Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Milestones and Moments—The Perks of Being a Twitterer

It may not always seem to be so, but it wasn't all that long ago that the Internet—for me, at any rate—was more or less a static collection of web pages, abbreviated in only a few places by the interaction afforded by message boards, IRC chat rooms, and instant messaging programs like AIM and ICQ. My immersion into net culture began with a WebTV purchased in 1998, and while the service did offer each user a personal webpage, the notion of "web presence" was, by and large, still unknown to me. Though I did eventually graduate to a proper desktop computer, my interactions with others on the Internet were still limited to a few personal contacts via IM programs, and perhaps three chat rooms that I frequented with varying degrees of enthusiasm. 

It wasn't until around 2007 that I encountered my first message board, and I didn't join Facebook until 2010—and that, I was more or less forced into, thanks to a friend who set up the account and then handed me the "keys". My reluctance to participate in the burgeoning scene that is now referred to as Web 2.0 persisted for quite some time. In fact, even now, I find myself often begrudging the fact that I have what amounts to a web presence, which must be regularly updated and maintained. I will admit, however, that this hesitancy of mine has waned significantly, from screaming refusal to resignation to, recently, a tentative embracing of what has become, for all intents and purposes, the new normal. It isn't a product of having accepted that I'm actually somewhat proud of my well-cultivated Facebook profile, or that I now have a blog; no, it's because of Twitter. And though I initially felt coerced (by myself) into signing up for Twitter for the sake of promoting this blog, the incredulity with which I viewed having an account has given way to a surprising degree of pleasure at realizing that I have finally reached the milestone of my 1,000th tweet. I thought it an excellent occasion to opine on the virtues, uses, and benefits of Twitter.

All the News That's Fit to Tweet

Though Twitter had been launched in July of 2006, The first I'd heard of it was in late April of 2008, via a CNN article. An American graduate student, James Buck, had been arrested while covering anti-government protests in Egypt. En route to the police station, he sent out a tweet—"Arrested."—and it was this message to his Twitter followers that led to his eventual release. At the time, my interests lay more in international affairs than technology, and so the story was more intriguing for detailing the treatment of journalists during a time of unrest. Looking back, however, it was not only my introduction to the existence of Twitter, but the first sign of just how powerful it—and social media in general—could be. 

By now, of course, news is broken and spread on Twitter sooner and faster than anywhere else on the Internet, if not all media. It's a stream of information—sometimes serious, sometimes trivial—that never seems to stop, and when important information enters the stream, retweets and commentary send it rushing across the globe in seconds. Follow enough people, and you've got your ear to the ground worldwide. It's an excellent way to to keep abreast of news from anywhere in the world; it's also an excellent way to see the lighter side of the way the world turns.

London Calling

I'm sure its already made its way into the Twitter streams and Facebook news feeds of just about anyone who has a mind to care, but I think it bears repeating: The exchange below was—without reservation—a truly hilarious thing.

It may be hard to tell from these screenshots, but I happened to spot Patrick Stewart's reply only minutes after he posted it. I captured the image, intent on using it in a post on my recently-developed love for Twitter, only to see scores of major news sources had picked up on the story by the end of the day. I'd been scooped, and for a moment that stung, if only for the fact that I was slow on the draw. But that feeling eventually gave way to the realization that I'd witnessed the story being reported as it unfolded. Silly as it may sound—particularly for what amounts to little more than a Twitter-enabled joke—I felt as if I'd been witness to history.

Now, I suffer absolutely no delusions that this exchange will mean anything in the long run—it's obviously just a brief moment in which we all happened to chuckle that one time Rob Delaney and Patrick Stewart made a funny—but I'd SEEN it happen. And this sort of thing actually does happen quite often. Celebrities and various Important People interact on Twitter all the time, in ways you just can't observe elsewhere. It's not always a send-up of the supposedly-serious, a blending of real news and parody within the span of a few minutes; sometimes its as simple as two people conversing the way any two people might, but extraordinary for the fact that it's people of note. 

And this is something I love about Twitter most—it enables us to observe the daily interactions of people whom we admire, who inspire us, who make us think or smile or laugh. Whether its shenanigans or touching exchanges, it's an opportunity to see that they, too, are just as human as we. This doesn't just go for famous people, either. As I've remarked before, participating in a community of like-minded individuals has been invaluable to me, as far as my writing is concerned, and though I've done so on other platforms Twitter has always been the single greatest facilitator of that communal existence. For some reason, there more than anywhere else on the Internet, it's plain as day that we're all in this together.

...And They Said You Should Never Meet Your Heroes

Watching celebrities interact with each other is great entertainment, offers tremendous insight, and can even inspire at times; interacting with regular folks is integral to my daily well-being, and encourages me to continue my efforts as a developing writer. But on those rare occasions in which these two worlds merge? The feeling is indescribable. 

Last October, I had the good fortune of borrowing a friend's copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. It was a compelling and quick read, extremely enjoyable, and I took to Twitter to say so. That's how this happened:

I have long been a fan of Gaiman's works, and of the man in general. The "Quote of the Moment" that adorns my blog at present—taken from Gaiman's now-famous "Make Good Art" commencement address—has been in place for months, as I can't find anything better with which to replace it. But this exchange—my thanks and his response—sent my appreciation soaring. I know the man has millions of fans, and I doubt he too often finds himself feeling under-appreciated, but it still felt good to contribute in some tiny, infinitesimally small way to his day. And it meant worlds to me that he should respond as he did, contributing to my day/month/year so significantly. It means he's listening—many of them are—and the fact that they interact with fans is admirable, as it has been since the first celebrity responded to the first piece of fan mail. But I'd like to think it happens quite a bit more, more often, thanks to Twitter. 

And while I'm sure it all happens elsewhere as well—on message boards, Facebook posts, and the like—but it's all right there, included in the daily Twitter stream, all at once, ad infinitum. Writers reaching out to writers, news breaking minutes after the event, millions sharing in the joke, or the sadness, or the moment. Twitter is the digital mikveh, the communal bath in which we're all soaking and stewing, sharing, laughing, and dreaming. It's a surprisingly wonderful place, one in which I don't always participate as often as I should. But, whenever I happen to be there, I'm glad to be; touching base, staying "in the know", continually being inspired and influenced by the stream of information as it passes. 

Maybe someday, I'll be in the position to crack a joke that'll make it into the papers, or tweet at a grateful reader, making their day. Maybe I'll say something brief but inspiring, and others will be inspired to continue pursuing their dreams, and sharing those dreams on social media and in blogs, tweeting links to those posts just like me, continuing the cycle. You can never step into the same river twice, and the Twitter stream is ever churning, ever changing. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but this has been my experience. And I hope it continues to be my experience, as I begin my next thousand tweets, and the thousands that will undoubtedly follow.