One thing about Twitter is the curiosity inspired by one side of the conversation.

If you’re following someone, and they wind up in a to-and-fro with someone whom you don’t follow, you’re insulated and confused.  It’s a little like overhearing someone on a phone:

No – I never said that!

But why would you think that’s what I meant?

That has nothing to do with this!

There are some differences, of course, the biggest one being that at the end of a few of those snippets, you’ll get a bit.ly or tiny.url link.  And you may get the other half after all, if you click on the @suchandso tag.  (Hm… I wonder if there IS a @suchandso on Twitter?)  (Nope.  Not yet anyway.)  These one-sided debates get filled in a little bit, provided of course that the debate has occured entirely within the 140-character confines.

That’s where we go back to one-sided.  What can you say in 140 characters, especially if you’re going to start in with details, charts, graphs, and (probably) stuff you’ve already blogged about?  Half the debates begin with someone Twittering about some horrible/wonderful thing they’ve read elsewhere.  Just in the time it takes to catch up, you may miss a bunch of kudos and jeers.  More likely, you’ve already missed all that, and you’re like the person at a party who comes out of the bathroom wondering what all the ruckus is about.

Here’s the thing – you may never really know.

Folks on Twitter are stuck – not exactly bystanders, but certainly not full participats in everything around them.  “Partygoer” might just be the closest analogy (and I’m open to better ones).  A person is Twittering to alert all the followers about what’s going on… as in “You may find this interesting.”  But if hundreds of followers jump in, with half of those only getting one or the other half of the situation?  That’s chaos, really.  And retweets add to the complexity, as followers of followers of followers (some of whom may despise one or both original parties) are suddenly brought into range.

It’s not reasonable to expect a direct answer from one of the participants, who are busy with each other at the moment.  If you ask “What’s up?” you may get no more info than you had coming in – and you may just get “None of your business,” unless one of the other followers takes you aside, as it were.  It’d be rude to jump into an overheard conversation in a shop or a subway; how different is Twitter, anyway?  If you’re following a public personality or other well-known person, are they really going to fill you in on the details?  If you know them well enough to expect an answer when you ask, you can probably call or email them.  If you don’t, Twittering isn’t likely to get you anywhere useful.  The window into their world is one-way, and not to be prized open.  Merely following an actor or an athlete isn’t the same as knowing them, it’s just knowing a little bit about them – and only the bits they reveal.

That’s the trick, really – a private, in person argument that gets loud in public can have only a few people chiming in, just due to the limits of people getting close enough to have their say… and it can be resolved by going off somewhere behind a door.  Twitter removes those doors, removes the limits, and suddenly anyone can have their say.  Is that the price to be paid for participating in a public forum?

If there’s one thing I’ve observed about the rapid advance of communication, it’s that the rules of the game adapt rather than transform, and the people involved are always the priority.  Posting on a blog, for example: especially if you have comments, you invite feedback – but that also seems to draw a certain class of person who enjoys telling you how wrong you are about the post, or how ridiculous you are personally.  They seem taken aback when the poster is offended by this, even though it was meant to be offensive.  What could be an exchange of ideas devolves into a pissing contest because the priorities have been lost, and the rules of the game have been forgotten rather than adapted. 

Would you buttonhole a public speaker and berate them face-to-face?  It’s rude.  (On a more practical level, it can get you punched in the head.)  Well – what about a blog post suddenly makes it OK to be rude?  If you were a guest in a home you would presumably not spit at the host, or dump your coffee on the carpet on purpose… why is a guest on a blog different?  Is it the lack of immediate consequence?  Some people enjoy stirring the pot, especially when they know there will be no repurcussions.  It’s nothing to them to be banned from a blog; there are millions of others to visit.  Is it the anonymity?  I don’t get it.

Don’t roll your eyes at someone, even if they can’t see you.  Don’t speak rashly, or out of turn, even if it’s easier than ever.  Don’t lie, don’t bully, and don’t butt in.  Just because there are pseudonyms and aliases, doesn’t make the person on the other end imaginary.


One thought on “Overheard

  1. Bard February 11, 2011 at 3:43 am

    not to be a killjoy, but unless someone has all their tweets as private and your not following them, you could always click on the name after the @ and see their page.

    Also, whats scariest about posting blogs aren’t the angry posters yelling at you and calling you an idiot (I just tell them thank you). It’s the ones who read a 100-300 word post and somehow write up a 2,000 word reply that creep me out.

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