Still Thinking About Now: On Twitter and (Real) Time
Mary Chayko, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and a follower of this blog, asked me several months ago if I’d like to participate in a tweet session with students in her Mediated Communication class. She assigned them to read one of my posts from the spring, “On Everything and Nothing & Reading and Not Writing,” in which I expressed my Fear of Missing Out, particularly on new ideas and stories shared on Twitter.
Earlier this week, the students sent me tweets over the course of a few days, using the hashtag #com432. I replied at a leisurely pace throughout the first day, but at one point later that evening, a more concentrated stream of tweets came in at once, and I interacted with a number of students in real time for a short while. (Earlier in the semester, the class engaged in a more structured live-tweet session with Cyborgology editor Nathan Jurgenson.)
Our part-live, part-asynchronous approach was a better fit for me — for someone who, as you know from my “On Everything and Nothing” post, thinks and writes at a painfully slow pace. As a result, I’ve been thinking about how people think, learn, and interact differently. In Mary’s recap of her live-tweet session with Nathan,which looked to be successful, she writes:
Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session . . . though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. . . . Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material . . .
In my exchanges with a few students, I mentioned that I was never an active classroom participant in school — and not a “quick thinker.” Michael, the blogger at The Frailest Thing, chimed in on the hashtag momentarily after Mary asked him to join in, and he said he was more a “listener” in this context. I realize I may have inaccurately labeled myself, as I find “listener” to be more fitting. Perhaps I’m too hard on myself — it’s not that I’m not quick, but I take my time to absorb anything, and given the ephemeral nature of Twitter, the lapse there is magnified.
I realize that while Twitter is a great place to listen and lurk, it may be an odd place to lengthen time, to stretch out a conversation of ideas. I wonder, for instance, which approach benefits students more — a real-time tweet session in which ideas, questions, and answers swirl in the air all at once in a dizzying yet stimulated hour, or a more leisurely session like the one I did with the students, in which ideas simmer over the course of a day, allowing them to stick and resonate?
I think of the expiration dates we stamp on produce at the supermarket. How when we place items on shelves, we instantly date their freshness. I think about tweets in the same way: once unleashed for all to see, how long can they sit before they’re irrelevant? Before they’re kicked out of the conversation of now?
I’ve been thinking so much about (the malleability of) now — how I don’t quite know when now is. Or what it is. I’m reminded of one tweet I received from a student in particular…
…which furthered ideas swirling in my head that now is relative, that conversations on Twitter — and specifically this #com432 conversation — unfold at different speeds.
What does “real time” even mean?
In the four years I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve sensed a handful of times that I’m just not built for it — I’d noticed this on the two press trips for travel bloggers I’d participated in, on a Caribbean cruise in 2009 and a resort stay in Mexico in 2010, when I had to interact within a larger group, from moment to moment, to make my thoughts count, as well as to enhance the bigger conversation. I’m glad to have been part of these collaborative activities, though wonder, several years later, what has stuck from these experiences. I suppose it was exciting to be part of now when now was happening. But long after, I wonder what the takeaway was.
Was there a takeaway?
Perhaps that’s the whole point — to have been part of something that appeared and disappeared, to be in the moment, regardless of what was actually said or done. I’m not sure.
Much of Twitter is quick, mindless chatter. Self-promotional crap. Forced reciprocation. The best of it, however, is the opposite, and I’m glad to be part of little niches and circles within my stream that keep me in the loop about what’s important and interesting to me.
And so I just wanted to thank Mary and her students for “having me” in their classroom; to allow me to participate and experiment with them; to discover new, different ways of communicating and exchanging ideas. Much of what I write on this blog is in direct response to something I’ve read, or something that was said, by someone on Twitter. Despite my ongoing frustrations and complaints that “I can never keep up,” I always latch on to some bit, some idea, some tweet amid an ever-flowing stream of information that inspires me to write.