There’s probably no development that has polarized the ranks of writers more than Twitter. Many of the most serious writers and thinkers I know and admire shun it, dismiss it or just don’t get it. Others love it more than their children, and talk about it with a warmth that makes my inner technophobe deeply uncomfortable. Their enthusiasm sometimes feels a little like being invited to visit–just visit!–a kind of Jonestown of the mind.
But for those of us who spend our time trying to hold it together, trying not to be buried under a mountain of information, trying to push back the chaos long enough to get lost in our work–and lost in others’ work–the way we used to, Twitter looks like so much loose snow on a Himalayan ridge. Do we go forward? Or do we just head back down to base camp? Is twitter the most powerful social force known to humanity? Or is it a glorified gossip and time-wasting machine? The new center of gravity or a black hole? Or both?
In his book on Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuściński talks about how as a young man, he found a book on Hinduism that contained instructions for how to increase one’s “creative powers” through breathing. After that, he would lie on his floor and try to cultivate “prana” or “vital energy” in his solar plexus, since it was a precious, finite thing not to be wasted.
Kapuściński may have used a little too much prana in his own reporting, but I think he had a point, as studies on attention are starting to show. It turns out we have (so they think) two separate attention systems. One is controlled attention, in which we make ourselves focus on something. The other is a stimulus-driven attention. So the question is whether Twitter (and the internet in general) amplifies or dissipates that creative energy. Do we control it, or does it control us? And as a writer, how do you balance between intake and output, consumption and production? Where, in other words, do you draw your lines?
Obviously, I have more questions than answers, and more ambivalence than enthusiasm. I can’t even decide whether social networks are the new connective tissue of society or a substitute for the real-world social ties we need to feel alive. But on the off chance that Twitter might be more the former than the latter, and in the hope that Twitter has some tangible use that has escaped me, I am treading lightly into the Twittersphere. And even though I don’t know where it’s all going you can follow me there: twitter.com/frankbures.