Why We Tweet

An open letter to twitter spouses, bosses, and family

We know you don’t understand. You don’t understand why we are addicted. You don’t understand why we write such private things in such a public forum. You don’t understand why we don’t hide our identities. And because you don’t understand, you may be prone to judging us. To thinking that what we are doing is wrong — ethically, morally, or some other -ly. By writing this letter, I hope to help you understand.

At its simplest level, you can think of twitter as a diary. I know it is not a perfect metaphor, but let’s start there. You certainly understand why people keep diaries. Expressing your thoughts and emotions in poetry and prose is cathartic. You may have kept a diary yourself at some time of your life. If you did, then you know how it helps you sort out your feelings. And the long-term record helps you understand today’s struggles and victories in the context of your whole life.

So twitter is a diary. A really weird diary.

So why do we do this in public? Well part of it is context. Just as your diary puts today in a broader context of your own existence, sharing your diary puts today in the context of human existence. You can see that others face similar struggles; you can see how they cope; and you can contribute your experience to this public diary. It’s the same reason people write blogs, or publish poetry. A private diary is just not the same as publicly splaying yourself out for everyone to see. You feel compelled to be completely honest in public. It’s part of the social contract.

There are other benefits to having your diary public. The primary one is the validation you get from other people. It’s like the applause at an AA meeting. It encourages you to share. It helps you prioritize keeping this diary. If you skip a day, people will miss you. In a very short time, you will start to connect with these “strangers” on a deep, emotional level. Much deeper than the level you achieve with ordinary friends in ordinary life, because talking about kids, and teachers, and weather, and local politics just isn’t the same as talking about loss, and love, and lust, and pain.

Now, there is a lot of humor in twitter. People make jokes, and funny observations, and engage in word play. But that’s the superficial twitter. It’s comic relief. You need to recognize that this is not why we are here. Except when that humor is the best way to convey our pain, our suffering, our love, our lust. In those cases, that humor is precisely why we are here.

(Also, regarding humor, you should understand that sometimes we make things up, stretch the truth, or say something we really do not mean. Sometimes we write things for the sake of the joke. If we say we hate you on twitter, it doesn’t mean we actually hate you. In fact, it probably means the opposite.)

So why don’t we hide our identities? Well, some people do. But most of us simultaneously dread the thought of our non-twitter friends and family seeing our timelines, and yet post pictures of ourselves and use nicknames that everyone outside twitter know, and generally do a terrible job of staying hidden. The reasons for this are complex. Primarily, it comes from a sincere need to connect. Our words and thoughts are part of who we are, but so is our appearance and our public persona. If we hide that stuff, we can only partially connect. And, over time, as the intimate bonds with our twitter peers grow, we feel the need to fully connect. So we willfully ignore the possible consequences. These are our people. We are anonymous. But only by social convention. Because we need our people to know us entirely.

I understand that it is completely bizarre that these people are complete strangers, and yet also our closest friends. But this is not a unique phenomena. The AA meeting I mentioned earlier, or a therapy group have the same dynamic. We all get that it is hard for you to accept that these strangers are our closest friends, but trust us — they are. We will chat outside the public forum. We get to know each other. We talk through difficult situations. We come to love each other. We come to rely on each other.

So, dear friend/family/boss, why do we want you to willfully ignore our identity here? Why do we block you when we find out you are on twitter? Why do we make these lame attempts to hide in plain sight? Well in twitter, there is a funny concept called a “subtweet.” This is when you write a message to a person, but do not explicitly identify them. It might be a joke, or a passive-aggressive attack, or just a subtle expression of love. The main reason we do not want you to read our timeline is because we do not want you to think that we are subtweeting you. If I express my love of my wife to my friends, that is a pure expression of love. If I express it to my friends and my wife, then it loses credibility. Am I just expressing that to make her happy? How do I really feel? What would I say if she wasn’t there?

When you are expressing your feelings, you want them to be taken at face value. But if the object of those feelings is in the room, that is simply impossible.

We can’t keep you from finding our timeline. We can’t keep you from reading it. Just as we leave our diary on our bedside table, we simply trust that you won’t read it. If you choose to, that’s up to you; but for God’s sake, don’t tell us you did it. And don’t judge us for what we say. And don’t tell other people what you read. And please, please, please don’t tell anyone our handle.

It’s actually kind of nice to think that you might read what we write so you can more fully understand what we feel. But if that happens, it needs to be don’t-ask-don’t-tell. We didn’t write any of that for your benefit. We will pretend that you aren’t reading, and you pretend that you aren’t reading, and it’s all good. And if reading our timeline upsets you, then just don’t read it. We didn’t ask you to read it. In fact, by hiding our identity, we kind of asked you not to read it.

We love you. And we need this. And we ask that you just let us have it.

Sincerely,
@alfageeek and everyone else who uses twitter like I do

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17 thoughts on “Why We Tweet

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Para todos aquellos que piensan que Facebook y Twitter son una “obsesión”. Hey, Shakespeare, estás obsesionado con el papel y la tinta. No pido que comprendan, pero toleren y respeten la forma de ser de cada quién.

  2. I’m new to twitter and it’s been a pretty steep learning curve and more than a little liberating and threatening. Thanks for this. I think I get it, and you’ve done us a service by posting this.

  3. I have quite a few thoughts on this blog entry. I will post each one as a reply, 140 characters at a time. First, let me say that I abso[ ]

  4. This open letter helped me understand my own self. It says what I think, but did not even know I thought. It’s comforting—like someone “gets me/us” and doesn’t think we’re weird except in the good weird way that we desperately want to be thought weird. This post is a friend, a manifesto on transparency and motivation, a foregrounding of the social contract that is Twitter.

    Thanks @alfageek. Sincerely @thing_finder

  5. Reblogged this on The "Me" Decade and commented:
    Who knew in 1972 that this would be a thing.
    I am trying to track backwards through the popcorn reports and zeitgeist reviews to get to the root of things now and how they were then and why they have become the way they are.
    So then this, this is pure zeitgeist.

  6. Really great explanation for people who don’t use Twitter and even for those of us who do ! Wonderfully written.

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