The Tweeting Child, or What I Learned about Social Media from a Five Year-Old

Noah, AKA @beebaaahp, is a five year-old boy. He likes playing Wii tennis (complains about line calls), having Mr. Man books read to him at bedtime, and snacking on string cheese and applesauce squeezies. He’s a digital native; his little fingers have tapped and swiped the surfaces of iPads and iPhones practically his whole life. Once, while his parents were asleep early in the morning, he powered on the television set, toggled to the input for the Roku media player, selected a TV episode he wanted to watch on Amazon Instant, correctly guessed the password necessary to make a purchase, and started watching his show.

Noah is my son, and lately one of his favorite things is twitter. He asked several times to have his own account, and would often demand to tweet from my account (or do it without asking). He wanted to use the same media of communication that his parents use, to play with our toys. It seemed harmless enough, and I monitor his account pretty closely. Since I said ok in December, 2014, he has tweeted hundreds of times, followed more than 250 others, and collected around 50 followers. Not too shabby for a user just learning to read.

Noah goes to kindergarten all day M-F, and every afternoon he brings home the artworks he made at school, typically in the medium of marker on paper. Having a child in kindergarten really reveals the blurry line between culture and garbage. The creative work of our precious darlings must go in the trash almost all the time if we are not to suffocate under an ever-expanding oeuvre. But creativity play is about process as much as product.

I like to see Noah’s tweets as a digital analog to his art projects. He’s messing around and expressing himself and making things to give to others and exploring his imagination using the tools available. That the tweets are saved and published rather than admired insincerely and dropped in the kitchen receptacle when he isn’t looking is, in some ways, incidental. But this gives us an easy way of archiving the expressive record without amassing physical clutter, and it shares his life with others who might be interested to see a kid’s work.

If there were millions of little ones on twitter it might be different, but I don’t know many accounts that are anything like @beebaaahp’s. His tweets can be cute, or goofy, or nonsensical, and always, always childish. They show the five year-old’s view of the touchscreen keyboard, the emoji set, the world captured by a phone camera and Google image search. They reveal some of his interests — sharks, himself and his family—and his mode of expression.

Sometimes I wonder if little kids need to be shielded from this kind of exposure but I usually quickly realize the bourgeois ideology underlying this thinking, conceiving of the child as pure and innocent and needing protection from an inherently dangerous world. Children are also members of our society, participants in our culture, citizens in the making. I think we’re better off including them more rather than inhibiting them in the name of often vague fears.

I was around Noah’s age when my memories really started to be imprinted, and one early image I keep is of going to my father’s office at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on a Sunday to help stuff envelopes for a mailing to participants in a conference. The tools of office work, particularly the dictaphones and typewriters, were fascinating. What appealed was not their communicative potential, but their human-machine interfaces: the dictaphone pedal under my foot and the typewriter keys under my fingertips. They were as much like toys as like tools. Push: something happens. I would turn the switch to start the IBM Selectric and feed a sheet of paper into the machine, turning the wheel to advance it through the roller. What magic: pressing a lettered square on that keyboard caused another version of that letter, accompanied by a mechanical noise, to appear in black ink on the page. The carriage return made its own noise, and tearing the paper out of the typewriter made one too. We took those pages of typewritten nonsense home as souvenirs.

Noah delights in using the human interface of the twitter app. (He only tweets from touchscreens.) He likes typing even though he only spells a few words like his name and Mom, Dad, is, too, can, he, and sat. He likes tapping out gibberish more than writing words. He is really only just beginning to communicate in text, and watching him tweet has revealed to me how much of the pleasure of mobile and social media is not so just the verbal exchange but also pictorial and haptic experiences. He has shown me things about the medium I hadn’t quite noticed or sufficiently appreciated.

The typical session for Noah with the twitter app begins when he switches account logins from mine to his. Immediately he notices if he has notifications or messages and often he starts to fave or retweet what he sees indiscriminately. He also tends to follow an account in his timeline if he doesn’t follow it already.

But the pleasure is not merely the mini-excitement of tapping the grey star and watching it burst into colorful life. He also knows that it feels good to be recognized, and “giving people notifications” is one the attractions of social media that he really feels. In many ways this is communication for the sake of being among other people, to reach out and touch someone. It is the “phatic” function of much social media that he relishes much of the time: the message isn’t just content per se, but “here I am, and here we are communicating.” Sometimes we pass the phone back and forth. He faves my tweets, posts some tweets and retweets, then I fave his tweets and retweets and pass the phone back to him. We are primates grooming one another using the little fave stars and notification indicators.

Since he doesn’t communicate very much in text, he gets a lot of twitter mileage out of emoji and photos. Emoji are such a perfect medium for a child. They’re cute and obvious, and you can use them over and over and over again. “I like how beautiful they are,” says @beebaaahp. “Emoji is cool and it has amazing pictures. I like to type emoji a lot and be funny.” While some more sophisticated users might create elaborate messages out of emoji combos, Noah just taps at the ones he likes. He does like to match some emoji to the animal pictures he posts sometimes. Other times the choices seems random, pictorial automatic writing. He also gets a kick out of the alphabets other than Latin that I turned on. His Sanskrit and Hebrew and Greek tapping makes no more or less sense than his Latin and emoji. It’s all pretty much pictorial. And this reminds us that alphabets and letters were pictures once, and still are.

The kid’s pleasures in twitter are really not so different from yours and mine as mature users. Of course we are communicating verbally in a way he is not. He doesn’t follow links or receive news. But like the child, we are also taking pleasure (or displeasure) in human sociability, in the responsive interface, in the graphical qualities of alphabets and cartoony animal faces and poop. We like to get and give notifications.

His usage patterns also reveal something about the design of twitter as a tool built upon algorithms that work by sucking up our data and shaping experiences accordingly. In some ways, Noah is twitter’s dream user, if by twitter we mean the company rather than the medium. He follows anyone the algorithm recommends, indeed anyone at all. He follows Xerox and Verizon. He retweets indiscriminately, including advertisements.

But his world on twitter is still constrained by his own social ties. As his first followers, the members of his immediate family (me, my older son, and my wife) led him to more accounts to follow by the logic of the algorithm’s suggestions. My twitter friends can see which tweets I favorite, so they might have discovered @beebaaahp that way. They definitely noticed when he faved and retweeted them even though he had no idea who they are. I guess he has that “cute kid” thing going for him, because friends of mine seem super excited to be interacting with this five year-old who posts nonsense.

He even got a mention from an honest-to-God celebrity. (How this happened: he retweeted a tweet about being RT’d by celebrities, then one of his followers replied to the original tweet’s author including @beebaaahp in the reply, and another user mentioned Orlando Jones as a celeb who once RT’d him. Boom.)

But this isn’t just goofing around on the Internet. As @beebaaahp filled in his social graph, more and more accounts of interest came into my view as users who follow him. The way the iOS twitter app works, you sometimes see tweets posted by users who your followers follow, or tweets faved or retweeted by them. By following my five year-old son on twitter, I was discovering content online that’s relevant to my work as a media scholar and university professor, and completely unconnected to anything he intentionally did to connect with any other internet users in particular.

tweets I saw because of following a five year-old

Let me just underline here what is going on. Twitter is showing me tweets by accounts my five year-old, barely literate kid follows that I don’t follow. He followed these accounts because he follows any account that twitter recommends. Some of these accounts are tweeting items of interest to me because the kid was prompted to follow people who are essentially friends of my friends, weak ties. It also selects tweets to push at me that have already been met with approval by users in the form of retweets or favorites. So the algorithm is doing quite a nice job of showing me things I like. I’ve even decided to follow some of these folks via @beebaaahp.

When twitter first announced this algorithmic feature, similar to the Facebook news feed, many critics cried fowl. Zeynep Tufekci perceptively complained that this change will deprive users of individual agency to shape their feeds, and will make it less likely for some content from less influential accounts to surface. Without wanting to give this critical perspective short shrift — I subscribe to Tufekci’s point of view—I also want to praise the algorithm for helping to circulate productive knowledge. It works so well, even a user who doesn’t really read can participate in its proper functioning. This is amazing, and kind of scary. But it works only within circumscribed social worlds, and it reinforces their coherence rather than opening them up to diverse and different voices. The echo chamber and “daily me” qualities of social networks are strong as ever.

So this algorithmic process says something about the constitution of our online networks, and how much they reinforce a distorted sense of the world being made up of people like us. Of course, a very young child isn’t “like us” in some ways. But in others, those accidents of birth that give us our culturally specific experiences provides strong continuity between generations, passing along various kinds of privilege or its absence. Even without communicating very much verbally, Noah’s twitter experience is that of the child of two college professors/media scholars in the midwestern United States. Even on the internet where so much is fluid and interstitial, the continuity of identity and its specificity and rootedness in family and community can be pretty strong.

For now, @beebaaahp seems to delight in the pleasures of the interface, of giving and receiving notifications, of blurry selfies and dolphin emoji. But the only predictable feature of childhood is constant change. I imagine he’ll abandon his twitterstream soon enough for other hijinks and new communities. I think we’ll really miss these days.

Me: Is there anything else you want to say?

@beebaaahp: That everyone has amazing tweets.