In the group setting, I tend to be reserved. The trait is not iron clad. It’s something I’m able to overcome, in my teaching for example or at family functions, but I’m most comfortable as an observer, preferring to watch and listen rather than take part. This reserved streak tends to become more pronounced online, on listserves, for example and broadcast emails, forms of communication I avoid and use only when necessary. Why? Shyness maybe, but it’s more likely the particular variety of self-consciousness that strikes me when speaking to groups online. I’ve been known to agonize over emails, spending hours over lines that seem unable to take on any tone, or worse, convey the wrong tone entirely. Online language is infamously ambiguous, and the author must carefully handle language and tone if her meaning is not be misconstrued.
Given all that, it may come as no surprise that when I first signed onto Twitter, my account languished for months. Then, suddenly, my first follower notification arrived. I was stunned, a bit embarrassed, and not a little nervous. Then, a neighbor signed on as a Follower, and not long after, my mom. Soon after, I posted my first somewhat tentative tweets.
For novices of social networking, Twitter can seem—oh, I don’t know—too much? Too many voices, opinions, links, wisecracks. Not to mention all those hashtags and truncated links. “Too much” is definitely how I’d describe my mom’s reaction. “I’m flummoxed,” she DM’d me, “Don’t know what to make of it all!” Yet looking back on my first tweets, consisting mostly of page counts while plowing through Moby Dick, I can see how the form helped ease my reluctance. It soon became apparent that the best Tweets were miniature case studies in the author’s voice and tone, and I did my best to do the same within Twitter’s legendary 140 character restriction.
That restriction turned out to be especially helpful, given that, in writing short stories, I’m comfortable with the task of compression and enjoy that aspect of the form. But as with any restrictive form—one thinks of haiku, a form that has famously lent itself to the Twittersphere—it imposes a need for both economy and style. With only 140 characters this is especially true, and happily, for certain Twitterers that’s a sufficient amount to create glimpses of wonder. Take @natashabadhwar, based in New Dehli, whose bio reads, “Mum, Film-maker, Teacher, Photographer. Media Consultant. Making friends with her slow side.” Recently profiled at Twitter Tales, she described her approach this way: “Tweet by tweet, update by update, I began to create a world that I could live in, that I did live in.” For her followers that world is a pleasure to observe in tweets such as, “Days are long, months feel safe. But the years, the years seem to be on the run.” Reading posts like Natasha’s, I soon realized that among the abundant reasons to use Twitter, the best reason of all might be the chance to happen upon art like Natasha’s.
My online self-consciousness has since dwindled and I suspect regular Twittering, with its built-in limitations, is largely the reason. As Aimee Bender said recently, “I'm a big believer in structure, and the idea that creativity loosens up when constrained a bit.” I suppose that’s what I’ve done, loosened up a bit, enough to take part in a stunningly wide and rich conversation. It would be shame to stand on the sidelines and miss it, when with a few words even shy persons can jump in and take part.
You can follow me on Twitter here.