day, or a moment, or a thought that make someone smile, reflect, or pause and think “ha, that happens to me as well.”

    So many of my own blog posts have sprung from those 140 characters, or from someone else’s tweets and questions. But this is exactly what I value about blogging: rather than needing to be constantly engaged in the flow of information before it becomes less relevant, a blog post sits there and can wait. The reader can wait for you to string together the thoughts as you please, and the writer can put the post out there as a marker in time and wait for it to be read, unafraid that the thought will no longer be relevant once brunch is over, once the baseball game has concluded, or once the children are finally picked up from school.

    I hope you have the most beautiful holidays – and please, please let me know if you’re ever in Boston or the East Coast. I’d love nothing better than to hang out with you and Nick!

    1. neat stuff and the new ways human learning is changing; damn, i miss being an undergrad, when learning was fresh as a twitter feed!

  4. As always, you seem to be lurking sideways in my own thoughts. Although I value many of the friends that I have “met” on twitter (you and Nick make the top of that list); I have spent some time thinking of what real value it has for me, and what real value I can give back. The issues of “now” and timeliness are a central part of that balancing act. NOWness has a tendency to compress itself as one ages, and the allure of being so inside all the time, well, it wanes.

  5. Something to do with your remark about expiry dates gave me a vision (a little wry) of a planet racing about with its head torn in a million different directions – mostly other people’s opinions – and a big fat expiry date on it: 12/21/12…I wonder what will happen to Twitter if we suddenly become enlightened, as the New Agers say?

    After reading your post the first time earlier (my computer crashed mid-comment), I found myself sitting for a rare quiet moment on the floor with the sun on my closed eyes. There is so much in that quietness, more than could be fitted into a million tweets, that makes me wonder why I trying to seek meaning through writing after all.

    Lovely post as always…

  6. I have purposely avoided entering the Tweet realm for some of the reasons you mentioned. We’re so bombarded with a constant stream of information, some of which is relevant and most of which isn’t, I can’t see adding another port to my already overloaded motherboard. Like my computer, I only have so much RAM available. Adding another cyber stream of consciousness would probably leave me on the floor in a fetal position and in need of a re-boot. I could see the doctors doing a brain scan and finding a swirling rainbow in its place.

    1. Love the visuals you’ve created in my head — you in fetal position, doctors scanning your brain, swirling rainbows…! You’re so right — we only have so much RAM available.

  7. I totally agree with your views on Twitter. But I guess that’s also very dependent on who you’re following on Twitter, right? Some ppl do nothing but RT stuff, others like to clog it up with conversations that apply to nobody else except the two that are talking. That stuff can really slow time down.

    1. Oh, I agree with you 100%. I’ve pared down my Twitter list over the years for this very reason, shaping it in the way I want. I unfollowed the people who, as you say, “clogged” my stream with stuff that ultimately wasn’t interesting to me.

  8. “Perhaps that’s the whole point — to have been part of something that appeared and disappeared, to be in the moment, regardless of what was actually said or done.”

    We still talking about twitter? 😉 Beautiful writing.

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