Twitter and Democracy

I was explaining twitter to some non-tweeting friends over dinner the other day, as I often do of late.  (Anyone else ever puzzled how not everyone is as technically savvy as you are?)  There are a number of metaphors I enjoy, and I started the conversation with them that way.

Twitter is like your neighbor’s barbeque.  I like this metaphor.  You don’t say anything on Twitter you wouldn’t want near-strangers to hear.  Some of us will say too much at a barbeque.

Twitter is like a cocktail party.  A friend invites you to a cocktail party – everybody has a cocktail in hand.  This adds the “freedom” element that happens online when you can just say what you think and not be faced with the people you’re saying it to. (Again, this poses problems online as well as in real life – but that too is about the user, not the medium).

So there you are, at this cocktail party, sipping your gin and tonic, and chatting with your friend.  Then one of their colleagues walks up, and listens for a sec.  Before you know it, they’re talking too.  You may overhear an interesting conversation when someone mentions a thing you’re passionate about.  We all have those “keywords”, when overheard at a party, that our little ears perk up, and we need to go put in our two cents.  Well, I do at least.  That cocktail party – that is Twitter.  Except Twitter is better: if someone has had too much to drink at the cocktail party, or that creepy guy is hitting on you over and over, or the close talker corners you with some strange discussion of guacamole, you can’t remove them from the party.  On Twitter, you just hit “unfollow.”  Better yet, you can “block” the creepy guy.

I offset common fears:

Twitter is not… Facebook updates.
… too much information.
… invasive,  annoying, or “too public.”

People give too much information. People are nosy, annoying, voyeuristic and exhibitionistic.

As I was explaining this to my friends, I realized the reason I liked Twitter so much was related to this.  People come out as they “really are” on the internet.  And better than your Facebook profile, better than “I’m so much cooler online:” Twitter is too small, too short, too brief to be fake. It’s too hard to lie over and over again in 140 characters, unless you’re a liar in real life too.

Here’s the other thing I like about Twitter: everybody starts out even.  My tweet has no inherent higher value that your tweet.  Everybody’s equal.  It’s democratic.

And when I say democratic, I mean it in the true sense of the word. It’s not a meritocracy nor is it a plutocracy nor an oligarchy. True democracy gives every citizen a voice.  Practical democracy means that some voices are louder than others.  If you’ve got more followers than I do, your tweets have more value.  If you have a preëxisting brand, they mean more than mine too. But if your provide information that your audience isn’t getting from any other source – you’re going to get promoted and word will spread like wildfire – even if before that you were a lowly college student at a previously unheard of university in Tehran. That word spreads far faster than in a modern democracy. Ah, the magic of the internet.

Perhaps in our day and age, electronic media immediately take on the characteristics of the society.  The ol’ US of A is not a true democracy, although she’s got her bright spots.  Perhaps Twitter is this way too.  The good news: no elected twitterers, no term limits, no campaign spending.  And you can turn someone off whenever you want to.  Maybe that’s what IRL democracy needs: a “Block” button.