My queer feelings about Twitter

At a conference session that focused on book marketing, the presenter made the following point:

“If you want your book to succeed, you should get on Twitter.”

A colleague of mine, over lunch, recently said to me:

“You’ve got great ideas. You should get on Twitter.”

At the end of this past semester, the feedback one of my students gave me was this:

“Your class was great. But you should get on Twitter.”

All snarkiness aside, I will say this: I LOVE Pinterest – it dovetails well with my crafty/home-decorating/gardening/DIY/fun kid stuff interests. In contrast, I really have no idea what Tumblr really is. (I hear that’s a generational thing. And it bothers me that the word “Tumblr” is missing an “e.”) I do know what Twitter is – and a web article I came across captured my feelings about it exactly:

“Twitter promotes a culture of narcissism and attention-seeking. In combination with the 140 character limit it also promotes stupidity and dumbs down conversation.”

Needless to say, even though Twitter was developed during the first wave of social networking (along with Myspace and Facebook), I never bothered to join. On a gut level, I suspected that, in addition to enabling narcissism and dumbing down society, Twitter was creating a false sense of connection – a dangerous thing for people who are already socially isolated. (Like at-risk LGBTQ youth, for example.) At some point, however, I realized that my “promotes a culture of narcissism” attitude is contempt prior to investigation. And I began to consider the very real possibility that I could be missing out on something big. Plus I was feeling like a bit of a hypocrite, deriding Twitter but constantly losing myself in Facebook (a social network that probably promotes a culture of narcissism  – just in a different way).

So I bit the bullet, and I joined. I created a Twitter handle (@GaylePitman, if you’re interested). I started following people. I began to tweet (although I much prefer true birdsong). I learned what a hashtag is (the thing #thatlookslikethis), and I started to use them. I started GETTING followers.

And, because I’m an intellectual geek, I started reading about the psychology of Twitter. Would you believe that over 650 scholarly articles have been published about Twitter? Here’s a comparison: Use “gay African-American” as your search terms, and you get 502 articles. Search for “LGBT aging,” and you get 109 articles. More studies have been done on Twitter than on African American gay men and LGBT aging combined. The sheer amount of research that focuses on Twitter is mind-boggling, to say the least. And as I’ve been combing through this research, I can see the utility of Twitter, particularly for marketing purposes. However, I also think that Twitter can be dangerous. (Yes, I used the word dangerous.)  Especially for youth, including LGBTQ teens and young adults, who rely heavily on social networking platforms as a means of staying connected.

As I read through the research, three major concepts jumped out at me. The first, which emerged in many of the early studies of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms, involves what’s called “self-monitoring” and “impression management.” In a nutshell, these terms refer to the ways people self-police what they post. They want to look good, and they want people to like them, so people craft their posts (or tweets) in a way that will potentially be appealing to others. As a result, “friends” or “followers” aren’t necessarily getting a true or genuine picture of you – rather, they’re getting the cleaned-up, packaged version that you’re deliberately presenting.

The second concept involves what’s called “parasocial interaction,” a term coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl. When an interaction is parasocial, it’s imbalanced, one-sided, and non-reciprocated. Psychotherapy is an example of a type of parasocial interaction; ideally, the client is the one who’s revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings, and while the therapist is listening and responding, he or she isn’t reciprocating. If you love Prince William and Kate Middleton, you undoubtedly know a whole lot more about them than they do about you. Although you can have a conversation with someone on Twitter, typically a tweet is a type of parasocial interaction.

The last body of research involves what many researchers refer to as “herd behavior.” It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Nietsche called it the “herd instinct.” Kierkegaard called it “the crowd.” Sigmund Freud developed what he called “crowd behavior theory” – and many people today on social media refer to it as the “hive mind.” All of these terms describe how people in large groups become deindividuated, losing their unique perspective and converging into uniformity. Some historians believe that Hitler capitalized on the herd phenomenon – it’s purported that, at his speeches, he planted German officers disguised as civilians within the crowd. These officers would then clap and cheer for Hitler, causing the rest of the crowd to follow suit. A related concept is what’s called the “spiral of silence theory,” which describes how people who hold a perceived minority opinion choose not to speak up, for fear of being criticized, threatened, or rejected.

OK, let’s recap. Social networking platforms (1) encourage the presentation of a false self, and discourage good-bad-and-ugly realness; (2) facilitate one-sided relationships, rather than exercising those give-and-take relationship muscles; and (3) trap you into the pit of the hive mind.

Let’s bring this back to LGBTQ issues. When I was coming out back in the mid-1990s, there was no Twitter. There was no Facebook. Hell, there was barely an Internet. (I know, I sound rigid and crotchety, but bear with me.) In many ways, this sounds like a terrible disadvantage, given the numerous information pathways that have opened up in the last 20 years. However, it forced me to get out of my house and meet real people. And I did. I met a lesbian woman who was an animation artist. I met a gay man who worked in the fab at Intel and wore one of those big bunny suits. I met a woman who danced at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I met a woman who had been exclusively attracted to women – and then was caught off-guard when she fell in love with a man. I watched people get into relationships, stay in relationships, and leave relationships. These were not stereotypes. These were not carefully crafted Twitter or Facebook profiles. These were real people, with all of their imperfections and vulnerabilities. And it was a true gift, because it allowed me to see that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of embracing your queer identity.

So I’m still on Twitter. It is actually a very useful marketing tool – if you have a need to market a product or an idea. It does get information out quickly – if you have information that’s useful to others. But for relationships, for connections, for community? I’d advise you to look elsewhere. Use Twitter for what it does well. Get out of your house and meet people if you’re looking to break isolation.


Filed under mental health, psychological research, relationships, stereotypes

2 responses to “My queer feelings about Twitter

  1. I never really got sucked into twitter. Tumblr is kind of the same thing but much less irritating at least to me. It’s a bit more like wordpress or blogspot.

  2. Emilia Marquez

    I was never a social media person until high school friends wanted me to get involved with MySpace. I’ve since deleted mine and now I have a Facebook profile. How did that happen? Again, people kept begging me to get a Facebook but I didn’t make one just because people were begging me to. I made one because I wanted to keep in touch with my friends from sac city when I went to sac state so I could see what they were up to. Now I’m addicted and I’m trying to learn to set boundaries. I don’t care much for Twitter or Tumbler. I don’t even know what Pinterest is either. I like Facebook and I think it’s something I won’t be deleting from my life anytime soon.

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