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Is Twitter the New Voyeurism?

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I have never met Biz Stone, Rachel Sklar, Susan Orlean or Jay Rosen, but every morning when I sign onto Twitter, there they are, whispering in my ear with a disconcerting intimacy, telling me about their lives, what they are concerned with moment to moment, their fears and desires. I would have to say that I’m getting to know them on a daily basis, better perhaps than my own husband. Recently when Susan, a New Yorker writer, complained about the humiliations of acquiring blurbs for her new book, I could feel her pain. And when Jay, an NYU journalism professor, and Richard Nash, the former Soft Skull Editor, worried over the future of publishing, I hung on their every word, and chased down their bit.ly and TinyURL links and retweets.

When I compare this Twitter feed to the stream from my real life, I wonder if I would even want this sort of continuous consciousness-updating from my family and friends,  say from my husband, for example, who at the moment is worried mainly about his aging parents and making a living in a down economy. The Top Twitterers, though, they are concerned with things much more interesting and current. Recently, when former Huff Po editor and media diva Rachel Sklar was flitting about the social scene, I followed along. And when actor/writer/director Kevin Smith went to that film festival—to say nothing of his smutty posts about sex with his wife—well, I wish I could say that I looked away. I didn’t.

The truth is, I get far too much vicarious pleasure out of tagging along with this crowd of thought leaders and media and tech celebrities, and it feels highly voyeuristic to me. But I refuse to shut it off, perish the thought. Why? Because I am the sort of writer who usually works in more than 140 characters. I am busy churning out two to three essays or long-form blog posts a week, as well as penning assorted poems and stories, and usually maintaining some kind of longer work in progress.

My daily life consists mostly of me and my computer holed up in an office in my small overheated Cape on Boston’s South Shore, with trips out only to walk the dogs, pick up my son from school, and teach two writing workshops a week. I admit it, there are days—too many really—when I don’t find the need to wash my hair or put on something other than the yoga pants I slept in. For a shut-in writer like me, the allure of the Twitterverse is almost too much to stand. I think of it as “my feed,” by which I mean, “my fix,” and I ration myself to two or three sessions per day.

I rationalize that I need Twitter because I have to publicize my own blog and writing. But my posts seem anemic by comparison with those I’m following. I’m not adding a link where you can catch me on YouTube talking to Colbert. And when I sign on, doesn’t my pulse beat a little faster, as I step onto the fast lane?

As is the case with all voyeurism, Twitter gives me the sense that I’m sharing in the immediate experiences of these other people, even though I’m really not. And you feel all those same confused feelings on Twitter that are usually associated with voyeurism: fascination, jealousy, vicarious participation, secret thrill. Because I don’t actually know any of these people in the flesh, they take on the tantalizing glamour of things appreciated from afar. One feels that they are “in the know”—that they understand better what is happening in the world, and that, I guess, is a certain kind of power they hold over us. The kind that in the old days drew people to fashionable salons. We summarize this now by saying we want to be “part of the cultural conversation.” The truth is, we want to be in there with the cool kids. If this were high school, the Head Twitterers would be the in-crowd.

The funny thing is that the most fabulous of the Twitters were probably themselves super nerds back in high school. And that’s actually one of the things I adore about Twitter. Our American culture has long been obsessed with celebrities, but it has generally been at the level of twenty-three-year-old party girls with store-bought breasts and hair extensions. Now, suddenly, with Twitter, the arts, tech and intellectual class has our own equivalent. The Twitterati. You can pick who you want to follow from a collection of Twittering writers, college professors, journalists, and tech geeks. This has always been a class of people with too much to say and too few people to say it to. Now suddenly they have a growing audience, and Twitter is doing everybody a favor by limiting us all to 140 characters, which forces a much needed level of distillation and wit. If you want more, there’s the blog post. But who has time for that? I am actually a bit disheartened by the appearance on Twitter of real gold-plated celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Please, I want to say to them, leave Twitter to the nerds!

If you are having trouble getting started microblogging, check out Twitter for Dummies and Twitter Top Success Secrets and Best Practices by Paul Hall. Amazon also lists the following books about business marketing on Twitter: Twitter Means Business: How Microblogging Can Help Or Hurt Your Company by Julio Ojeda-Zapata and Twitter Power: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet At A Time by Joel Comm, et al.

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About Kimberly Davis

  • Kim, thanks for such a great article.When you think clearly, Twitter is indeed the new voyeurs’ platform and unconsciously, we do reveal things that we may not normally reveal to even family and friends. Moreover, it robs us of our time and in the long run, it almost becomes an addiction.

  • Now that Oprah’s on board, I think Twitter will be less cool — not less used — and more trendy…

  • Hi Kimberley

    Loved this post. I also have days when I don’t get out of my nightie :-)and despite my deadlines log into twitter. Can feel like a vortex that pulls me more forcefully the closer I get. I tweeted once that that after a couple of days away from twitter, reading the stream of eclectic tweets 🙂 is like a brain massage.. i literally feel stimulated in different parts of my brain.

    and actually for this reason i do like the presence of non-nerds because the contrast itself provides a more interesting one (massage)

    Jessica: I do agree with you in the point you make about sharing the not-so-welcome-self. I am in the middle of writing about my own failures and reflect actually how hard it is. The notion of the safe space.

    I have actually just written about Paolo Coelho’s post “in search of the perfect leader” which discusses how we don’t allow our leaders to make human mistakes.

    Seems like it is one big collusion to only show the shiny self.

    thanks for thought-provoking writing from both of you.


  • Jet

    It would appear to me as if Twitter is for those who have tons of time on their hands and not really worth bothering with… unless you’re really bored with your life.

    Or am I missing something?


    Has anyone other than me, actually realized or care that the folks behind Twitter are actually tracking YOU.

  • Very nice article.

    Here’s my latest Twitter web comic.

  • Jessica: Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. Leaving aside exhibitionists like Kevin Smith, I still think people who are asked to update minute to minute often give away far more than they think about their worries and concerns. Hence the voyeuristic element. But I love your argument about the self as a construct. That is so true, isn’t it? It’s something you often see in “persona” poetry. But these days everyone has an online persona that they are trying to project, and in many cases it borders on fiction. Kimberly Davis (author)

  • Jessica

    I think the voyeurism frame is more titillating than the actual experience of Twitter. For one thing, very few people actually share anything truly personal about their lives. The suggestion that everybody on Twitter is posting about their eating habits or when they do their laundry is a frame invented by the media. Jay Rosen called the opposite of this “mind casting” – the sharing of resources, questions or other intelligent commentary not related to one’s activities or personal life. It’s the type of Twittering I do and it’s the type of Twittering 90 per cent of my educator friends engage in. With some exceptions there are some personal tweets (particularly on the weekend). But do I feel I’m peeking into anyone’s life – in any intimate way – not really. Do I feel I know these people better than I know my spouse? Thankfully not.

    The article I’d like to see somebody in the mainstream media write is about just how LITTLE anybody is sharing of any really personal import. Nobody tweets, “my life is a disaster. I feel like such a failure” or “my financial situation is perilous. I don’t know how we’re going to pay the bills” or “my brother’s life choices really concern me.” Nobody talks about their real troubles, worries or fears in these services and yet we’re in a recession. I know people in real life who are losing their jobs. And yet, if you check twitter, people are tweeting about their new iphone app or where they flying on vacation (the most personal thing I’ve seen) or some other material index of success.

    If anything, people are using Twitter to project ideal images of themselves and their lives that are consistent with a public image of success. These aren’t safe or truly private spaces so why on earth would anybody share anything truly personal and risk losing their job, their friends, their security or create conflict in their relationships. Few people are so stupid. Is that a bad thing? No. We need, more than ever before, a sense of control over our lives. And as much as we may well be “sharing” on these services, much of it is a carefully constructed fiction designed more than anything to help us establish the ideal self that we need others (even ourselves) to believe in. And there are very few exceptions.