Gene Weingarten: There once was a man on Twitter . . .

WASHINGTON — When I first wrote disparagingly about Twitter nine months ago, I got a lot of angry e-mails from devotees of the popular social networking Web site. These writers were grumpy because I'd suggested they were "nobodies from nowhere with nothing to say." (Signed, Elmer C. Beeble, Wart­blossom, Tenn.)

Since then, Twitter has grown exponentially and now has perhaps nearly 20 million users. This has forced me to critically revisit my original thesis. Surely there can't be 20 million people who have entered into a tacit pact to validate each other's boring lives by trading banal observations and mundane details of their day.

Has Twitter gotten more interesting? To find out, I decided to infiltrate. I became a Twit myself, an active member of the Twitterati.

The Twitter box actually encourages prosaic reports, prompting with: "What are you doing?" My first "tweet," held to the required maximum of 140 characters, answered honestly: "Reading stunningly inconsequential tweets from others. Wanting to gouge out my eyeballs with a soup spoon."

When this got no response, I decided maybe I had tried too hard. Maybe the key to attracting other Twits is to tell the truth, but without even the faintest regard for whether anyone might be interested in it. I tried again: "Wiping eye booger from dog."

"My pinky toenail split."

"OK, I cut off half of it."

"Looking out window through shutters. World divided into narrow rectangles. Not finding good metaphor for this."

"When you get up from leather chair, butt indentation stays awhile. Not true with wood chair."

Success. The Twitterati began to find me and sign up to get my tweets. I soon had 35 "followers," even though I was following none of them. There was no tit-for-tat, no reciprocity — they just liked me! Encouraged, I kept at it:

"Okay, my refrigerator, a Maytag, is serial number JCG2369GRS. I wonder if I publish this at great personal peril, like it was my SSN?"

"Just accidentally cut and pasted my most recent column into Twitter box. Was informed I was 2,981 characters too long."

"It's disturbing to know that when sitting on the toilet we are really sitting on two small plastic bumps under the seat, holding it up."

"I just learned that if a sardine is more than 4 inches long, it is technically a 'pilchard.' "

"Osama bin Laden is a nice-sounding name. Simon Wiesenthal isn't. Genghis Khan, nice. Archibald Butt died a hero on the Titanic. Go figure."

"You know what's really uninteresting? Pointless anagrams. Like, 'peanut' is an anagram for 'pneatu.' Who cares?"

"Few people realize that 'aw' and 'aww' are very different. 'Aw' is an expression of regret. 'Aww' is a reaction to something cute."

"Any text can become a 1-digit number! Add up all the letters by rank (a=1, b=2), then add up digits! (276 = 15 = 6). Gettysburg Address = 8."

Within a few months, I'd amassed 205 followers, about three times the number that the average Twitterer has. I felt I had proven my thesis, until I wrote this:

"It would be bad if people were like flowers and needed bees to help us impregnate each other. Or, even worse: worms." A Twitterer with the intriguing name of DiploDee wrote me a private message:

"Watch it, Gene — in mocking the form your latest post came perilously close to participating in it."

She was right. I had messed up and actually written something mildly amusing. But more to the point: She'd been on to me the whole time. What if they all had?

What if, within the deeply dweeby soul of Twitter, there are subversives who read it like parody?

I needed a test, something to identify the smart alecks. So I sent out this tweet:

"If I can get 50 more followers by tomorrow, I promise to write a really, really boring poem here. Please do what you can!"

I didn't get my 50, but I did get nine new ones overnight, clearly alerted by like-minded friends.

My poem, to fit 140 characters:

"You like Batman, Beyonce and zucchini, But not jazz or cigars or linguine.

Your fave color is tan You're a big Red Sox fan And I don't give a cra"

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

Gene Weingarten: There once was a man on Twitter . . . 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 4:31am]

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