Twitter Guilt

June 12, 2009 at 10:40 am (By Amba) (, , , , )

I think I got into my first real Twitter jam session last night — those polyphonic volleys where you have to run and leap and snap each other’s responses out of the air like a dog playing Frisbee or an orca voguing for fish . . . where you have to track the threads of the conversation by weaving like an undercover detective through the throng of unrelated tweets, and where the elements of the exchange overlap like the parts of a fugue or canon.  And you’re trying to channel big ideas through a 140-character aperture.  It’s a distinctly new kind of mental challenge that takes about eight metaphors to surround and approximate.  If it’s most like any one thing, it’s probably playing jazz in a small combo in a noisy club, straining to hear, not knowing what your fellow musicians are going to play next, but all trying to keep the original melody at least distantly in mind.

So if I was having fun and exercising my brain, why do I feel guilty?

For one thing, I kicked off the thread by going over to Anchoress’s and starting a fight with her.  A friendly fight; we may disagree some of the time but it is (I daresay) with mutual affection and respect.  I felt that my political allergies were getting unbalanced and that I needed to go roll in some nettles on the right.  What drives me nuts on both sides is the way demonizing Bush seems to require deifying Obama, and in turn, demonizing Obama seems to require . . . well, gushing over capitalism, lately.  (And if you recoil from gushing over capitalism, it must mean you hate capitalism and side with those who want to destroy it and bring on socialism . . . no, no, NO!)  The rhetoric itself leads to paranoid black-and-white hyperbole like calling Bush, or now Obama, a “tyrant” poised to end presidential term limits and free elections, and painting an idealized, Norman Rockwell picture like this one of the glories of yeoman free enterprise that airbrushes out the megacorporate excess and fraud.  (Or, on the left, a socialist-realist wall mural depicting the Peaceable Kingdom of multiculturalism — Latina lesbians in overalls! — painted on some desolate urban underpass.)

So why do I feel guilty about such an observation? Because I realized that I am not the audience for blog posts of this sort.  They’re publicly posted, of course, the way a patriotic brass-band concert might be held in a public park, but it’s not polite to disrupt such a concert; if the oompah of Sousa sets your teeth on edge, just leave.  Criticizing such posts is as mean-spirited and irrelevant as fisking some other country’s national anthem.  People on the right (and left) write these posts for each other.  They’re hymns of agreement, they’re meant to rouse and rally and tune resolve.  They’re tuned to a pitch I cannot hear, or can’t hear without distortion.  In other words, it’s none of my business, and to go over there just to aggravate myself is rude.  Of course, that’s not what I go for; I go for goosebumps, like this and this.  I think I should keep my aggravation to myself instead of putting it on gratuitous display.

But there’s another kind of Twitter guilt I’m feeling that’s harder to define.  An intense conversation can’t be called a waste of time, so that’s not it.  What is it?  It feels reckless, irresponsible, heady, to be throwing big ideas around like that.  Too much reward for too little work?  Shame at having given in to the temptation to hold forth on things I know nothing about?  (How grandiose one can be in miniature!)  Twits rush in where angels fear to tread?  There was a kind of unearned intoxication . . .  Ah!  I know where I recognize this feeling from!

The hung-over morning after a college bull session.

UPDATE: And now I can pinpoint it a little further:  although I write about ideas a lot — in many cases, they’re all I’ve got — I’m wary of them.  I have a little bit of a “no ideas but in things” bias.  Ideas are like hot-air balloons:  they can easily get untethered from the earth and float bloatedly away.  Sometimes Twitter is like a collective balloon release.


  1. Jason (the commenter) said,

    They say that if you cage some big animals for all their lives and then set them free, they like to move around a piece of land only as big as their enclosure was.

    Maybe the guilt you are feeling is that kind of a response. You have all this new freedom, but you still want to pace out the outlines of your old jail cell.

  2. amba12 said,

    Hey, maybe! Interesting way to look at it. Twitter as freedom and the jail cell as . . . what? Twitter is walking freely among men [in the old-fashioned sense, not the gender sense] in the open air, throwing away handfuls of apple seeds, rather than being locked in a room alone, obliged to produce responsible intellectual property . . . something like that?

  3. Maxwell said,

    It’s lonely work, being an independent. The partisans are the ones with all the energy, and that energy helps form community. But you pay a price in bile, and in the closing of your mind and soul to a large subgroup of your countrymen.

  4. Jason (the commenter) said,

    Amba, I think you’ve got it. With Twitter you’re free to be spontaneous, as in a real conversation. You don’t have to be serious or even come up with complete thoughts, other people can finish them for you. You can move on to new thoughts without finishing ones you started.

    It makes thinking fun and joyful. Maybe that’s another place where the guilt comes from, you feel yourself having fun and think you must be doing something wrong.

  5. amba12 said,

    Damn Puritanism creeps in everywhere!

    Maxwell: I know there must be rewards to partisanship, but I don’t understand them. Maybe it has to do with the “tribal/trader” distinction I playfully made here (last paragraph). The “we are right/ they are wrong and dangerous” mindset (the two are inseparable) reinforces the sense of tribal identity and solidarity. The perceived threat is real precisely because there are people of the identical (but reversed) mindset on the other side. Possibly if you are a “trader” (or “technogeek”) you don’t want or understand that feeling of solidarity, or, you get excited when you find some basis for solidarity where you’d least expect it. You can really see an evolutionary advantage to and interplay between both types. But you can also see why they, themselves, can become enemies. The trader’s “promiscuity” seems to be a threat to the tribe. (Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages — objects of suspicion, yet made the Renaissance and age of discovery possible because they could lend money.)

  6. amba12 said,

    And Jews themselves are dramatically divided into Tribals and Traders.

  7. Theo Boehm said,

    As one of the participants in the jam session, I say amba couldn’t be more right: It felt like 2 AM, and you just realized there’s a chemistry quiz in the morning.

    Jason above also nailed it: Twitter allows you to say what you think without too much concern. Worried about grammar, and should that paragraph stand as one or two, and do the links work? If you do careful blog commenting, you have bothered yourself with these things, and you have over-worked your writing so that it glazes people’s eyes when you’re through with it.

    At least I have.

    But what I discovered last night is that Twitter is great for fast talk, and even, gasp, IDEAS. People, I think won’t get so offended with disagreements, because there is little chance to layer on offensiveness, which longer-form writing allows. You say your 140-character piece, and see what comes next. Most blog fights, I’m convinced, come from perceived insults and a nasty tone, not disagreements, rigid as some ideologues may be.

    The Anchoress and I have somewhat differing views, but I thought it was great to air them as best we could, You could see how Catholics differ in outlook, and still, I think, be very justified by theology and Scripture. Not that I’m that qualified to debate the Anchoress, nor did I pull out any quotes from Scripture or theology, and, thankfully, neither did she. You know the old joke about two Jews and three opinions, well, Catholics are not afraid of opinions, either. It’s just we’re more repressed and have learned to have maybe 3/4 of an opinion, if it’s one that won’t get us in trouble with Sister when she hears about it.

    So two Catholics = about 1-1/2 opinions, which is about all you can squeeze through a 140-character pipe anyway. Maybe next time we’ll be able to open the faucet a little more and play in the sprinkler.

  8. Ron said,

    Meanwhile, Ron Henreid offers Amba Davis his other cig, as they do the Now, Voyager thang…

    and the tweeting played on…

  9. Melinda said,

    Catholics are not afraid of opinions, either. It’s just we’re more repressed and have learned to have maybe 3/4 of an opinion, if it’s one that won’t get us in trouble with Sister when she hears about it.


    I’m half-Jewish. Do I get 1-1/4 opinions?

  10. Donna B. said,

    I was told there would be no math.

  11. blake said,

    Well, as another participant, I suspect we could actually have amiable full-scale conversations, over the ‘net and live. It did make me realize the real beauty of Twitter, though:

    No trolls.

    I’ve had a lot of late night college bull sessions–none actually in college–and the beauty of them was that people could say things 1) without being PI and 2) without worrying that someone was going to seek to take offense in order to score points.

    I think Twitter is too public for the former, but it allows the selectivity of the latter. That, in turn, reminds one of the joy of exchanging potentially controversial ideas.

  12. amba12 said,

    “Joy” is not too strong a word, when we all really get going.

    Donna, you might even like it.

  13. Theo Boehm said,

    Blake, of course, is absolutely right:

    No trolls, indeed.

    I said that blog fights arise from allowing offensiveness to “layer” on. But I think Blake’s point is more central. Most real offensiveness is intentional. Some people want to be a pain in the ass. It’s a means to their goal. Those who have this attitude should be aggressively ignored and tossed from rational conversation. Unfortunately, this is hard to do on the blogosphere, but simple and clear on Twitter.

    I’ve complained so much about trolls, that I really didn’t want to mention the “T”-word in my comment above, lest I seem like a one-note Johnny. So, thank you, Blake, for filling out that first 1/4 of an opinion that I was too repressed to mention.

  14. Theo Boehm said,

    And, of course, amba is absolutely right about “joy.”

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