Last year, when Kathmandu experienced a mild tremor on August 30, I was watching the movie Batman Begins on TV. No sooner had I felt the earthquake than I muted the TV just to experience the full impact of the earthquake without distractions. And when it was over, the first thought that came to my mind was: ‘I need to tweet’—a reaction that is far from the most natural in such cases. Tweet I did, and right away, a friend living across town replied. In her case, she ran out of the house first and tweeted later. Many others did the same and what followed on Twitter was a discussion about the epicentre.
The quest to understand the need to tweet is a pointless pursuit. It is similar to asking why people talk over a cup of tea, why they interject and put forth their views regardless of whether one’s thought is being received or fully understood by the other person. People get a similar satisfaction by tweeting. It might be more so for us Nepalis, who more often than not have an opinion on everything under the sun, thanks to the lives we lead. Tweeting is merely taking the conversations we have in a village ‘chautari’ or a city ‘chiya pasal’ and putting them up online. The glaring downside is that conversations online can go on for a seemingly interminable period. Even when they are over, they can be dug out and they stay there in the public domain unless they are deleted. And even when they are deleted, they remain in the public memory.
For me, tweeting is a manifestation of my inane desire to think out loud. As easy as that act may sound, it is not, especially because I am not a particularly sociable person. There is a constant tussle in my head about what exactly a social pariah like me is doing on ‘social’ media. It’s no wonder then that over my four years on Twitter, I have maintained two accounts, deleted the first one (there was no option for deactivating accounts back then), privatised my accounts quite a few times and spent countless hours pondering over what a Twitteraccount means for my privacy. Even so, the obvious benefits of Twitter have not been lost on me.
On Twitter, I primarily follow people who are working on issues of my interest, and most importantly, I have an option to interact with them. This was unthinkable, or rather inconvenient, before Twitter. For instance, as a development economics student, I had to read quite a few articles by the famed Serbian economist Branko Milanovic on income inequality. Now I follow him on Twitter. Sometime ago he tweeted, “Where #women work the most (unpaid & paid work together)? #Italy: 9.9h per day. And the least? Germany: 7.7h”. I tweeted him, asking if the study included South Asia too, as the hours he mentioned would be a luxury to most women here. He immediately replied, saying that it was only for Western (rich) countries and that South Asian women’s workloads were heavier. That was my “why Twitter matters” moment.
Branko is no Brad Pitt; as I type this, he only has 7,767 followers, but what this former lead economist of the World Bank has to say has great importance for me. For argument’s sake, let us imagine a world without Twitter. If I want to engage in a conversation with a World Bank economist even in Kathmandu, the barriers to get to him are multiple. To begin with, I need to first figure out that the Bank is located in a five-star hotel premises. After that, I will need to know people there. And why would anyone there engage in a conversation with a random person like me? Physical and psychological barriers, together with hierarchies created because of unequal positions in power, would have made any dialogue between the economist and me impossible. Enter Twitter and all those barriers are erased. If access to the Internet is considered a given, the 140 characters on Twitter level the playing field for all.
But before that, one needs to be very clear about what one is looking for on Twitter. If not, it is just too easy to get lost in the cacophony of tweets about people’s moods, breakfasts, break-ups—information that one can do without. That I did not want to deal with that sort of information, however, did not dawn on me when I first started out on Twitter. I was too excited to find a place online where I could connect with people without being burdened by the visual display of their lives. There was no provision to embed photos with tweets in Twitter’s early days. Even after the arrival of Twitpic, there is no option to upload an album. Rubbing one’s life in other people’s faces may only be done in 140 characters.
As it was to happen, I, along with the tweeple I followed, eventually mastered the art of chafing tweets. We cluttered each other’s timelines with nuisance about our lives. But labelling all thosegood times spent on Twitter (in my first account) as annoying would be a blatant lie. Sharing information about how to cook broccoli, helping one another find a good mobile phone or a camera, sharing good music, discussing issues using the hashtag #civilvig (short for civil vigilance) had their merits. And once I got used to it, tweeting a query was at times as resourceful as googling it. The problem, however, arose when the publicly shared information tormented me even after I logged off. I would be constantly thinking about the conversations that took place online, of ways to respond to them or what could have been a better response. I was a newsaholic and needed to update myself on just about everything going on in the world. During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, for instance, I was hooked to my timeline until minutes before my microeconomics test. I was clearly addicted to Twitter and it was time to quit.
My second inning on Twitter is a more restrained version of the first one. I use multiple lists, such as migration, editing, science, economics, and more or less stick to them. As in life, I have realised the merit of this platform lies more in my listening selectively than otherwise. And when things seem to be going awry online, I find my peace in what my favourite Twitterati @NeinQuarterly has to say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, comrades, than are dreamt of in your social media.”
This article was originally published in The Kathmandu Post, February 19 edition in its 16-page pullout on Nepal’s social media scene titled ‘Platforms of Change’
And here’s the PDF The need to tweet