This post was borne of a heated debate I recently had with a couple of friends. It arose from a remark along the lines of “I don’t have time to read your blog, but I do have time to read Twitter updates, so you should be ‘live-Tweeting’ your trips because more people like me will know what you’re up to”.
(In case you don’t know, Twitter is an online community based entirely on real-time public status updates. You can publish what you like, as long as it fit into 140 characters or the length of an SMS. My own feed, for example, is here.)
Well, I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my future trips; not for my friend, nor anyone else. And here’s why.
Tweets, by their nature, are free-floating snippets of information. Each one inhabits a single drop in an ocean of content. In any given Twitter user’s feed, this could span mainstream media headlines, celebrity gossip, a viral video or two, links to random interesting articles, or photos of your mate’s swollen foot.
Then along might come the following:
“Spent a night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China.”
I assume that this is the kind of update my friend would like to see. It would save him having to read a tiresome thousand-word diatribe on the same experience, which he doesn’t have time to do. My adventure travelling experience could be happily digested alongside the remainder of his Twitter timeline. In my friend’s eyes, there’s no difference.
Now I have no doubt that the Twitter user who posted the update above (which I took from today’s feed) is perfectly happy with his or her Tweet, and feels that it accurately represents what they were doing at the time. And there is little doubt that somebody who has done their fair share of self-supported adventure travel might be able to roughly guess at the context in which one might find oneself camping between two distant Central Asian border posts.
But to my high-flying friend sitting in a coffee shop or office in central London, exactly what would this message mean? What context would he have for it? What first-hand experience of the Tien Shan mountains does he have? When was the last time he spent a month sleeping under canvas? What was the longest man-powered journey he took in his adult life? What is it actually like in ‘no-man’s land’? What are the Tweeter’s motives for being there, and why is it important that he or she let the world know?
The Tweet invites imagination, and sheer invention is what inevitably follows. 140 characters leave every aspect of the words’ true meaning to guesswork. And, assuming that the majority of us have yet to spend the night in no-man’s-land between Kyrgyzstan and China, our guesswork and assumptions will be all over the shop, and the chance that any of the guesses might resemble reality is practically zero.
And in any case, my friend will look at the Tweet, consider it for maybe half a second, and then be distracted by the next in the never-ending stream of informative nuggets. Then something even worse will happen: the guesswork and the assumptions will be done in the background, subconsciously, where all the misconceived impressions unwittingly held by those who haven’t experienced the world for themselves will be built into a vague and ever-more warped idea of the Tweeter’s journey, as told through his or her Tweets.
Here’s another example from today’s expeditions on Twitter:
“Had a road rage incident…. Dave got tackled off the bike and kicked in the nuts… eventful day.”
Can I feel Dave’s pain? Do I know how he feels; what his sensibilities tell him to make of it? Do I know how blissful his previous month of cycling was before this cruel blow to the family jewels took place? Do I know what events caused the incident? What does his riding buddy make of it? Why am I assuming that a car driver was involved, even though it was never mentioned?
My top priority when writing about my journeys is to take my reader with me, as much as such a thing is possible. Why? Because it’s enjoyable. It might be educational. On rare occasions, it might even be a little bit inspiring. But I know that my reader probably doesn’t have the luxury of first-hand context for the experiences of which I write, so I have to paint pictures, evoke atmospheres, invest emotions, provide some insight into the whys and wherefores.
Without these things, my stories would encourage readers to build works of imaginative fiction in their minds. Some self-titled adventurers actually rely on this; cherry-picking the pieces of information that they know can be used to construct superhuman-sounding tales of high adventure by people who have no defence against their own lack of context and overactive imaginations. This appeals to people who sell media, and of course to the oft-massive egos of the protagonists.
Adventure – being a state of mind rather than a set of criteria – should be without limits; without restrictions on who can partake of it, without it making the slightest difference how impressive it can be made to sound. So it’s not worth pretending my projects are elite or daring or impossibly difficult, or inviting others to do so on my behalf. There are the inconsequential details, and there is the irrelevant information, little of which survives the editing process, but the bottom line is that I have no reason to write at all if I can’t take my friend away from his office, just for a few minutes, and show him a different world; a set of events outside his own experience, something to provoke new thoughts – but in a way which avoids the kind of misinterpretation that is so easy to make.
Other than providing a link through to a fully-formed piece back here, these are things that a Tweet in a timeline – for the vast majority of followers – will never do. If you don’t believe me, try making all the points in this article using 140 characters or less. My friend honestly believes that there is no difference in consuming a handful of vapid Tweets and investing 15 minutes in reading a considered, crafted and complete piece of creative non-fiction (or, for that matter, investing a few days in reading a book). He is wrong. The difference is as great as between a single note and an entire symphonic movement. As someone who creates, I’d rather reach one person on a meaningful level than a thousand people on a level that is ultimately meaningless.
So I won’t be ‘live-Tweeting’ my next journey, and I hope that these thoughts might provoke others in the field to reconsider their own use of the technology (not to mention reminding myself of these reasons when I’m tempted to start doing it!). As for my friend’s “I don’t have time” argument, well, if he has better things to do, then good for him – I need not worry that he’s missing out.