Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.
When I first set up my Twitter account, I did it as a lark. After all, 140 characters* seemed a ridiculously arbitrary limit on self-expression, bound to promote meaningless chatter. Do I really need to know that someone is hanging at Starbucks, right this minute – or ever?
At first, I did find 140 amazingly SHORT. In contrast to Facebook, where I could expound to my heart’s content, it is. But after a bit, I saw that honing my messages to a simple sentence or two was a challenge I enjoyed. Could I find something meaningful to say in that small space – and do it without chopping my prose into inelegant short hand?
As I started to take my Twitter presence more earnestly, I also found that most people don’t tweet their whereabouts. They’re doing something else entirely: they’re sharing – ideas, events, feelings, links, happenings, aphorisms, and more. All in a constant pulsing stream, like the beat of your heart or the sparks of thought firing in your head.
And something else: each day I’d see new followers, and I was mystified how they were finding me. This was such a contrast to Facebook, where (at least in the beginning) I knew most everyone I befriended. But Twitter is the opposite - it’s about making contact with people you don’t know through shared interest or sentiment. And this is one aspect of Twitter that’s truly revolutionary.
You see, people have been organized - socially, politically, economically – along geographical lines for as long as history. With faster and increasingly affordable travel options, geography has become much less important than it was, say, when this country was founded. Even so, geography still determines us at a fundamental level: we have nations with physical borders and flags and passports and governance. And on a smaller scale, we have neighbors who become friends, and so do people with whom we work and people we bump into at the health club. Our lives are still largely defined by proximity. But now we’re on the cusp of something that has the glimmer of an entirely new organizing principle: social structures based not on land mass but on areas of interest.
And Twitter is a transport into this emerging new world.
So, where does the Schopenhauer quotation fit in? Well, most of what I hear about Twitter focuses on what to tweet, how often, and how this will drive increased followers. In other words, there’s a huge concentration on the follower side of
Twitter. “Follow me!” “Thanks for the follow!” “How many followers do you have?” And “what’s your Klout score?” It’s no wonder many people haven’t chosen to join in – it can appear to be just one big popularity contest, as vapid as high school.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love getting new followers, and I do take that number and its move in the upward direction as an indicator of the value of my contribution to the Twitter community. But the real value of Twitter for me is on the other side of the exchange: whom I follow.
And the reason has everything to do with Mr. Schopenhauer’s quotation: the smaller my field of vision, the smaller my experience of the world. I’ve spent my life seeking to open my mind, expand my thinking, experience different perceptions on life as a way to become a more evolved human being. Consulting work has afforded me much opportunity in this: I’ve worked with homeless shelters and conservation groups, with private schools for the privileged and refugee organizations for those with nothing, with AIDs clinics and dental clinics, with those who use fire and those who regulate smoke, with ballet dancers and database engineers, with PhD scientists and PhD nuns. All to show me corners of the world just beyond my view.
But Twitter has enabled me to expand my view even farther afield. With Twitter I can follow anyone I can open my mind to find. It’s become a grand game: who can I follow that will make known to me the unknown, and on what subjects am I curious? Art, architecture? Middle Eastern politics, the EU, Africa? The environment, world food supply, books, technology, writers, water, global governance, or, perhaps, shoes? Every interest, idea, passion, and curiosity can be explored by a click of the follow button.
And isn’t it odd that this part of Twitter gets so little play? I mean, there isn’t even a name for those you follow. I’ve heard “followeds”, which is ugly in the extreme. And “those I follow”, which is too long to be cool. I’m also shocked by how many big thinkers and self-professed thought leaders out there follow very few. This seems to be an unspoken indicator of cool. But I think it shows a remarkably uncurious mind.
In fact, who follows whom is one of the most interesting parts of Twitter. I get to see, for instance, who a favorite writer like Susan Orlean follows, or who Edward Norton pays attention to, or Arianna Huffington or Biz Stone or Ambassador Rice. And this helps me find new people to follow - it’s better than bread crumbs to find my way to an expanded mind, new thoughts, happenings and even the mundane like a good recipe.
So, not only do I look at who and how many someone follows – and use this as criteria for my own “followship” (my turn of phrase) of that individual, I also consider the person’s tweets. For instance, there are many people who don’t tweet at all. Now, while I respect this observer stance, it doesn’t prove very attractive for me as a potential follower – why follow someone who doesn’t tweet? And then there are those who only tweet recycled (other people’s) tweets, which can be interesting, but doesn’t reveal as much about the tweeter. Or those who only tweet the mini-sales pitch, and isn’t it remarkable, that no matter how short, this is still annoying?
And then there are people of considerable means and influence, and I won’t name names, who haven’t gotten beyond tweeting their whereabouts. I think, “C’mon buddy, of all people, you should have more to add to the cosmic conversation!”
If I follow so broadly, you may be wondering, how can I possibly gain anything from it? It’s like sorting a needle in a haystack. Well, that’s what Twitter lists are for – I can sub-divide my followship into subcategories, such as “thoughtleaders,” “international,” and “environment.” There’s cross-over of course, but in this way, I can quickly view areas of interest on my twitter feed and catch up on the conversation. And then too, I trust in something I refer to as the “Twitterverse” – I don’t need to see everything because I assume what I need to see I will. It may be a bit zen for some of you, but it works for me. The last thing I want is to be obsessed about missing something important on Twitter.
In a blog post about why he’s on Twitter, author James Gleick (someone else I follow) describes it as “…my tiny chosen slice of the global consciousness.” And he’s right – who we follow makes up our chosen slice, or as Schopenhauer says, who we follow makes up “the limits of the world.” So why not follow as broadly and boldly as you dare? Why not use Twitter to expand those limits? Why not tap into the global hum on Twitter, the pulse of minds sharing, and blow the doors right off your consciousness? Followship is the real power of Twitter – and the real reason to be on it. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
*Actually, there is a reason for 140. According to Twitter main man Biz Stone: “the message limit of 140 characters was based on the limit of 160 characters imposed by SMS. We just needed some room to include your name in front of the message.” I learned this, of course, by following him.