The importance of @ (or how Twitter kills social norms)

(Note: The tone of this post is not meant to be negative or antagonistic. I am not singling any individual out. I have been thinking about this concept since my reintroduction and subsequent borderline obsession with Twitter in September of 2009. And I am still around because several key individuals were supportive enough to do the very thing I am writing about below.)

Photo by: cbcparklane

Here is a thought. If Twitter were a giant cocktail party, as I have heard it compared to in the past, in which we are all attendees; then what role would the @ play? To the best of my knowledge, the @ is a device intended to let an individual know you are addressing them directly in conversation, amid all the other banter and general chaos of the stream. It is the closest thing we have to turning and looking directly at someone, or otherwise gaining his or her attention, before speaking. In real life, if someone goes out of his or her way to gain your attention prior to speaking to you, how do you react? I suppose it depends on who is attempting to gain your attention and your relationship to them.  But let’s just say that we are, in fact, at a giant cocktail party. That analogy would perhaps serve to indicate that we intend on being social. Twitter is billed as social media, right? Sure, there are wallflowers at most events and I’ve been guilty of such in the past (come to think of it, maybe that is subconsciously why I became a DJ). People can choose to not engage. I am interested here in exploring what happens when they do choose to engage.

People arrive to parties at different times and with different levels of comfort with their surroundings. I joined Twitter in September of 2008. My account lay dormant for over a year, and once I came back to it I had no one to “introduce me” to the attendees of the already raging party. I played the wall for a while, listening, learning the dialect, trying to get comfortable enough to engage in a conversation. Admittedly my first few attempts to engage were socially awkward. Not having any followers made it more difficult. That is the underlying paradox of this medium. Tweeting with no followers seems pointless, but you won’t gain followers without tweeting. At the party, you won’t be invited into the conversation unless you speak up. No one is going to be like, “Hey silent dude over there in the corner, tells us what you think about . . .” So what happens when a new arrival tries to engage? Usually it comes as a response to a question posed by someone (“Anyone know of an app that does such and such?”). So, being brave, you @ the inquirer. If at a party you were do you this, if you were to gain someone’s attention to answer their query, what might their response look like? Would they look directly at you, listen, and then turn back to their ongoing conversation without uttering even a simple acknowledgement of their receipt of your advice? No way. Our social norms would suggest that a cursory acknowledgement is in order. Further, continuing with the party analogy, if you were to then attempt to engage this person again, say with a question of your own or perhaps an anecdotal reply to an offering of their daily minutia in an attempt to be conversational, and your @ appeared to have fallen on deaf ears (or blind eyes may be more appropriate), what then? How would that go over in real life? I’d be willing to bet that if in real life someone were to ask you a question or attempt to engage in conversation, however inconsequential, you are all polite enough, or at least schooled in the acceptable norms of our society, that you would never think of offering the cold shoulder. So why is it different on Twitter?

I know that Twitter isn’t real life. I also know that one of the benefits of using asynchronous media is that you are allowed to pick and choose who you correspond with. I get that. But I also question it. I question it on our level, on the level of educators. We are all here, essentially, because we want to learn. We want to interact with others who are involved in the same profession as us. We want to learn from them. Since “they” are here too, it implies that they are searching for the same thing.  So if someone makes it clear in their bio that they are an educator and they’re here for primarily the same reasons as you, why not invite them into the fold? I understand that a limit on people you follow might be needed to either, a) maintain stream sanity, and/or b) keep things relevant, as too much connection means you’re more likely to be disconnected. But seriously, if you’re not @The_Real_Shaq or @aplusk you could at least respond to @’s. Give some confidence to those brave enough to engage. Give them reason to stick around. While the outward appearance may not be that of a face-to-face encounter (at the cocktail party), I contend that the social piece, the human connection, is the same despite the vessel.