The New Telepathy of Social Networking


In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King sets out to define “What Writing Is.” His answer?


It’s a mode of transmitting thoughts from one brain to another, through space, through time. As King writes in Maine in 1997:

We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem; if we can still read Dickens, Shakespeare, and (with the help of a footnote or two) Herodotus, I think we can manage the gap between 1997 and 2000.

As well as the gap between Georgia and Maine, as I read those words now, and 1997 and 2009. And whatever spacetime gap there is between him, there in 1997, me here in 2009, and you where and when you’re reading this now. We’ve got a telepathic chain goin’ on. That’s pretty wonderful.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve tried to grok the whole social networking thing. I was one of the cynics, originally, proud and determined not to get caught up in MySpace or Facebook or Twitter, not to hoard countless “friends” I didn’t know like I might collect marbles, not to sublimate my social life (such as it is) to the virtual gulfs of skinless cyberspace.

I was encouraged to sign up for that stuff as a way of making myself available to people who might be interested in my writing, so I did. But in short order, social networking (particularly Facebook) became an important part of my daily sphere. I was in more constant contact with my friends. I made new friends, and we actually communicated, because we found each other through shared interests. And I reconnected with oh so many people I’d lost forever over the years, old friends, fondly remembered co-workers, past loves.

lostfriendSocial networking not only didn’t sublimate my social life, it greatly improved it. And I felt something happening, something odd, something that I hadn’t counted on…through the little microbursts of personal data people shared here and there during a day, even if I wasn’t talking to them directly, I felt them in my life.

Tammy just got back from a trip to Europe…Mike is nearly finished with a script he’s been bashing his head against all weekend…Chris has a Journey song stuck in his head…Walt is working on some art in which he spattered a starscape using a toothbrush and white paint…Diane apparently has noisy neighbors…

In an earlier post, I referred to this stuff as the virtual equivalent of small talk, mostly friendly noise, relating for the sake of relating. But it’s more than that. It’s telepathy, and it’s osmosis.

Chasing these thoughts led me to a great article by Clive Thompson on Wired, “How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense.” Thompson nails what I was feeling and sensing:

When I see that my friend Misha is “waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,” that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

For example, when I meet Misha for lunch after not having seen her for a month, I already know the wireframe outline of her life: She was nervous about last week’s big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and became addicted to salt bagels…I never actually race out to meet a friend when they report their nearby location; I just note it as something to talk about the next time we meet.

It’s almost like ESP, which can be incredibly useful when applied to your work life. You know who’s overloaded — better not bug Amanda today and who’s on a roll. A buddy list isn’t just a vehicle to chat with friends but a way to sense their presence…

So why has Twitter been so misunderstood? Because it’s experiential. Scrolling through random Twitter messages can’t explain the appeal. You have to do it…Critics sneer at Twitter…as hipster narcissism, but the real appeal of Twitter is almost the inverse of narcissism. It’s practically collectivist — you’re creating a shared understanding larger than yourself.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. I welcome your thoughts and observations in the comments.

3 comments on “The New Telepathy of Social Networking

  1. Liz D says:

    Came here from your FBook link, Tim, and am so glad I did. You have enunciated part of the sense of connection I’ve redeveloped with friends I thought long lost, and deepened the connections I have with friends I see more often. And when we do talk f2f, we don’t have as much “catching up” to do — we can expand from the groundwork already recently laid. Thank you.

  2. Liz D. says:

    Ha, Justice Inc now that takes me back a bit! I can’t say it’s my best but I remember enjoying it thoroughly.

    You might appreciate that I liked this post so much, I just sent its link along to Joan Saberhagen. :)

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