Twitter Speech

December 3, 2008

I really don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, or worse–someone who just doesn’t get what’s so great about Twitter. I get that there’s a lot great about it. Journalists use it to find and break stories. Organizers use it to coordinate actions. Election 2008 debate viewers used it  to shape national coverage. As reported by Chana Joffey-Walt in a playful story for Marketplace back when Twitter was new, we all use it to feed our bottomless appetites for feeling and being a certain kind of “in touch” with friends and other followees. 

But scanning lists and lists of tweets (mostly by reading over the shoulders of physically present friends), I can’t help but notice something–a thing about language. There’s this sociocultural theorist named Lev Vygotsky who comes to mind. His big idea–totally counter-intuitive in his day–was that a person’s individual psychology is always profoundly social. We don’t learn to connect interpersonally. We start out that way, as babies, and only eventually do we internalize concepts that we learn through social interaction so that we don’t have to do and say everything out loud. In other words, we develop a capacity for what Vygotsky calls “inner speech.” That’s the stream of communication that runs silently inside our heads. Vygotsky says it’s a key cognitive achievement, this shift from outer to inner speech.

I feel like at least some of what gets communicated through Twitter reads to me like inner speech. The mechanism of Twitter seems to draw what might otherwise have stayed inner back into the uttered world. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe that’s part of the fascination–to feel like we’ve got a line into the running thoughts, observations, commentaries, and discoveries of an eclectic crowd, fragments of discourse that might otherwise never crystalize in language. But I also wonder if there’s anything lost with this urge to push it out as soon as a thought springs to mind. In his 1934 book, Vygotsky defines thought as “a cloud shedding a shower of words.” Does it make a difference for that thought–its quality, nuance, depth–if it’s immediately let go?