imagesIt seems that everyone is a-twitter about Twitter. This social networking site has exploded in recent months leading many to ask the questions: “What is it?” and more importantly, “Why Twitter?” I created an account to experience the phenomenon for myself. Twitter appeals to me on several levels: from the tech/gadget geek side as well as from a psychological perspective—”tapping into the stream of human consciousness”. Fellow psychiatrist Dinah Miller, of ShrinkRap fame, did a similar experiment herself: after one week of Tweeting she posted: “My week is almost up. I still don’t get this. Who is rilescat and why does he have a dead panda on his desk?” There is certainly no shortage of characters in Twitterland. I was impressed with the amount of wit and wisdom being shared in 140 characters. The requisite brevity forcing some to re-discover the art of editing: making every word count. I also observed some incredibly empathetic and compassionate exchanges: including one mother’s life-changing foray into the world of childhood leukemia. Twitter has been described as “a cocktail party” and Facebook as “a dinner party” given the degree of intimacy with ones friends and followers; this seems to be quite accurate. Twitter seems to function best in niches: thus promoted by the use of “Hashtags”.

 

To “get it”–to understand WHY, it is necessary to look at the motivation of each individual. Twitter asks the question: “What are you doing right now?” Differences in motivation lead to diverse responses to this simple question and a variety of Twitter experiences: some individuals are looking for entertainment, some for connection, some for information, and others for self-promotion. The potential for all exist in abundance on Twitter.

 

Many basic emotional needs of individuals can potentially be met through social networking: feeling validated, belonging, being heard… and with minimal risk of emotional trauma and physical effort (as one can happily tweet away in ones pajamas). While this connection for such individuals who may have limited access to other interaction can have certain positive aspects; (ie, a mom who stays home with her children); one must also consider the potential negative consequences of such virtual relationships as well. When needs are met in this superficial way… is the individual kept from developing deeper, albeit more complicated relationships in the world beyond the internet?

 

The potential for constant connectedness leading to the loss of being fully present in one’s “real” life is another concern. When I first began looking for people to follow, I searched for Jon Kabat-Zinn (author & founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction): figuring that he would disseminate some incredibly wise tweets. He’s not on Twitter; the closest I could find was a remark about Twitter being the antithesis of mindfulness. No less concerning is the diversion of time and energy from other “real world” relationships. It is not unheard of for people to spend upwards of 5 hours daily checking their Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts.

 

Perhaps the first question to answer before “What are you doing?” is “What am I doing here?”; consider if the virtual world is the best place to accomplish your goals. As for myself, I remain undecided. While I am absolute junkie for wit and humor, I have found the pace of information to be excessive at times. As with most things in life, it will come down to finding the right Balance… and the determination of how long to stay at the “party.”