Twitter is a mosaic of madness.
— Ad in BART station
A lot of “sound” comes out of Twitter. From social justice advocates to teenagers to professional athletes to right-wing conspiracy theorists, it seems that everybody is tweeting all the time. Tweets have become so ubiquitous that even someone like me, who has never had a Twitter account, is intimately familiar with the symbols and jargon: @, #, ♥, retweet. These little morsels are so pervasive that they have even entered our spoken vernacular. We even say “hashtag” in spoken conversation. #TwitterIsEverywhere
But are these tweets, these 280-character bits of information, really good for us to consume? Are they the pleasant music of early morning songbirds piping through the window of a cabin in the woods? Or are they the jarring caws of fighting pigeons piercing through the din of a noisy city square? Perhaps the Torah can offer some answers.
The original tweeters in the Torah are the raven and the dove, both of whom we meet in the story of Noah, Genesis 8. Once the floodwaters have receded and the great ark has come to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah sends forth both birds to determine the extent to which the land has dried out. When the dove returns with an olive leaf in her mouth, Noah knows that the water has receded and the time to leave the ark is near. No mention is made of the birds’ voices in this passage, but it is clear that their ability to fly makes these birds the ideal emissaries for the mission.
In the 21st century, we humans can make both our bodies and our voices fly. We can board an airplane and fly around the world or, instead of checking bags and going through security, we can simply type 280 characters into Twitter and make our words soar to whomever in the world cares to listen (or perhaps more often to those who don’t). What is the result of all these flying words? How do they affect our personal psyches and the psyche of society at large?
The Torah strongly associates the painful skin affliction known as tzaraat with the speaking of lashon hara, variously defined as “gossip,” “improper speech,” “the evil tongue” or “useless chatter.” Both Moses and Miriam are stricken with tzaraat immediately following their acts of lashon hara. (See Exodus 4:6-7 and Numbers 12 with Rashi’s commentary on both sections.) In Leviticus 14, we learn that one who has been afflicted with tzaraat must make an offering of two birds shortly following his recovery. The Talmud, reflecting on the nature of this commandment, offers the following explanation:
Rabbi Yehuda ben Levi says: What is different and notable about one who has been afflicted by tzaraat that the Torah states that he is to bring two birds for his purification? The Holy One, Blessed be He, says: He acted by speaking malicious speech with an act of chatter; therefore the Torah says that he is to bring an offering of birds, who chirp and chatter all the time (Arachin 16b).
In their choice of the tweeting blue bird as mascot, the creators of Twitter have tapped into this ancient association between birds and chatter. “Be like the little birds,” they tell us. “The more you tweet, the better!”
The Torah, on the other hand, does not mince words when it commands us NOT to fly around and chirp like birds. “Do not go around gossiping among your people,” states Leviticus 19:16. “Even though [what is said when one speaks lashon hara] may be true,” writes Maimonides, “behold, it destroys the world!” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 7:2).
So is Twitter destroying the world? Just about every scholarly article on social media tells us that excessive use of Twitter and other social media leads to an increase in anxiety, depression and other psychological issues. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Consider the various emotions that tweets elicit: joy, fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy, sorrow. What does it do to us to be inundated with these nonstop emotional triggers? Could it lead to us feeling out of sorts? Might it result in a terrible skin rash? Perhaps we need to kill a couple of birds to get clean.
What would happen if we took all the time we spent on social media sharing superficial interactions with hundreds or even thousands of near strangers and, instead, used that time to speak on the phone with one friend for half an hour? Or what if we put our emotional energy toward inviting people over for a Shabbat meal, instead of exhausting ourselves reacting to tweets?
Now, what about the effects of Twitter on a societal level? What does it mean to live in a world where the worth of words is measured not by their integrity and honesty but by the number of people who read them? I think the results speak for themselves.