by J.M. Stewart

My 30-day affair with Twitter 

I am a cyber shut-in. I’m all about stamps and dial tones. I am an analog anomaly, the subject of eye rolls and exasperated sighs from techie teens, two of whom live under my roof. I am part of the generation whose fingers did the walking across yellow pages decades before they touched a keypad. To me, Twitter “tweets” seemed like 21st century postcards—an old idea shrouded in new technology. Go to any antique store (or to eBay if it’s easier) and read the flipsides of those ancient souvenirs. Same number of characters, same depth of thought and feeling. Am I the only one who sees this?

Apparently I am. Nevertheless, one day my inner narrator whispered, “Look how much fun everyone is having as they fast-track through the ether world. Don’t you want to have fun, too?” So with deep skepticism and almost no eknow-how, I decided that I was going to give myself one month to figure out what Twitter was all about. My first hurdle was setting up my Twitter account. I felt an overwhelming surge of prickly heat before I even found the Twitter home page. Forget it. Too complicated. I listen to my body and it was telling me in every way that this was a stupid idea. Three days later I was enjoying a meal at the home of a friend who spends a good portion of his day inside the virtual world.

Normally I don’t have much to contribute when dinner conversation requires a degree in cyber-speak. Which is why everyone was surprised when I turned the topic to my brief and unsuccessful dalliance with Twitter. A Twitter account? Really? My host chuckled and said it takes about two minutes to set up. He’d do it after dinner. And that is how I had the Senior Chairman of the Visual Effects Society, the founder of the Visual Effects Awards— the special effects supervisor of countless big-budget movies—usher me into the world of Twitter. He even wrote my first tweet: Hi – I’m here. Sadly, it was probably my best.

My next step, I was told, was choosing people to follow. By the time we said our goodbyes, I had my own account, six people to follow, one tweet (or is it Tweet, upper case?) and had already absorbed a quirky story about New Jersey’s own Danny DeVito. If you didn’t know, Danny likes to tweet. Whenever he goes someplace new, he likes to take a picture of his bare foot and post it on Twitter. When asked why he does this, Mr. DeVito replied with a shrug, “People seem to like my feet.” I verified this story (with a couple of phone calls) and it’s true; Twitter @DannyDeVito and you can see photos of his foot. With a bounce in my step and a song in my heart, I announced to my teenage sons that I had a Twitter account. Silence.

Then, in concert, “No one will follow you, Mom. You don’t have any friends.” Yes, I do. “Are they on Twitter?” No, I don’t think so. “So, who’s going to follow you?” I slumped away. Before turning in for the night, I returned to the Twitter web site and discovered the How To Promote Your Profile option. I clicked on it, started reading, and promptly fell asleep. This is not how I learn. I needed to dive right in and get my hands dirty. I posted my first solo tweet: Writing this article for Edge magazine. How to tweet? The next day I had two followers. I felt great. I was liked! So, I tried another tweet to get more people: What happened with Katy Perry and Russell Brand? Is anyone surprised? I now hang my head in shame. What an awful tweet. Asking questions? Really? I later learned this was an efaux pas. Or a faux epas.

Apparently, another breach of etiquette is tweeting a response to a dinner invitation. You text that. Texting is conversational and more intimate; tweets are statements. I learned this from watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, my guilty pleasure. Still, I had two followers, which is two more than I’d had 24 hours earlier. They looked young in their pictures, and sounded young in their tweets. I decided I should try to pull in more young adults, because they seemed to really like me. Then it hit me. Is Twitter a popularity contest? This was just the kind of garbage that went on in high school, and I was right back in it.

The only difference was that the entire world could witness my fumbling, not just a contained environment like a school. Whatever unfiltered idiocy that spilled out of my brain and onto a page would not only be broadcast for the entire world to see, but stored for eternity in some cyber-warehouse. I know that people find this kind of “immortality” appealing. I don’t. What did I have to say that was worth saying at all, much less saying in 140 characters? The question is almost metaphysical, isn’t it? So naturally I turned to my older son, age 17, for sage advice. “Write what you’re feeling, or doing,” he said. “Write something people would appreciate.” Then he turned his back on me and resumed doing his homework. The meeting was over, but I wouldn’t leave. He mumbled something about status update. “What’s that?” I asked. Now, he spun back around and glared at me. “Why are you even on Twitter?” “Because I have to,” I answered. “I’m writing a story. Can I follow you?” “No!” Other people tweet with confidence. I’m not talking about the Oprahs and Kelly Ripas of the world, celebrities who use Twitter as a tool to promote their talk shows. Or Conan O’Brian, who broadcasts mildly amusing quips. Or George Clooney’s tweet about going to a baseball game and then saying goodbye because he has to change his user name. (By the way, did you know that Lady Gaga has more Twitter followers than the Pope, the President, and Katy Perry—combined?)

No, I’m talking about average folks, like my very first follower, who sometimes tweeted three or four times a day! She followed me because she wanted me to follow her, and I did; sometimes in horror, other times in awe. My follower “friend” tweeted that her mother called her an ugly weed so that she was never aware of anything until she was older. I wasn’t t sure exactly what she meant, but it sounded so sad. My very next tweet was from Barack Obama. It said In America we don’t give up, we get up. Yes, I thought, even ugly weeds can become flowers with a “can-do” attitude. Then the President tweeted that he was going to sign the payroll tax cut extension into law. My follower tweeted I’ve been out of work so long that I’ve forgotten how to hate people. Funny, but weird! The pressure to write something great was compounding by the hour.

I was riddled with performance anxiety. I would never have the guts to say something like “Color is an intense experience on its own,” and send it off into the universe unprotected. As a rule, if I am going to say something moronic, I want to be able to see how it lands on my listener’s face (because that’s half the fun in uttering banalities) or, at the very least, be able to defend myself. Tweeting, I was coming to understand, is like the speed-dating version of a blind cocktail party. Everyone is trying to impress everyone else, with nothing to back it up. However, it wasn’t until my younger son, age 13, began looking closely at my coterie of Twitter pals that total disillusionment set in. The young and attractive blonde woman who tweeted about all the racy things she wanted to do to other people, to herself, to me was not the flirtatious scamp I imagined her to be. Nor was my other follower all she seemed to be. I had wondered why she was always telling me about all the cool free stuff she was scoring—Playstation 3, Guess jeans, gift cards from Ikea and Best Buy, and CA$H—just by clicking onto a particular website or email. “Stop!” my son bellowed. “Mom, stop!” He demanded to see my Twitter account. I handed him my phone and after a few seconds he informed me that my friends were fake. “Definitely the blonde one is fake because all she talks about is sex and it’s an advertisement.” It is? He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head. “It’s hacked,” he said. “If you see a person post a link asking you to visit it, don’t do it!”

He repeated this warning to reinforce its seriousness. He refused to tell me what would happen if I did click onto these other links. Instead, he looked me in the eye, shook his head and murmured, “It’s bad, very bad. Don’t go there.” “Okay,” I said obediently, “I won’t.” But was he absolutely sure my friends are fake? Yes. Even the first one? The nice chatty one? Noting the disappointment in my voice, he tried to soften the blow. “Well, I’m not 100 percent sure about her.” But I knew he was right. She was a fake, too. Then, to add insult to injury, follower number one dropped me while my son was holding the phone. “Snap, crackle, pop,” he smiled, “you’ve been dropped!” Of course I was dropped.

If you have nothing to bring to the table, who is going to invite you to dinner? Alas, in my month on Twitter, the most followers I had at one time was three. And near as I could tell, only one was real: ABC News. I am still waiting for the dinner invite to ABC’s house, and will text my RSVP. The fact that I even cared about the number of followers I had ticked me off. It really did stir up all those 10th grade emotions and insecurities. Three decades after completing my secondary education, I not only had slipped back into the worst part of high school, but had discovered the worst part of Twitter.

I actually felt lonelier when I was on Twitter than I did when I was off-line. As my month on Twitter drew to a close, I decided the two things I liked most about it were the news feeds and traffic updates. But, what’s the catch phrase? Oh yeah, there are Apps for that. So is there a need for Twitter? Socially, there is a place for it, but a need? I don’t think so. As a promotional tool for celebrities and event planners? Maybe. My read is that this is a moment that is happening, and people are lapping it up. It’s an easy way to be heard even if you have nothing important to say. It is freedom of speech if you can crush your thoughts into 140 characters. Perhaps, deep down, what appeals to people most about Twitter is that it is evidence that you exist.

Hi – I’m here. See, proof that I’ve lived. I tweeted a total of six times. Technically, I suppose the number was four. I did not write the first tweet, nor did I author the last one. My oldest son wrote my final tweet, and although it is something I would never say, I posted it because he finally came around and tried to help me explore this cyber world that seemed so vast and so alien to me. With that in mind I give you my final tweet exactly how my son wrote it: – omg i think i might be obsessed with this new thing called #internet shopping. “There’s a pound sign in front of internet,” I pointed out, ever the editor. “Mom, that’s a hashtag.” “What’s a hashtag?”

Editor’s Note: J.M. Stewart lives and works in Southern California. She interviewed Joe and Gia Mantegna for the Hot Stuff issue of EDGE and is working on an EQ vs. IQ feature for the upcoming Gray Matter issue.

All Photos credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock