Tweeting as play

Posted by Rob Walker on July 9, 2009
Posted Under: "Social" studies

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.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I think a lot of people have a lot free time.

If people want to spend their free time with their tweeps or their RL peeps, so be it.

People used to spend their free time watching crappy TV. Now, people can spend this time tweeting or tweeting while watching crappy TV.

Tweeps will always need something to tweet about…

Has twitter become the time sink that talking on the phone to your friends used to be?

Written By Dr. David Mark Horowitz on July 9th, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

Great article. I agree with the over-emphasis on Twitter as somehow a life-changing communication tool. Feel free to delete, but recreational is misspelled in the second to last line, Rob.

Written By Chris on July 10th, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

Hey Rob, dunno about this I’d suggest taking another look at Twitter. Took me nearly 3 years between first signing up and really grokking it, but I think there is a lot more than just play going on in there.

On a basic level it’s closer to cocktail chatter than play, the baseline stuff is just things people feel compelled to talk about in some way. But just like in conversation there are times when it gets a whole lot more interesting.

What happened with Iran was pretty stunning, real time communications from the front lines of a major uprising. No I would use the term “life changing”, but it sure was a different form of news than I’d ever experienced before. Think it was William Gibson who tweeted something to the effect of “the revolution might not be getting twittered, but the fog of war sure is”

Of course that was a rare event, but even on the day to day it’s shifting the way I obtain news, eating into that RSS space by moving quicker and more personal at the same time.

Then on a marketing level it gets quite interesting. It’s a far more casual communications medium than just about anything out there for brands, you can communicate with customers in a language that would never work in a press release, ad, or mailing list blast. Basically it’s the closest we’ve gotten to that mythical “conversation” that marketers like to say they have with their customers. Again it’s not life changing, and all that “communications revolution” hyperbole is a load of BS, but it’s definitely a real new media and labeling play just seems to miss the mark.

Written By Abe Burmeister on July 10th, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

I should add, that when it comes to doing the Outlier twitter stuff, ( @outliertailored ), it truly is work. We need to generate content the way any writer does, sometimes its easy and fun, sometimes it’s a struggle and sometimes we fail. But in the end it’s business and we use it to sell and market products. The play gets saved for the personal accounts! ( @abe1x )

Written By Abe Burmeister on July 10th, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

Thx for all the interesting feedback.

Quickly: Chris: Fixed that typo now, thanks for that.

Gotta go, great weekend and thanks again all.

Written By Rob Walker on July 10th, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

Think of Twitter as both a playground and a classroom. Sort of like those speaking books that children play with. They are learning things while playing.

Written By Shawn on July 11th, 2009 @ 10:24 am

Interesting. My Tweeting runs the gamut from productive brainstorming to fluff and nonsense. I find Twitter useful for sharing links, and getting ideas from what others share. From a crowdsourcing standpoint it’s a great way for me to find articles and blog entries related to Web development, marketing and social media.

I also participate in real time Twitter chats, such as #blogchat and #smchat in which we all meet online at the same time and have conversations about blogging and social media by marking our Tweets with the appropriate hashtag and following the stream of conversation. It’s admittedly a challenge to converse in 140 character allotments, yet somehow ideas are shared.

Other times of course I’ll just respond to Tweets and find myself in funny little conversations about bacon and vampires. Life in the Twittersphere runs the gamut.

But the notion of Twitter as play seems apt. We’re always told to study what interests us as we’ll learn more. Or, get a job in a field you really like so it won’t seem like work. Along that line of thinking perhaps we do get value from Twitter simply because it is fun. If I saw Tweeting as a chore I don’t think I’d get nearly as much out of it. But because it is fun, I put some effort in.

Naturally everyone’s mileage will vary; how useful Twitter is depends entirely on the user, but for now I find it beneficial…and fun. – @hacool

Written By Heidi Cool on July 12th, 2009 @ 2:47 am

OK play is good! It’s not a means to an end. Intelligent creatures play. If it’s not fun STOP! Okay, I am a parent and I do a LOT of things that are not fun. But Twitter?! Have fun or stop doing it.

Written By Theresa Quintanilla on July 12th, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

I avoided Twitter for a long time…a friend showed me how he uses the character allowance to write some wonderful haiku-like stuff, which in turn made me think I could use it to get back into writing again myself. It’s been fun and when it’s not anymore, I’ll quit.

Written By sgardens on August 6th, 2009 @ 3:09 pm
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