Twitter: Not Dead To Me (Yet)

December 14, 2015

If you know me at all, you know that I love the Twitter. Always have.

I started teaching my college students at the University of Minnesota how to use Twitter to better position themselves professionally starting back in 2009 (and at that time, many of them called Twitter “Facebook for Old People” – oh, how the times changed). You might have known me then as @chezla because that was before I realized I needed a better handle for self-branding (now @professorshayla) – a concept that social media practically invented.

A little glimpse of @professorshayla's world on Twitter.

A little glimpse of @professorshayla’s world on Twitter.

Twitter truly was a different online space back then. The user base was still relatively small. The Arab Spring (#arabspring) had not yet alerted the world to the value of Twitter as an organizational or activist tool. People live-tweeted conferences, almost speaking to one another through back channels about niche topics, and they would come up with their own hashtags because conference organizers had not considered declaring one. Most of them weren’t on Twitter, after all.

Early Twitter was so much weirder and more personal than Twitter today. It was so easy to tweet at celebrities and get an immediate answer. We were all Twitter friends talking amongst each other — sharing links to articles articles, posting our travel statuses (“MSP>NYC”), writing random song lyrics, or even live-tweeting the births of our children. (And yes, I let everyone on Twitter know precisely when I got an epidural, and tweeted to @rhettmiller from @old97s the next day that our daughter was named Adelaide, and he responded.)

I’ve become more nostalgic for old Twitter more and more lately. I just feel like in the past year or so, Twitter’s really lost its magic.

Something resonated for me when I read Umair Haque’s essay, “Why Twitter’s Dying (And What You Can Learn From It),” on Medium in October.  He blamed “abuse” – as a very general term that encompassed not only the violent threats of Gamergate, but also the day-to-day bitching, bickering and general nastiness to which social-networking companies pay little attention. He saw the different echo-chamber cliques that Twitter users form – people who are usually very much like themselves talking to each other all day – as contributing to this phenomenon, particularly when groups challenge one another.

He is not wrong, but I feel this explanation is existentially lacking. I can’t help but think that social media is so pervasive and always-on in so much of our lives that it’s created almost a numbness – and that we constantly try to feel like we did in the early days of social media but come up short. Live-tweeting the Inaugural Address with a few thousand of my close personal friends while drinking wine on my couch at home used to be such a fun thing to do. But a few Inaugural Addresses and elections later, Twitter’s feeling a little tired.

Remarkably, I have recently found that old feeling of fun return when I’ve met “Twitter friends” in person, and I think I’m on to something. It started with saying hello to the chef (@carnalartistry) and owner (@Niver) of one of my favorite restaurants when I was in – we’d been chatting and favoriting each other’s tweets for years but had never actually spoken in person. Within the next month or two, I met two other longtime Twitter friends — @pannder and @_taylor_ — at Fast Horse social functions. Again, it was so gratifying to actually put the faces to the tweets.

I used to feel like Twitter had provided me with a community that was online at all hours of the day and night to listen, respond and every now and again, provide me with a little “weirdness” from their daily lives. I feel like my present appreciation of Twitter has more to do with who these community members are when they aren’t on social media, regardless of whether we’d get along at all in a face-to-face conversation or not.

I’ve always been a firm believer that people’s online lives are simply an everyday part of their offline lines, and to understand a whole person (or as the ethnographic researcher in me would say, their cultures), you need to understand both sides.

I’m going to test this theory. In the coming months, I have decided to challenge myself to meeting as many of the people I’ve grown to know on Twitter in the real live world. Some are students from those classes I taught back in 2009, and others are people who I’ve never seen outside of their tiny profile picture.

I have a feeling this “social” (as we say in the marketing biz) might just be the new Twitter for me.