1,400,000 or so Twitter Characters Later, Still Not Quite a 'River to My People'

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I just delivered my 10,000th sermon on Mount Twitter, chapters and verses preternaturally limited to 140 characters of course, and feel it's time to offer up my testimony, in more luxurious form, on this remarkable development in online communication. I submit this homily not because I say or do anything special on Twitter or because I am well-followed or influential or particularly Tweeprolific. I am not. I preach the gospel today instead because I suspect my Twitter story, give or take a few tweaks, is similar to that of many people, similarly situated to me, who pursue their career at the crossroads of merging industries -- in my case, law, politics and journalism.

Lo, though I have spent hundreds of hours with it over the past two years, I still strive to tell you precisely what Twitter means to me. Perhaps it is similarly unknowable to you, too. Sometimes I see it as a great river -- an eternally flowing stream of information and news and speculation and gossip, which ebbs and rolls with a tide created by human events, and which coughs up the occasional fail whale. The best and most successful Tweeters, it seems to me, are indeed "a river to [their] people," to paraphrase Anthony Quinn's Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia. Some days, I feel like diving right in. Other days, I don't even feel like dipping my toe in the water for fear of having it bitten off by sharks. On some days, I can skim the surface. Other days, verily, I appreciate how deep Twitter runs.

Sometimes, I see Twitter as an assembly line -- and on many days I see myself as Lucille Ball, hysterically falling ever further behind in an effort to keep pace with the extraordinary amount of material that comes churning through. Sometimes, Twitter reminds me of the synapses of the mind -- sparking connections that allow people to better comprehend and adapt to the world around them. Sometimes, especially during major sporting events or other breaking news, it reminds me of a pesky town crier. Sometimes it reminds me of high school. And sometimes it even reminds me of "The View." You can find wisdom and grace and propriety in those 140 characters. And you can find a whole lot of junk, too, oh ye of little faith.

I started Tweeting in February 2009. Ten thousand Tweets in 22 months averages out to 455 per month or roughly 15 each day -- approximately one for each waking hour. When I break it down like that, it feels like an obsession. And on some days, laden with news, it is. But I am a positive mute (a Twute?) when compared with some of my colleagues on the law or politics or media beats, the ones who churn out tens of thousands of Tweets each year. How they muster the energy and devotion to perpetually communicate with such relentlessness escapes me. Maybe for them Twitter draws out the longing of Tolkien's ring, or the Siren's song, or maybe, more plausibly, their bosses are simply pleased with and encourage the additional editorial output. For what is Twitter but an ever-ready sound-byte machine for pundits and politicians, correspondents and analysts, quacks and rubes alike?

Speaking of which, on some days, I'll send out 30 Tweets that I think offer value. On some days, it'll be five or six. That's my humble aim: adding as much value as I can muster to Twitter's scattered, virtual conversation, either by posting my own original work, by adding a comment to the work of others, or simply by passing along links that have touched me in one way or another. There is so much good work posted online these days -- so many thoughtful, earnest pieces by writers and journalists all over the world -- that it is sometimes hard to know when to stop re-Tweeting. And I only follow 50 or less. I can only imagine what the Twitter stream feels like to those who follow thousands. So many voices. So many views. So much cognitive dissonance. Lord, how does anyone ever hear any single prayer?

Because it's my beat, the vast majority of my messages have been about the law. I have Tweeted on breaking legal stories and national trends, on Supreme Court nominations and seminal decisions, on judicial scandals and interesting trials. I have Tweeted pure legal analysis about rulings and pure commentary about the politicization of the law (or the legalization of politics). My goal in these Tweets is to offer my gracious followers (or anyone else who cares to drop by) my honest opinions about the events of the day. That's my goal. But I do not accomplish it nearly as often as I would like. Sometimes I do not turn the other cheek. Sometimes I commit the sin of vanity. Sometimes the sin of pride. Sometimes I fall prey to the curse of insecurity and pettiness. As Matthew 7:5 put it: "Thou Hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." I don't know what a mote is but you get my point. Mea culpa.

Depending upon whom you ask, the name of the Twitter game is the accumulation of followers. But I am no shepherd and my disciples constitute no flock. They trickle in, a few each day, sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes I wake up and have fewer followers than the day before -- they leave without saying goodbye. Sometimes I add followers when I don't Tweet. Sometimes my newest followers are the most vocal and contentious. Sometimes they are porn sites. I am delighted when people or organizations I respect deign to follow me. And I am always happy and relieved when my longest and most loyal followers re-Tweet my work or ask me a question. I beg their forgiveness for all the times I did not respond to their inquiries. Gods may not answer letters -- but this mortal man surely can try harder.

The genius of Twitter is that it is precisely what you want it to be. So as I contemplate my next 10,000 Tweets, I'll stop preaching and leave you with a humble prayer: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot stand, the courage to re-Tweet the ones I should, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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