To Tweet or Not to Tweet (During the Performance)

On why the application that is all the rage is called 'Twitter,' and why the verb denoting the act of using it is 'to tweet.'

We all know the drill: Just before the house lights go down and the curtain goes up, a disembodied voice asks the patrons and patronesses to switch off their cell phones so as not to disrupt the performance with various ringtones ‏(although that almost always happens‏), and also to refrain from texting, as the display light in a darkened auditorium shines brighter than a thousand suns.

But while our attention was diverted by happenings onstage, things have been changing before our very ears and eyes and behind our backs. There are theater troupes and orchestras out there in the wide ‏(and wild‏) world that have not only stopped fighting the losing battle against the smartphones and their not-so-smart owners: They have actually switched sides and joined “them.” The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Florida’s Palm Beach Opera, New York’s Public Theater and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis are among more than a handful of cultural institutions that now offer free seats − in the back of their halls − to audience members who are willing to tweet brief ‏(140 characters only‏) impressions from the performance in progress to whoever is following them out there.

Why this change of heart and mind? Apparently, the frustrated people behind the disembodied voices got tired of battling cell-phone ringings and displays lighting up all over the place, and hatched an idea that was supposed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. The assumption behind this was that, since those who text while the band is playing are probably young and restless, and they will go on doing it no matter what because they are obsessed about being connected and in touch at all times − it is worthwhile to harness them as PR agents who will spread the word via Twitter about said play or concert, and thus also be indulged in their smartphone addiction.

American writer and TV host Peter Funt, who reported on the new theater-tweet-trend in The New York Times ‏(“Theater for twits,” Jan. 7, 2012‏), asked: “Are promoters so desperate to attract younger audiences that they’re willing to risk disrupting the experience for the majority of paying theatergoers?” His answer, in just five characters, was “u bet.”

Before venturing to understand the modern-day need of young people ‏(if, indeed, it is an age-specific phenomenon‏) to tweet at all times, I had to put my own mind at rest as to why the application that is all the rage − with over 500 million registered users around the world, according to various sources − and which enrages many of the rest of us, is called “Twitter,” and why the verb denoting the act of using it is “to tweet.”

As to the name of this app ‏(and let us remember that the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaims the “pursuit of appiness” as an inalienable right‏), the etymology is as follows: The developers wanted a short, five-character code name for their invention, which would be easy to memorize and to dial on an alphanumeric phone keypad ‏(those were the days of pre-smartphone, full-keyboard texting‏). They settled on 89887 ‏(using the lower row of keys‏), which transliterates into “twttr.”

And then there’s something that every Hebrew reader should be able to relate to, as does anyone who texts on a cell phone regularly: While consonants alone are not always enough to flesh out a comprehensible word, they do offer the reader a clue, if he or she is willing to fill in the missing vowels.

According to Wikipedia, Jack Dorsey, who in March 2006 originated what has become a most successful social network, explained that, “... we came across the word ‘twitter,’ and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.”

In other words, Twitter is something of, and for, the birds. The key words coming from the horses’ ‏(well, actually, the horses’ owners’‏) mouth here are “inconsequential information.” Indeed, as Wikipedia also points out, “San Antonio-based market-research firm Pear Analytics analyzed 2,000 tweets ‏(originating from the U.S. and in English‏) over a two-week period in August 2009 from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. ‏(CST‏) and separated them into six categories: pointless babble − 40%; conversational − 38%; pass-along value − 9%; self-promotion − 6%; spam − 4%; news − 4%.”

Promoters of plays and concerts who encourage tweets from inside the hall are ostensibly counting on the “pass-along” and “self-promotion” values. But why do those who want to pass along their self-promoting message in a conversational mode “tweet,” but don’t “twit”?

The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind, but can be found in a dictionary. For instance, in the venerable OED, the verb “tweet” is defined as: “1. make a chirping noise; 2. make a posting on the social networking service Twitter.” The verb “twit” means to “tease or taunt ‏(someone‏), especially in a good-humored way  ‏(the origin being in Old English aetwitan ‘reproach with,’ from aet ‘at’ ‏+ waetan ‘to blame’‏).” However − and with this the defense almost rests its case − the definition of “twit” ‏(noun‏) is: “informal, chiefly British, ‘a silly or foolish person.’”

Therefore, the person who uses the app in question − that is, someone who dabbles in the new field of “applied twittery” − is not “a twitter,” but “a tweeter.” Which one must not confuse with “a loudspeaker designed to reproduce high frequencies” ‏(a usage of the term dating from 1934‏).

This brings us back to the back rows of the darkened auditorium, to the prospective tweeter, or tweeterette, whose fingers hover over the touchscreens of their smartphones. What are the chances of them broadcasting via the World Wide Web some news of even the smallest pass-along value, or anything that is fit to tweet? I am reminded here of the inimitable theater critic, Walter Kerr, who on December 31, 1951 ‏(in The New York Herald Tribune‏), gave John van Druten’s play “I’m a Camera” an 11-character review: “Me no Leica.”

In his NYT column, Peter Funt quoted two tweets from a concert of Mozart’s works by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: “withak53 wrote: ‘Music hall looks a lot prettier from the top balcony.’ And hippielunatic tweeted: ‘star spangled banner always chokes me up a bit in music hall.’”

So, if it’s inconsequential conversational pointless babble posing as information that is tweeted − what makes so many folks, not all of them young and/or twits, succumb to the urge to tweet it?

Here we need to move on to the realm of existential psychophilosophy, where “to be or not to be” is equivalent to “to tweet or not to tweet.” Imagine a tweeter attending a performance ‏(although to the best of my knowledge, there’s never been one‏) based on the writings of French philosopher Rene Descartes ‏(1596-1650; the 363th anniversary of his death is Feb. 11‏), and posting the following: “I tweet, therefore I am.”

In 1927 Milton Ager and Jack Yellen wrote a song which I’ll take the liberty to updapt ‏(update and adapt‏) here: “Oh ain’t it tweet, / tweeting while you’re in an aisle seat / Yes I ask you very confidentially: Ain’t it tweet? / Oh, ain’t it nice / When you tweet not once, but twice / Yes I ask you very confidentially: / Ain’t it nice? / Just grab a seat / in a theater / and tweet and tweet / What? Doesn’t matter! / Oh I repeat / Well don’t you think that’s kind of neat? / Yes I ask you very confidentially / Ain’t it tweet?”

The Beatles recorded the song in Hamburg in 1951 ‏(with Pete Best, not Ringo, on the drums‏), and again in 1969, during the Abbey Road sessions, with Lennon uttering at the end, “I hope you like that shit.” Incidentally, Sir Paul McCartney has 1.1 million followers on Twitter.

You can find a particularly cute version of “Ain’t She Sweet” from 1994 by Paul, Ringo and George ‏(on ukelele‏), at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5k-OE0-fWs&feature=share. And you are kindly invited to tweet that.

Daniel Tchetchik