Between Two Worlds: A Mix of Theology, Philosophy, Politics, and Culture

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Twitter: The Telegraph of Narcissus

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Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google and the article Is Google Making Us Stupid? recently blogged about Twitter:
Twitter unbundles the blog, fragments the fragment. It broadcasts the text message, turns SMS into a mass medium.

And what exactly are we broadcasting? The minutiae of our lives. The moment-by-moment answer to what is, in Twitterland, the most important question in the world: What are you doing? Or, to save four characters: What you doing? Twitter is the telegraph of Narcissus. Not only are you the star of the show, but everything that happens to you, no matter how trifling, is a headline, a media event, a stop-the-presses bulletin. Quicksilver turns to amber.

Like so many other Web 2.0 services, Twitter wraps itself and its users in an infantile language. We're not adults having conversations, or even people sending messages. We're tweeters twittering tweets. We're twitters tweetering twits. We're twits tweeting twitters. We're Tweety Birds.
He's not done:

Narcissism is just the user interface for nihilism, of course, and with artfully kitschy services like Twitter we're allowed to both indulge our self-absorption and distance ourselves from it by acknowledging, with a coy digital wink, its essential emptiness. I love me! Just kidding!

The great paradox of "social networking" is that it uses narcissism as the glue for "community." Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together. The community is purely symbolic, a pixellated simulation conjured up by software to feed the modern self's bottomless hunger. Hunger for what? For verification of its existence? No, not even that. For verification that it has a role to play. As I walk down the street with thin white cords hanging from my ears, as I look at the display of khakis in the window of the Gap, as I sit in a Starbucks sipping a chai served up by a barista, I can't quite bring myself to believe that I'm real. But if I send out to a theoretical audience of my peers 140 characters of text saying that I'm walking down the street, looking in a shop window, drinking tea, suddenly I become real. I have a voice. I exist, if only as a symbol speaking of symbols to other symbols.

Do I hear an amen?

HT: Andrew Sullivan



Blogger Brian said...

preach it, Brother!

4/18/2009 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger Pastor B. said...

I taught I taw a putty tat, I did I did taw a putty tat.

Am I tweeting?

4/18/2009 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Etherington said...


4/18/2009 08:45:00 PM  
Blogger dave said...

bloggers making narcissism critiques of those who use twitter make me laugh...

4/18/2009 08:51:00 PM  
Blogger Drew Hunter said...

This is great:

4/18/2009 09:03:00 PM  
Blogger bjr2000 said...

This post has been removed by the author.

4/18/2009 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger Damian Romano said...

I'm sure your buddy Timmaaay would tend to disagree...

4/18/2009 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger mrclm said...

Let me guess...he's never used Twitter? It is only as narcissistic as the person using it. So some, yes, others, no.

4/18/2009 09:17:00 PM  
Blogger L said...

It's somewhat ironic that I reached this blog post from Twitter. :)

4/18/2009 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger Derrick Jeror said...

According to many in the church first radio was evil, then it was TV, then it was the internet, then it was instant messaging,then blogging, then MySpace, then Facebook and now Twitter. And each phase the church moves forward to use the communication method they just said was evil to then demonize the next. This guy is BLOGGING about the evils of TWITTERING. Does the brevity of a comment make it more or less God glorifying? Every method of communication is only a tool. It can be used to curse God and exalt yourself or it can be used to exalt God and humble yourself. The person typing is a either a Narcissus or he isn't, the means in which he communicates does not make him that.

4/18/2009 09:32:00 PM  
Blogger Derrick Jeror said...

@L (hehe)

I had to laugh, I followed the link to this article from a friends twitter post as well.

4/18/2009 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger Darren said...

At the least blogging can create meaningful information. Twitter is designed to communicate meaningLESS info.

Along with Romano...
Can we get an AMEN from Challies?!

4/18/2009 09:46:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Brown said...

L and Derrik,
But that just proves the point, that we indulge in it even while admitting it's emptiness!

(and yes, I not only reached this via twitter, but retweeted it as well!)

4/18/2009 09:51:00 PM  
Blogger Derrick Jeror said...

@Darren - Don't think you'll get an amen from Challies, I'm following him on Twitter...

Yes Twitter is designed for short amounts of information. For the most part Twitter is primarily used to direct people to useful information other places. If it wasn't for Twitter I would have never found the link to this blog post.

Think of Twitter as running into someone at the grocery store. You don't have a lot of time to talk but you want to say hi, give an encouragement. Maybe recommend a book you are reading, refer them to a sermon MP3 that blessed you or an online article.

If you look at Twitter with tunnel vision and believe that people using Twitter are ONLY using Twitter than yes, it would be very shallow. Twitter is just a tool that lets you reach large numbers of people very quickly and easily with a short message. If the message is "I'm eating waffles" it may not change anyone's life. If the message is "I just listened to an awesome sermon by C.J. Mahaney,check it out" and thousands of unbelievers are directed to a sermon that speaks the gospel to them, that's God glorifying.

4/18/2009 10:06:00 PM  
Blogger Bryce said...

I will admit that everything said in this post has the potential to be true, and is, in fact, true in the case of many who use twitter. But twitter also has the potential to be a tremendously useful technology, supplementing real life community, introducing people to one another, and disseminating information many would not find without it. Sure, Christians can call it evil or shallow and turn our backs, and leave it to "the world" to use for its benefit. Or we can find ways to use it intelligently for God's glory. The choice is yours. As far as I'm concerned, this post does nothing to move us in the right direction.

4/18/2009 10:33:00 PM  
Blogger Pseudo said...


twitterers (tweeters, twits(?)) certainly think they matter juuuust a little too much

4/18/2009 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger L said...

@Ken Brown

I would respond to you, but I don't think I can keep it under 140 characters!

4/18/2009 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Current said...

It’s not about vilifying a type of technology, IMO, it’s the way people are tending to use it right now. Can we all at least admit… Facebook status updates and Twitter can be very useful and they have a place, but they are totally examples of socially accepted Narcissism.

Just imagine if these people were actually together face to face. Don’t we all notice the person in the office, or that family member who continually talks about themselves excessively? It’s not okay in real life personal conversation, but it’s exponentially okay on Twitter.

I’m not against Twitter, but I think it should be more for broadcast notes that are *actionable* versus meaningless interruption.

4/18/2009 11:37:00 PM  
OpenID whatchrislikes said...

@Pseudo - The same could just as easily be said about people who leave comments on blogs.

IMHO, there's nothing inherently wrong with what Twitter does, but maybe there is something wrong with how a lot of people use it and how it's been marketed. As others have already said, Twitter is a powerful tool for gathering information and finding out what's going on in the world.

It should also be noted that Nicholas Carr wrote all of that 1 1/2 years ago when Twitter was being used largely for narcissistic ends rather than sharing solid information. I'm surprised he still agrees with what he wrote back then, although with Oprah opening Twitter up to soccer moms everywhere, I won't be surprised if the Twittersphere is overrun by those types of users again.

And as far as the "infantile language" thing goes, I think most of us would agree that the style of the word (in this case, infantile-sounding) is not as important as the content the word signifies and the attitude of the speaker, although they are on some level related. So I could say all sorts of "adult" words and sound way more infantile than I do when I use the words Twittersphere, tweet, twit, tweeps, etc. in a normal serious conversation. Languages change. There's no point in griping about how you don't like the way "the kids" are talking.

4/18/2009 11:57:00 PM  
Blogger Joanna said...

Twitter has a lot of potential to be used for good so it would be a shame to write it off because some people use it for self indulgent purposes. As has already been mentioned, it is a great way to share worthwhile christian resources with a lot of people. Another thing it is very useful for is prayer requests. My hometown recently suffered a serious natural disaster. While it was taking place i didn't have the time or the power working long enough to write a full blog post or email asking for prayer. Twitter allowed me to quickly send out prayer requests about the unfolding events which some of my friends then helped by retweeting further.

4/19/2009 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger MyOverNightBiz.Com said...

Take a useful tool as a Knife to kill someone instead of chopping meat. It is not Twitter, but your intent.

Cease being stupid.

4/19/2009 02:10:00 AM  
Blogger Brendt said...

Derrick's first comment hits the nail on the head. It's as though the church is PROUD to be behind the curve, and then eventually catches up.

I thank thee that I am not like other men. I do not tweet. But here's 1/10 of my cummin.

4/19/2009 08:50:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew Hosier said...

I agree with the post that social networking can infantilize us. I came off FB for a while because it all seemed so juvenile. Yet as a pastor I am finding Twitter great for communicating news and prayer requests with my church, and for keeping up with the lives of my church members. It might seem trivial to know what someone has eaten for dinner, but today at church I was able to have a number of fruitful pastoral conversations for which tweets were the seed.

4/19/2009 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Mesa Mike said...

See this!

4/19/2009 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...


I've been puzzled of late by the sudden influx of Twitter-birds in sidebars. Gives a new dimension to the phrase/concept/reality of immediate gratification.

Is that really a good thing?

4/19/2009 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

I agree that Twitter is a bit narcissistic. However, I like it. For me, it keeps me up-to-date on close friends. (Not the long list of random people with whom I'm "friends" on facebook.) Also, it makes famous people more real and less intimidating.

I like it. :)

4/19/2009 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Derek Radney said...

Like all technological advances, Twitter can be used for good (like Derrick Jeror has pointed out) and for evil. This article helps us think about some of the negative effects this technology can have on our society and on us as individuals. I think there is a place to think about these damaging consequences and how they relate to the spirit of the age, but as some of those making comments are pointing out, we must see that there are benefits as well.

4/19/2009 04:25:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...


4/19/2009 06:26:00 PM  
OpenID Gunner said...

Very insightful. Thanks for the link, JT. Obviously Twitter can be used for good, as many are pointing out. But that observation doesn't negate the insight and perspective of the article.

4/19/2009 06:42:00 PM  
Blogger Gregory said...

"Do I hear an amen?" Um, no, Justin. You can, however, get a roll of the eyes and a, "Thanks for pointing us to a great example of a 'holier-than-thou' attitude." Carr has really embarrassed himself with this post.

Derrick Jeror has wisely and accurately responded. Unfortunately, the summary Justin has posted here reveals a complete lack of understanding of Twitter. No one I encounter in the use of Twitter actually uses it to answer the question, "What are you doing?" It's much more a, "What's on your mind," kind of thing. I can't tell you how many meaningful conversations--both online and off--I've had as a result of a tweet. I have no sense whatsoever that somehow I am not real until I have told a lot of strangers what I'm doing.

Those of use who subscribe to Reformed theology deal with this all the time. We have to struggle through the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of others as we try to practice and explain and preach and teach the doctrines of grace.

(BTW, my point in the above paragraph was not to elevate Twitter to the level of Reformed theology. Rather, it was to point out that the same thought process we struggle against almost daily is the same thought process that went into Carr's blog post, which could be subtitled, "Great Adventures in Missing the Point.")

4/19/2009 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger Derrick Jeror said...

I have started writing an ebook discussing social media and the church. I'll post a link to the book here when it's finished. Should be ready in the next week or two.

You also could just follow my Twitter...

4/19/2009 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Smith said...

I am so mad at you I'm tweeting to all my twits about this!

"JT is a going to go feed my dogs now."

"Now I'm changing the channel on my TV."

"Eating a cookie."

"It's all gone."

4/19/2009 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tai Sophia said...

This post has been removed by the author.

4/19/2009 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tai Sophia said...

As Derrick said, it's definitely about how you use the tools God has given you. You can have a fruitless (even disastrous) conversation with someone face-to-face just as easily as you can point someone to the gospel or the magnificence of Christ on Twitter.

I'm also not sure I agree with some who mentioned that it's narcissistic to post an update like "Worked on my book today, and laid out in the glorious sunshine as the breezes blew all around me!" or "'It's a beautiful day! Don't let it get away.'" (taken from actual "tweets" of mine). First of all, it lets people know that you *are* an actual real human being and not just some zombie sitting behind a computer who's only concerned about business. I like seeing what my friends are up to sometimes; it can make for a good laugh, point me to a way I can pray for them, make for a good conversation starter (as someone else mentioned), and just give me a piece of the picture of their "world". Plus, it's not like I'm forced to "follow" everyone who follows me on Twitter. If I don't want to hear about your trip to the dentist, I can just not follow you.

In a way, it can be like a mini-journal (which is probably *one* reason I like it) where you can just be yourself. However, from the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (or fingers tweet...). If you're crazy about God and what he's doing in your daily's gonna show up in your private journal, on your Twitter, and it's gonna show up in your "real life". And the beauty of Twitter, is that others *will* see it (God working in your life doesn't have to be tucked away in a leather-bound notebook complete with lock and key)...and you can be like a star shining in the heavens.

It basically comes down to dedicating it to God, for His purposes and plans; if it consumes you and you're more worried about who said what/when than you are about what GOD says in his word...maybe you should not be Twittering...BUT, maybe one day God would lead you to post something about a book you read, and someone expresses an interest in reading it too! Or maybe someone is really struggling with trusting God, and so are you, but through his grace he has enabled *you* to cling to his promises...and maybe you share one on Twitter, and it catches the right eye at the right time. Or a link to a sermon...or really, any number of things. We can't limit God with our finite minds in how he wants to reach others. There's a whole world out there in the dark - in need of a savior...and half of them use Twitter!
So...get out there and tweet for the glory of God!
~Lady Tai

4/19/2009 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger Tai Sophia said...

P.S. (can you believe I have a Post-Script to that ginormous comment?? Me either...) But just because you only get 140 characters to work with on Twitter, doesn't mean that it can't be as potent (or more so) than...say, an entire letter. I think the bigger problem with today's culture than the "we-want-what-we-want-and-we-want-it-quick-and-easy-to-swallow" syndrome (or at least a close runner-up) is the disturbing lack of communication skills. People just don't know how to use language to it's fullest degree of impact...and that's why 140 characters might not seem like enough. There are some people in this world (and I'm not trying to sound like a mom convincing her child that the poor kids in Africa would gladly eat their broccoli - though it's true) who would give almost anything if people would only give them the freedom to use 140 characters to make themselves heard. 140 characters is an amazing privilege. It can make or break a relationship. It can comfort or reject. It should be held as a solemn honor. To mangle a John Piper quote to suit my own purposes (he'd approve though, of course ;-), "Don't waste your 140 characters".

4/19/2009 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tai Sophia said...

and, I'm sorry...I meant "easy-to-swallow" up there in my "P.S.".

4/19/2009 11:04:00 PM  

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