twitter.gifTwo interesting observations about humans:

1. If you are a few steps in front of the crowd, you are a leader. If you are miles ahead, you run the danger of being labeled a kook.

2. We desperately want to be okay, to be accepted. One (dysfunctional) way we attempt to affirm our “okay-ness” is by separating ourselves from those we deem not okay. We shun those we decide are outside the in-group, the desirable group, the smart crowd, whatever our criteria. The greater the emotional or physical distance between us and them, the theory seems to go, the more okay we must be.

These observations came to mind when I read a New York Times Sunday Magazine article (below) about Twitter, the habit of recording and then sharing with the world the most mundane details of your life. The article recalled the 2004 denouement of then-Senator Bob Graham (and former governor of Florida). The charge? Flakiness! The crime? He recorded the (very) mundane details of his life in a daily journal.

Excerpts were published. Pundits and rivals quickly piled on. Journalists were motivated by juicy headlines and his political rivals by the opportunity to eliminate a competitor regardless of the underlying merits. The verdict: “obessive/complusive” and worse, “just plan weird.”

Who knew? A mere five years later Twitter has taken Washington, D.C. by storm. The mundane details of all sorts of politicos and talking heads are now ours for the following.

Ah, Bob, you were (and are) a good man. You were just a bit too far ahead of your time!


The Chatty Classes
The New York Times Sunday Magazine
April 22, 2009

I’ve been thinking lately about poor Bob Graham, as decent a man as any who ever entered politics. A presidential hopeful in 2004, the courtly Florida senator, who will be remembered for having the foresight to oppose the invasion of Iraq, was generally dismissed as a little too flaky to be taken seriously, and the chief evidence of this flakiness was his 20-plus years of personal diaries, in which he meticulously recorded the most mundane acts of his daily life: the content of his meals, the color of his shorts or tie, the application of his scalp medication. On the day in 1994 when his daughter Cissy gave birth, Graham noted the precise intervals at which he had watched and then rewound and then returned “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” After Time magazine published excerpts in 2000, rivals and journalists gleefully whispered that Graham was obsessive-compulsive and just plain weir

It turns out, though, that the weirdest thing about Bob Graham, at least by the standards of the current moment, is that he recorded all of his arcana privately, without assuming that the rest of the world would be dying to read it. Not so the politicians who have in recent months fallen madly in love with Twitter, the Internet service that lets you send out constant brief updates on whatever you might be doing at the moment — which, when you come right down to it, is really just a Graham-like diary beamed out to hundreds or even thousands of voyeuristic subscribers. “Made it to DC, next stop baggage claim,” Craig Fugate, Obama’s choice to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tweeted upon arriving in Washington last month. A half-hour later, he reported, “No bag — great start in DC, the future of things to come?” Fugate’s luggage finally arrived the next morning, about an hour before he dashed off this mini-haiku: “Alice in Wonderland, getting morning star bucks.” Which kind of makes you wonder: if the head of FEMA feels that disoriented buying a latte near the White House, what’s going to happen during a tornado?

Some politicians use Twitter — or, in many cases, have their staff members use it — as a vehicle for their daily message or as a kind of running travelogue. (“Back from Belgium,” Representative Darrell Issa of California tweeted last month. “They make quite a waffle.”) Other politicians have decided that Twitter is a way for us to become immersed in the mundane details of their private lives. The clear leader in this field is Claire McCaskill, Missouri’s junior senator, who took up Twitter just before the inauguration. “I get old style crunchy taco, and a chicken burrito supreme & Diet Coke at Taco Bell,” McCaskill recently tweeted. “Miss those tostados.” Then: “Ok, ok, brain freeze. I know you can only get Diet Pepsiat Taco Bell.” Give McCaskill credit: she clearly does the tweeting herself, and she shares both her policy positions and the details of her daily life in a way that can be informative and oddly endearing. And yet at times McCaskill, like just about all devoted tweeters, can sound like Tom Hanks in that movie on the island, jabbering to his battered volleyball so as not to lose touch with his own existence.

However current it may be technologically, Twitter seems somehow out of step in its political sensibility — that is, in the promise of false intimacy between politicians and voters. For much of the last two decades, going back at least to George H. W. Bush’s pathetic pork rinds and Bill Clinton’s wailing saxophone, American politics was obsessed with the universality of our experience, typified by the enduring cliché of the president with whom you could quaff a beer. It isn’t hard to see how this happened: the all-powerful medium of television created a stagnating sameness in the presentation of politics that verged on parody, and voters and the news media sought to pierce the artifice, with savvy politicians doing what they could to oblige. But in this new age of reckoning for all that we’ve failed to accomplish, voters seem to have tired of what pollsters call the “understands people like me” question. Now, it seems, they want politicians to stop sharing and just govern like adults.

And whatever else Americans may be craving in our politics these days, brevity and immediacy aren’t among them. Politics today is already too simplistic and binary, its news cycle more comically truncated and ephemeral than at any time in our history; in the age of e-mail, blogs and smartphones, we seem to react to everything with a kind of frantic, predictable impulse (Tax all the bonuses! Kill all the pirates!) rather than with a longer-term consideration of benefits and consequences. The last thing Washington needs right now is politicians who seek to convey the moment in even shorter slogans and commentators who feel the need to offer their wisdom with even more frequency and glib abandon than they already do on blogs and cable TV.

If Twitter doesn’t turn out to be just the latest political fad (like, say, psychographic polling, or Ron Paul, then it just may be the worst thing to happen to politics and its attending media since a couple of geniuses at CNN dreamed up “Crossfire” back in the 1980s. It’s not that Twitter doesn’t have a value to society. Its ability to spread news (as in the emergency landing of a plane in the Hudson River) or to circumvent repression (as in Moldovan youths organizing protests) has already proved transformative. But not every new mode of communication lends itself to politics, where speed and complexity rarely coexist. The capital might be a better place if it became a Twitter-free zone, a city where people spent more time talking to the guy serving the coffee and less time informing the world that the coffee had, in fact, been served.