Why do people Twitter? Even the company's CEO, Ev Williams can't answer that question. Perhaps he is embarrassed by the true reason: We Twitter to reassure ourselves that we are alive.
The Times of London asked experts about the Twitter phenomenon, and concluded that people use the Internet message-broadcasting service to send 140-character "tweets" relating their most mundane activities because of an underdeveloped sense of the self:
The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. "Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It's a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity."
"We are the most narcissistic age ever," agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. "Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won't cure it."
For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents "a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It's like when a parent goes into a child's room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor."
Politico checked in on the service's use in the nation's capital, and found that the vainglorious pundits and lawmakers who crave attention in print and on TV have also flocked to Twitter. The media at large, a class of people who define themselves by the size of their audience, have turned themselves into the Twitterati, building up lists of "followers" as a reassurance that they have an importance that will outlast their dying employers.
But the narcissism of today's overcommunicators transcends one little startup, and goes far beyond the makers of media. The Washington Post profiled Julie Zingeser, a 15-year-old girl who sent and received 6,473 texts in a single month. Her mother worries about Julie's ability to focus. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, worries about deeper issues:
Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wonders whether texting and similar technologies might affect the ability to be alone and whether feelings are no longer feelings unless they are shared. "It's so seductive," she said. "It meets some very deep need to always be connected, but then it turns out that always being trivially connected has a lot of problems that come with it."
Always being trivially connected sounds like Twitter's business model. The company is now worth $230 million, according to its investors. Some narcissistic executive with more wallet than brains will likely pay more than that to take it off their hands. And some day, perhaps Williams, the Twitter CEO, will no longer have to explain what he does for a living. Twittering will seem as natural as drawing breath. By then, we may have even forgotten that there was more to life than constantly proving we're alive.