Intimacy Without Communication

Ezra Klein today makes a good observation about Congress’s newfound love for Twitter:

…this is the problem with the public sphere’s quick embrace of Twitter. It’s intimacy without communication. McCaskill doesn’t actually say anything in 140 characters or less. The illusion of transparency comes because in everyday life, we only hear about the dinner plans of people we actually have a relationship with. What’s useful about intimacy, however, isn’t the exchange of trivia but the access to different perspectives. And I’d really like to hear her perspective! It would be rather nice if senators and congressmen routinely wrote posts explaining their thinking on major issues. A public service, even. Instead, they’ve all embraced Twitter.

This is a fairly nuanced point, and in certain respects it’s true. Twitter affords a level of intimacy rarely found, historically speaking, in public media spaces. The rise of networked publics and social media, though, has ushered in a ratcheting-up of public intimacy, turning upside down our previously held notions of public and private. In fact, even before Web 2.0 became a buzzword, theorist Pierre Levy, in his 1998 text Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, spoke of a “moebius effect,” the “transition from interior to exterior and from exterior to interior” when our world is virtualized through the mediation of computer technology.

Social media certainly has this effect, and Twitter may be the moebius effect par excellence. There is something about the medium that is very personal; it does feel transparent, and McCaskill’s deft use of twitter — mixing her professional life as a Senator with her personal life as a Mom and college basketball fan — seems like the “right” way to use Twitter.

But it’s not as simple as Klein makes it, because he seems to be generalizing something about the practice of using Twitter and a de facto incompatibility with “communication” — I don’t think that’s true.

What is true is that Twitter can be as communicative a medium as you want it to be. In other words, McCaskill’s tweets don’t say anything because she’s not saying anything in them.

Furthermore, the 140 character limitation Klein points to — the idea that just because a tweet has 140 characters you cannot saying anything with it — is a sort-of red herring, for two reasons. First, there is no rule that says you cannot use more than one tweet to say something — I’ve had plenty of good discussions on twitter, but they required multiple tweets. In this case, Twitter becomes more like a public chat room, than a series of people answering the question, “What are you doing?” Second, and related, is a point that’s been made elsewhere: what’s said on twitter is often just a part of a larger conversation, with users linking to, and commenting on, blog posts and newspaper articles, or “live-tweeting” events as they happen. (And to be sure, McCaskill, along with many other public/celebrity types on Twitter, does not use it in these ways…)

There is no doubt that Twitter creates a feeling of intimacy between users, but there is no reason why that must preclude a medium where communication — the exchange and debate of viewpoints and ideas — cannot happen.


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