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Aaron Belz

A Month of Tweeting

How the internet discovered poetic economy.

I'm no fan of online social networking. Two years ago I unfriended Facebook, and my life has improved in countless ways. I'm fitter, happier, more productive, and I spend less time looking at acquaintances' photos of themselves posing with their tagged friends followed by strings of comments about how cute each other looks.

I'd given no real thought to Twitter, but on March 14, 2011, Justin Bieber "tweeted" the following:

Think before you say something hurtful to someone else. It may look like they're ok but they're not. Words are more powerful than you think

This made me so mad (especially the lack of concluding punctuation) that I signed on and posted a response (to both of my "followers"):

Think before you say something hurtful to someone else. Then go ahead and say it.

It was my third real "tweet" (okay, I won't keep putting Twitter jargon in quotation marks, though it feels like a key capitulation). I didn't hear anyone laugh, but the internet did seem to get a bit sparklier.

I examined my resistance to the medium and realized that my prejudice was based partly on the way Twitter had been explained to me by an early adopter in 2006: "You can let people know where you are and what you're doing at any moment. It's so interesting! It's like a trail of breadcrumbs that everyone can see."

My prejudice was also based on a fair amount of reading I'd done on the subject of social networking, in which the same case kept being made—that the "profile" was a poor substitute for the real self, that "connectedness" was a distant second to live community, and that the "friendships" people think they're maintaining are not only shallow but a distraction from important real-life commitments. These are not uncommon conclusions to draw, though people who draw them usually act as if they're the first (e.g., Lori Kozlowski's "Inhumaneness of Technology" in a recent issue of the L.A. Times).

But about six months ago I began reading Twitter like a publication, occasionally looking at the "timelines" of people about whom I care—Steve Martin, Tim Siedell, Tim Keller—and also just skimming the "trending" tweets (those that have raced to popularity in a short time). I found numerous references to myself made by publications in which my work has appeared. I also found a few tweets in which people referred to me as an "ass" and even ruder names.

Twitter still felt like an immense flow of verbal lava lit by millions of pixels, constantly churning and moving. What could one tweet within the Twitter field really amount to? Each 140-character bit looked like a pebble, to me. But my own poems are ridiculously small compared to the history of poetry—even to the poetry being produced at any given moment. And what good does it ultimately do to publish them in books? It might help develop an audience in the short term, but I doubt it greatly enhances the poems' durability. To stick with a metaphor slightly too long, I'm just a flash in the poetry volcano, and I know it.

So I have decided to tweet along with the rest of them, though I still detest the word, which reminds me, as it must so many other people, of "fart." And I have decided to tweet with a plan.

When I started, I was unsure of the ground rules of the "Twitterverse," as it is called, so I tried to learn them: what to do when someone "follows" (subscribes) to your tweets, how to respond when someone mentions you in one of their tweets or addresses a tweet to you, etc. Now I don't care about those rules. Those are social networking rules! I love formal limits and want to use Twitter for its microblogging capability, and if people would like to follow or mention me or unfollow me or promote me or rain down fire on my name, they may freely do so.

This seems like a fair enough niche for a poet or writer—a way to keep track of one's own incidental thoughts or observations, even if semi-publicly. A friend of mine, Melissa Broder, also a poet, has written out her own Twitter policy in a self-interview, in which she decries at-signs and chit-chat in favor of her own self-deprecating monologue. I love it, and it's the model on which my own approach is based.

I am developing a theory of whom to follow on Twitter (though following others is unnecessary). There are, in fact, people whose incidental thoughts and observations I like to peruse. Alan Jacobs, a fellow writer for Books & Culture, is one of them. David Dark, whose work I've always admired, is another. I love the poetic tweets of writers like Amy McDaniel (of HTMLGIANT) and the comic tweets of TV writers like Julius Sharpe ("Family Guy"). My friend Bill Chott, actor and improvisor, is good to keep tabs on.

And, of course, I follow the president of my college, Derek Halvorson, even though his tweets are usually of the breadcrumbs variety, that is, "just had lunch with so and so" or "doing this cool thing now." In his case that's a practical benefit, because he travels constantly, and I'm one of the people who frequently needs to know where he is.

One more thing I've determined is that it's not necessary to follow celebrities like Steve Martin and Tim Keller (my big two) if you have friends who diligently retweet their best tweets. The same principle applies to culturally important feeds such as The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or First Things. I have fifty friends who scan and digest those feeds for me. I have unfollowed all of the above.

But my theory, like my Twitter experience, is still in its formative stages. I haven't even begun to use Twitter's "list" function, which separates the feed into multiple tickers. I haven't explored TweetDeck or other Twitter-oriented apps. I don't have an iPad or an iPhone. As Lou Costello once said, "I'm just a boy!"

But I have determined this much, thus far: Twitter is a worthy use of internet media. It's not like Facebook or Myspace, though it effectively holds hands with those networks. In fact, I'd say Twitter is the best thing since email, and that has largely to do with its formal limit, which is profoundly satisfying to my poetic sense of economy. Oh, if only bloggers of the past decade had had a formal limit of 140 characters, think of how much nicer the web would be.

Aaron Belz (@aaronbelz) teaches English at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California. His second poetry collection, Lovely, Raspberry , was published by Persea Books in 2010.

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