The essential criticism of Twitter, and of much Webby expression in general, is: “What a waste of time!” The endless online blurting and clicking of online is causing a culture of distraction.
I’m sympathetic to that critique: While the more hyperbolic claims that extend this argument to the it-will-rot-our-brains extreme are hard to take seriously, I also find it hard to take seriously the counter-critique that it’s all about “connecting” and “sharing,” or that having a lot of Twitter followers somehow makes you more informed or even smarter.
All of that said, I’m also open-minded. And I found myself thinking about blurty-click “communication” while listening recently to an interview with Stuart Brown, founder of something called the National Institute for Play. Here’s how he defined “play”:
I’d say play is anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake. And then one can extend that into more and more detailed definitions, such as ‘appears purposeless,’ ‘produces pleasure and joy,’ ‘leads one to the next stage of mastery.’
The interview veered off in other directions and mostly had to do with children, and with physical play.
But it seems reasonable to me that what Twitter enthusiasts and the like are doing, on some level, is simply playing. I certainly think that’s a more reasonable description than the more high-minded arguments about connecting and learning and building new kinds of relationships that lead to greater knowledge and more productivity. But what explains the seriousness of such rationales? Well, the interviewer responded to Brown’s definition by saying:
You know, you said “appears purposeless.” And I’m thinking what difficulty some parts of our culture have with anything that appears purposeless.
Yes. Twitter freaks don’t want to say, “Look, I’m just messing around. I’m goofing off. Yes, it’s a waste of time, but that’s the whole point.” Instead you get the stuff about Twitter being more important than CNN, or about new forms of community, or truth-to-power revolution, and like that. And yeah those arguments can sort of be backed up by examples — but so can counter-arguments about banality and narcisissm.
If it is play, why not just say so? Why not just say it’s fun? After all, one of the reasons “play” is always in vogue in certain business magazines is that it really is important to creativity — taking yourself out of the routine makes your thinking less rigid, etc.
Later in this same interview the issue of competition is raised, and this is often the problem with humans and play: It morphs into competition. I think Twitter and social media in general are very susceptible to this. Partly by design: Prominent display of friend-or-follower numbers and the like. And the other part is the insistence on rationalizing. Because people don’t want to be seen as doing something that “appears purposeless,” they trump up the more rational-sounding measures of importance: Building a social network, becoming better informed, tapping into resources that make one more efficient.
Grown up-sounding stuff. Stuff that sounds like it’s not fun or recreational at all. It’s related to productivity, self-improvement, information — in a word, work.