Swing high, Tweet chariot

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Twitter is the new social networking rage. What is everyone talking about, asks Nisha Susan

Illustration: Anand Naorem

AMONG THE Japanese nobility of 800 AD, note-passing was a social skill that could make or break relationships between lovers, family, friends and political associates. Elaborate conventions and high expectations attended these games. In some circumstances, you wrote prose and in others, poetry. Your ability to turn out a tanka, a 31-syllable poem, could literally change your life. The Heian nobility would certainly understand the impulse of the tweeting nerd — the kind that composes witty tweets while staying in character as Shakespeare or Jane Austen or the kind that finds endless variations on the popular hashtag 3wordsaftersex. On the other hand, they would condemn banality (@supergirl Cat is making funny faces at my table lolz).

In the interests of housekeeping, Twitter is a social networking website (like a pared down version of Facebook) that enables its users to send and read other users’ updates, known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters. You can send tweets via cellphone or the net. If you find someone (friend, acquaintance, stranger or celebrity) whose line of patter you like, you can choose to follow them.

Which means that every time their fingers get itchy you get an update on your computer or your phone. Hashtags are a simple label that helps you find conversations you are interested in.

Twitter seems as trendy, charming and forgettable as the hula hoop or Rubik’s cube or Friendster. Twitter has not reached critical mass yet in India, not the kind enjoyed by Orkut or Facebook. But this summer it has the smell of something about to go hula.

Shashi Tharoor is already there with nearly 4,400 followers. He announced on Twitter this week that he would like Section 377 repealed. Staring at his twitter page can induce a mild sense of vertigo. Other tweets: First meeting with MEA Minister SM Krishna, an eminent figure in Indian politics. I will be handling mainly Africa & Arab world. Others who have recently hopped into the Twitter canoe are Mallika Sherawat, Rahul Gandhi, Gul Panag, Aamir Khan and SRK.

The New Scientist is harnessing Twitter for a study on telepathy. During each day of the study, a scientist will travel to a randomly selected location. Once there, he will send a tweet asking participants to tweet their own thoughts concerning his location. Guess the right location often enough and chances are that you are psychic. When similar tests were done in the 1920s, using the radio, it involved a locked room, a mathematician and thousands of listeners. One way of understanding what has changed in the world is to imagine what the participants were doing while waiting to find out if they are psychics. One imagines in the days of radio, people built card towers or balsawood airplane models or perhaps knitted a sweater. (Before drinking cocoa and heading off to bed, of course) These days, while you wait, chances are that you are making ironic status messages on Facebook about guinea-pigs, or using Twitter to find out what your hero, the writer Neil Gaiman, ate for lunch, or reading the New Scientist’s Twitter feed. In a while, because Gaiman does not tweet that often, you check Demi Moore’s consort Ashton Kutcher’s feed and make ironic status messages about that. Chances are that the New Scientist will find that no one is psychic because none of the subjects can focus long enough.

“Of course social communication is changing,” says Anand Ramachandran, comic book and animation writer. “Two examples of conversations that happen rarely now: one in which you and your friend tried to wrack your brains trying to remember the first line of a song. The other in which you tell someone that you don’t know how to do something anymore.” Imagine all the other changes that are waiting to happen to offline conversation. Ramachandran got on Twitter after 26/11 and now tweets all day long on his Blackberry.

As a self-confessed geek he does not remember a life before itchy fingers. Being on Twitter is like being with his friends in a bar. “We used to SMS each other during IPL, but this is neater.” As a satirist, Ramachandran also enjoys locating trends and funny lines in the ‘cloud’ of users all following the hashtag IPL. Ramachandran also loves it when hashtags pop up that require people to be creative. Imagining a budget Star Wars, fake titles for old movies, music Mondays, Malayalam day, feeds from journalist friends — all of this appeals to his restless love for news, trivia and pop culture.

Twitter seems to have tied up with US television networks to create a reality show — use Twitter to stalk celebrities and score points

Ramachandran thinks that twitter is not for everyone because it’s frantic and it does not have the comfort of Facebook. “My mother is on Facebook but I can’t imagine her on Twitter.” If he could make someone get on Twitter it would be Lalit Modi.

Anshumani Ruddra, a writer, thinks of Twitter as a replacement for watercooler conversation since he works from home. As someone heavily invested in language, Twitter offers infinite variations on impromptu wordplay. He loves people tweeting as literary characters. He is considering tweeting as the city of Mumbai. But Ruddra also switches off his internet connection when he wants to write, something writers all over the world are discovering is necessary (A software called Freedom which disconnects you from the Internet for a while is not looking as strange as it once did).

Every social networking site needs to go through the rite of passage of an existential crisis. Was that really the Dalai Lama tweeting? Was that really Christopher Walken? These creatures that calls themselves Muthalaxe (Time to do some moral policing), or Real Bin Laden (Take Our Daughters to Work Day? An affront to Allah. I brought 8 of my sons to the cave today, though, to clean up this goat poo) — how long will they stay in character?

THE REAL moral panic arose recently when Twitter seemed to have tied up with US television networks to create a reality show — you use Twitter to stalk celebrities and score points. Ashton Kutcher, Twitter’s enfant terrible and patron saint (over a million followers, the most popular person on Twitter) objected, threatening to go home and take his ball with him. (It was okay for him to prove to CNN , however, that more people are interested in his inanities than their news network.)

Closer home, some are unwilling to try Twitter, sated and a little depressed. They would like to rediscover the process of ‘catching up’ — when you meet people and each line of your conversation does not elicit a small, nostalgic laugh. Someone read that yesterday on your feed. And doesnt care for a re-run.

Is this after all only about a small degree of vanity? A sweet tweeter from Mumbai responds: “A little vanity? There’s only vanity.”

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