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Is Twitter for the Birds? The Symbolic Significance of Tweeting

If you look at Dictionary.com, the word “twitter” is defined as a “a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a bird” or “to talk lightly and rapidly, esp. of trivial matters; chatter.” “Tweet” fares no better, described as a “weak chirping sound.” Though the etymological derivation from Old German is slightly more positive, meaning "condition of tremulous excitement,” neither term seems to come even close to the experience had by those who have embraced it as a powerful tool for rapid and broad dissemination of information.

Granted, the fairly recent social art of Tweeting got off to a rocky start. I first equated Twitter to living one's life online, broadcasting every mood or action to the world—an process which I could not fathom anyone would be the least bit interested in.

In fact, many, includng myself, probably initially thought that Twitter was “for the birds” –an interesting term its own right.According to one online pop-site, “for the birds,” which means “trivial; worthless; nonsense, irrelevant matter, or only of interest to gullible people,” emerged as U.S. Army slang around the end of WWII and is condensed from the more vulgar “s*&% for the birds,” referring to the common sight of birds pecking at horse droppings in order to extract the seedshttp://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/for-the-birds.html). Other sources say it refers to the small size of brains belonging to birds, and thus, to limited intelligence (http://www.businessballs.com/clichesorigins.htm)

However, I have recently had a change of heart—or should I say, change of brain? --on the subject. One of my colleagues, observing my newfound interest in dissemination of information of things Depth Psychology through Twitter, referred to what I was doing as “soul tweets,” a term that captured my imagination and made me want to look more deeply at the symbolic nature of Tweeting.

After all, throughout history birds have universally been symbols of power and freedom, serving in the role of messengers of the deities, mediators, and oracles. They thrive in water and in the air, linking the two dimensions surrounding humans and creating a unified world. In the Judeo-Christian religion, the dove is the bird of epiphany. In alchemy, the upward movement of the bird represents a search for a higher level of meaning.

Since ancient times, numerous feminine figurines representing the goddess, some with the head or mask of a bird have been uncovered from Egyptian, Sumerian, Minoan, and Greek civilizations, reminding us birds have long been considered sacred. Birds have historically and inevitably been linked to shamans who are thought to “fly” to other realms seeking healing and insight on behalf of the community, insight that may bring tremendous value to those who seek it. Additionally, magical flight lends itself to the idea of birds guiding the soul through the realm of the dead. In a society where dissociation and entertainment dominate after eclipsed the old deities, we need as much guidance as we can get to lead us into redemption.

Significantly, birds in mythology are often known to speak, imparting divine wisdom, warning of peril, telling the future,or guiding travelers along their way. In modern day, the study of bird vocalizations—some might call it “twitter”--has revealed strategic information regarding how humans learn and remember. Currently, birds are being studied to better understand how new neurons in the human brain affect memory. Birds provide a modal system for vocal learning because they are the only terrestrial animals besides humans that learn their vocalizations. Father birds tutor their babies to learn their song while it’s genetically encoded in primates (http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2010/06/08/using-birdsong-to-study-memory).

Two decades ago, studies proved a songbird’s brain regenerated new nerve cells each fall to offset those that died during thesummer. Understanding neurogenesis may help us understand how humans learn and remember, thus leading to improved treatment Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or other diseases caused by deteriorated nerves in the brain (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/birdbrain.html).

In fact, researchers have increasingly drawn between bird song learning and human language learning. While some scientists argue that studying birds in isolated soundproof chambers ignores the value of social variables, which require instead that we investigate bird song learning in the field where social and ecological variables can be fully present. In this case, song learning appears to be an adaptive strategy (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9386917). Will Twitter prove to be an equally adaptive strategy in the history of humankind? If indeed we are on that path, it seems critical that a vehicle like Twitter be able to reach out into the field around us to create impact on a social level.

Recently I had a numinous bird encounter of my own with a mountain chickadee in the forest of New Mexico. The uniquely-marked bird directly flew straight at me from several feet away and hovered a foot from my face, in such direct proximity that I could look it in the eye and feel the wind and energy emanating from its wings. Then, it darted away and immediately returned from 10 or 15 feet away, doing the same thing. Finally, a third time, it repeated this startling behavior as if making sure I couldn’t miss the significance of its actions.

Alchemy tells us the number “three” is a dynamic number. It is representative of Jung’s “third thing” that arises from the tension of opposites, the true transcendent function that occurs when one holds the opposites long enough. In mythology, birds are thought to be carriers of the soul, or even the soul itself. Even C. G. Jung noted this in his work. Was my close encounter with the chickadee a face-to-face encounter with my own soul, a validation –even a “soul tweet” from something bigger than me? On some level, did it support the idea that Twitter, something I thought was “for the birds,” might instead be the next thing I might want to embrace to help carry out my desire to share and to learn? Regardless, it seems a fortunate thing to be “following” one’s own soul in order not to miss the messages it sends.

According to the Audubon Society, chickadees forage the surfaces and crevices of branches for food, often hanging upside-down to get at stuff that’s hard to reach. Like a hummingbird, they do have the ability to hover around something if it interests them. And, like squirrels, they tend to store food in the fall so they can retrieve it when they need it. All this seems very interesting and symbolic when I begin to consider the way Twitter can be used to forage for data, to search for info that may otherwise be hard to come by, and can be searched for past tweets to see if there are nuggets to be consumed at a later date (http://www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/bird_details.aspx?id=329).

Regardless of what you think of Twitter, it can be a wonderful use of technology. Ancient peoples certainly would have viewed it as powerful magic, a way to share information, visit other mysterious and previously unknown realms and gather insight, hear the messages from otherworlds, and to build bridges—to share soulif you choose to use it that way. Perhaps its time to take another look at this particular birdsong.


Tags: alchemybirdbraincgjungjungjungian,languagesymbolismtweettwitter

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"The upheaval of our world and the upheaval of our consciousness are one and the same.”
--(Carl Jung, Modern Man in
Search of a Soul,p. 215)

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