Friday, March 04, 2011

Twitter or Television?

by John T. Spencer

Last night I engaged in a few Twitter conversations ranging from the death of democracy to the bizarre cult following of Apple fans to whether or not the Supreme Court should allow bigots to protest at military funerals.  They were intellectually appealing and somewhat fun.  I had planned to work on editing my book, but instead I had the chance to ask questions, offer opinions and get involved in intellectual sparring matches with like-minded people.

Yet, I kept feeling lonely. Something about feeling "connected" without the sense of space or tone or texture offered just enough personal connection to give me a hint of relational proximity without the authenticity that I would get from sharing a pint with someone.

So, I switched to Hulu and watched an episode of The Colbert Report and then an older re-run of Modern Family.  It was neither interactive nor relational.  However, my thoughts were not limited to 140 characters and oddly enough I didn't feel lonely, either.  It's because the television, as a medium, does not pretend to know me or interact with me.  Instead,  the shows offered a sense of story, context and commentary that had been missing from the Twitter streams.

This left with a series of questions:

  1. How do we recover the sense of space in our online interactions?
  2. Is this a common phenomenon to feel lonely when interacting online?
  3. How do we tell and listen to stories using media that are geared mostly toward short sound bytes? Does this mean that our own sense of narrative has been forever altered?
  4. Is there a balance we need between online interaction and traditional media? 
  5. If television viewers don't feel as lonely as a Twitter user (perhaps too bold of an assumption), what does that actually mean?  Is it possible that television (unlike Twitter or Facebook) is more dangerous in the fact that we rarely have a chance to feel the loss of space in our lives? 

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. A few thoughts, John.

    First, do you feel connected to tv characters as people? As somebodies you know?

    Second, how long have you been watching tv?

    Third, digital storytelling has enormous power online.

  2. Good points. I'll take a stab at them:

    1. I don't feel connected to tv characters as people, but I do feel connected to the story. The medium allows for a sense of disconnection relationally, which means there are no expectations. Twitter, on the other hand, follows an unspoken metaphor of meeting in a room, being in a bar, talking at a party. If, by social media, it's a more social version of media, then it's very relational. If, by social media, we mean a more digital version of social interaction, then it leaves me feeling lonely.

    2. I have never been much of a tv viewer - both as a child and as an adult. So, it's really not as much about exposure as it is expectations.

    3. I tend to agree, but I think the best storytelling happens on blogs rather than other forms of social media. My blog tends to be very story-centric.

  3. Thank you for answering, and for answering quickly.

    To your replies:

    1) I can see that. What media best present characters to you, then, either fiction or non?

    2) Understood. (Personally, I was a serious tv junkie as a kid. Broke the habit about 15 years ago)

    3) Say more about blogs and stories? Too late for me to add to the book, but I'm eager to learn, always.

  4. I think the first key to media happiness and emotional connectedness is the presence of narrative (which can be pretty absent from intellectual debates with people you hardly know, regardless of the media).

    Another key is humour. I feel more connected reading a comic than anything else in my feed reader. My best Internet experiences by far involve laughing until I cry (thank you, iPhone auto-correct, for my most recent mirth-based melt down). It's even better when it's a back and forth joke that you are involved in writing. That is the online opposite of lonely.

    The third key to media happiness is art. In my opinion, a show like the Colbert Report is very well-crafted. It's deeply satisfying to consume a well-planned, focused and thoughtful narrative, delivered with humour, by excellent communicators who are aware of visual and linguistic nuances.

    I don't think you're going to find much of any of these three things in the average tweet.

  5. hey John..

    1. do you skype much? that's where i feel the most connected. that's where i'd say i recover or even breed space.

    2. i often feels holes, or incompletes on twitter. like you say, a loud party and sometimes you can't really hear. but - i'm relatively new to all of this. it may be an art i don't yet fully understand.

    3. i don't think we're forever altered, i think that's a choice. perhaps forever misunderstood. like Bernard Shaw's quote: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. i think we're good as long as we realize there's always more than what we gather in that moment of time. it actually magnifies this truth for face to face, makes it clearer there, because it's so obvious on twitter. to me.

    4. balance in everything, no?

    5. i don't watch tv. but i did growing up. in the moment i might have felt less lonely. but comparing afters, tv made me feel more lonely. twitter is a connection with real people, real stories. some that i just can't wait to meet face to face or hear more of the next day. i like that feeling.

  6. I feel lonely all the time, even when spending time with my family, so maybe this is just part of the human experience. The older I get the less I try to fight that loneliness as something to try and avoid and/or fear. I try to enjoy them and learn from them like silences and empty space.

    I get what you are saying John, as you know I have been dealing with this alienation 2.0 for some time. Perhaps, we are over thinking tall of this. We share online, because we are obviously looking for something, but I think for some of this, it has nothing to do with the web or technology. It is the yearning of the writer or the artist to connect.

    Unlike TV, we want our thoughts to cause reactions and talk back to us....sorry I am rambling now and feeling disconnected. Looking forward to our Skype chat soon, maybe we can fill in some of that space between us there.

  7. You bring up great questions that I have found myself asking as well.

    I will try to address a few..

    1. For me, Twitter is a platform to network. I can meet those with similar interests or whose personal or professional missions align with mine at virtually no cost. I use tweet-ups to identify these people, and if I find a reason to continue the conversation, I exchange contact info, set up Skype meet-and-greets, or begin to follow their blog. The key to Twitter is to use it as a tool to identify others and continue the communication elsewhere, not as an end-all-be-all technology in and of itself.

    4. There definitely needs to be a balance. What I love most about Twitter, however, is the democracy of it as a media outlet. It isn't the Tweeter (is that the noun for someone who tweets?) with the most amount of advertising dollars who gets their voice heard. It's the individual who provides the most value to their followers who gets RT-ed, mentioned, and followed. On a global scale, Twitter has forever changed the way that that the disenfranchised get their voices heard. Less dramatic, but equally important, it has changed the way various parties communicate with one another. For education, it brings together parents, students, principals, educators, and textbook authors.


  8. Sally, I've seen all three of those things in various tweets. Narrative, humor, art: even two at once. In a Twitter *stream*, rather than an individual tweet, I've seen all three in play.

    Perhaps it's a question of average. I don't see the average tv show as demonstrating all three, for instance.

  9. Great points, John. I, too, am becoming more and more skeptical of the KoolAid--mostly because I fear mob mentality.

    As for your questions:

    1) I have been blessed to have met many of my Twitter friends face to face. When I interact with them I can actually 'see' them and 'hear' their voices.

    2) I would say, as far as 'lonely' goes, I feel like the more I interact, the more I keep checking to see if I have a message/mention/etc.. Maybe it's a false sense of loneliness? I do feel guilty for not spending as much time face to face with people I care about.

    3) I think our narrative is only forever changed if we let it be.

    4) As for traditional media and online media balance--what is traditional media? TV? Many people watch 'traditional TV' online! Maybe a balance of time online/offline

    5) I would argue that people think less when watching TV and 'lose themselves' in the story/images on the screen because they don't interact with them. Maybe that's more dangerous?

    Again, great things to think about.

  10. Good conversation and thoughts:)

    I'd say the major reason you feel more lonely via SM is the "disconnect" that doesn't happen via TV.

    In a tv show there's a constant story driving forward all in a connected way without breaks (apart from ads). Through SM there's normally time between receiving and responding to messages where one has time to think and reflect. The conversations also tend to deal with several diverse topics and not contain a straight story line.

    Watching tv also means you occupy more senses, sight and sound. Try having a skype call with video and see if you feel as lonely...


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