Twitter Strangers

20 Jul

Over at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson makes a convincing argument for adding random strangers to your twitter feed:

I realized most of my Twitter friends are like me: white dorks. So I picked out my new friend and started to pay attention.

She’s a Christian, but isn’t afraid of sex. She seems to have some problems trusting men, but she’s not afraid of them, either. She’s very proud of her fiscal responsibility. She looks lovely in her faux modeling shots, although I am surprised how much her style aligns with what I consider mall fashion when she’s a grown woman in her twenties. Her home is Detroit and she’s finding the process of buying a new car totally frustrating. She spends an embarrassing amount of time tweeting responses to the Kardashian family.

One of the best things about Twitter is that, once you’ve populated it with friends genuine or aspirational, it feels like a slow-burn house party you can pop into whenever you like. Yet even though adding random people on Twitter is just a one-click action, most of us prune our follow list very judiciously to prevent tedious or random tweets to pollute our streams. Understandable! But don’t discount the joy of discovery that can come by weaving a stranger’s life into your own.

I’d argue that the benefits of these twitter strangers extend beyond the fleeting pleasures of electronic eavesdropping. Instead, being exposed to a constant stream of unexpected tweets – even when the tweets seem wrong, or nonsensical, or just plain silly – can actually expand our creative potential.

The explanation returns us to the banal predictability of the human imagination. In study after study, when people free-associate, they turn out to not be very free. For instance, if I ask you to free-associate on the word “blue,” chances are your first answer will be “sky”. Your next answer will probably be “ocean,” followed by “green” and, if you’re feeling creative, a noun like “jeans”. The reason for this is simple: Our associations are shaped by language, and language is full of cliches.

How do we escape these cliches? Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, has found a simple fix. Her experiment went like this: A lab assistant surreptitiously sat in on a group of subjects being shown a variety of color slides. The subjects were asked to identify each of the colors. Most of the slides were obvious, and the group quickly settled into a tedious routine. However, Nemeth instructed her lab assistant to occasionally shout out the wrong answer, so that a red slide would trigger a response of “yellow,” or a blue slide would lead to a reply of “green”. After a few minutes, the group was then asked to free-associate on these same colors. The results were impressive: Groups in the “dissent condition” – these were the people exposed to inaccurate descriptions – came up with much more original associations. Instead of saying that “blue” reminded them of “sky,” or that “green” made them think of “grass,” they were able to expand their loom of associations, so that “blue” might trigger thoughts of “Miles Davis” and “smurfs” and “pie”. The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. More recently, Nemeth has found that a similar strategy can also lead to improved problem solving on a variety of creative tasks, such as free-associating on ways to improve traffic in the Bay Area.

The power of such “dissent” is really about the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer – this is the shock of hearing blue called “green” – we start to reconsider the meaning of the color. We try to understand this strange reply, which leads us to think about the problem from a new perspective. And so our comfortable associations – the easy association of blue and sky – gets left behind. Our imagination has been stretched by an encounter that we didn’t expect.

And this is why we should all follow strangers on Twitter. We naturally lead manicured lives, so that our favorite blogs and writers and friends all look and think and sound a lot like us. (While waiting in line for my cappuccino this weekend, I was ready to punch myself in the face, as I realized that everyone in line was wearing the exact same uniform: artfully frayed jeans, quirky printed t-shirts, flannel shirts, messy hair, etc. And we were all staring at the same gadget, and probably reading the same damn website. In other words, our pose of idiosyncratic uniqueness was a big charade. Self-loathing alert!) While this strategy might make life a bit more comfortable – strangers can say such strange things – it also means that our cliches of free-association get reinforced. We start thinking in ever more constricted ways.

And this is why following someone unexpected on Twitter can be a small step towards a more open mind. Because not everybody reacts to the same thing in the same way. Sometimes, it takes a confederate in an experiment to remind us of that. And sometimes, all it takes is a stranger on the internet, exposing us to a new way of thinking about God, Detroit and the Kardashians.


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