Can an NBA junkie survive without Twitter?

Do fans have to be online using tools like Twitter in order to get the full NBA experience? To put this theory to the test, the writer went on a three week TwitterFast -- no active tweeting and no passive lurking on Twitter, even for potential assignments -- to see whether NBA fandom now relies upon the ubiquitous 140 character platform:

About a month ago, I realized I had a problem. Dwight Howard and the Knicks soap opera were dominating headlines in the run-up to the trade deadline, and I was nailed to my Twitter timeline, gleefully snarking on every rumor and piece of misinformation I could get my grubby hands on. Hours at a time of trying to be the first person to the clever joke, of checking every few seconds to see who had mentioned or retweeted me. After reading this thoughtful piece on the way Twitter’s addictive allure has changed NBA coverage forever, I realized a needed a break. So I signed off for three weeks.

The idea was to see whether I could keep abreast of NBA news, and to see whether I could fix the 140 character-sized leak in my consciousness. For years, I’d been a conscientious objector to the Twitter phenomenon, lording my refusal to shout into the echo chamber over the iPhone-affixed plebeians, but in the year or so I’d been tweeting I’d taken to it with the zeal of the convert. At first, I’d grudgingly acquiesced to Twitter as a way to publicize posts I’d written, but as time went by, I found myself more and more ensnared. So constant a presence did my timeline become, and so crucial a means of finding information, that I was no longer sure I could follow the league -- or any of my other interests really -- without it.

As it turns out, my fears were well-founded: During my three weeks away from Twitter, I found it almost impossible to feel connected to the flow of the NBA season. Whether it was news I was hearing late, or pieces by other bloggers I was missing, I discovered that my isolation made me less interested in watching actual games. Because Twitter so effectively organizes masses of information into a narrative or conversational thread, it had become the context that lent meaning to NBA contests. I enjoy individual games, but I found their significance somewhat diminished along with my ability to treat them as plot points in a broader ongoing story.

I want to stop here and think about this for a minute. I’ve heard people talk about the power of Twitter as a community-builder, a way to sit and watch games with friends, but it had never occurred to me that Twitter was making the product of the games themselves more enjoyable. In fact, I’d come to think of tweeting during games as a distraction, and on the nights when I needed to do it for an assignment I treated it warily. But once I was off Twitter, I realized that what it allows members to do is experience the game all day long. The drama of playoff implications, the excitement of surging teams -- these things didn’t have to be confined to the time between tip-off and the final horn. Being on Twitter makes an evening game into a daylong pageant with the match itself as a keystone event.

I also noticed during my hiatus that Twitter focuses my internet usage somewhat. It’s like an RSS feed, in some ways, in that it allows me to keep track of what I want to while letting me ignore a lot of the other stuff. Without it, I spent a lot of time clicking on the “related articles” sidebar on Gawker, a pastime which can quickly render the internet a warped vortex of progressively more twisted time-wasting, bending space, time and meaning into a Dadaist swirl where the only reality is the lost four hours I have spent finding things out about Michael Lohan.

Still, though, I do have reservations about my Twitter usage. It used to be regular Puritan condescension, my inner Franzen hectoring me that Twitter was fundamentally unserious or antithetical to long-form thought. I have gotten over that hang-up, mostly, but I do realize how thoroughly shot my attention span has become since I started using Twitter. I’ve found the past few weeks that I’ve developed a tendency to barely read things online; if I do click on links to long-form pieces, I usually scan them, leave them open in a tab, and forget about them while I move on to faster-paced delivery methods. Further, it is definitely true that I often have to re-watch games I want to analyze if I’d tweeted my way through them. As much as I want it not to be the case, I have become afflicted with a Twitterized brain.

A large part of the reason that I think Twitter has this hold over me is that it quantifies my communication and gives me all sorts meaningless little numerical benchmarks by which to measure my experience. Followers. Re-tweets. Mentions. Dozens of times a minute, I can check and see whether all the cool kids think my joke is funny, or whether I have increased my profile. I spend a truly pathetic amount of time checking the “@connect” button. These little benchmarks that Twitter has given it a stimulus-response element that the blinking cursor in my Word screen just can’t match. Where’s the thrill in reading one page when I could get one hundred more followers with a joke about how Erick Dampier looks like a Megazord of the Wayans brothers? (@dmnowell if you liked that one ... please?)

The biggest thing that the past three weeks have done for me is to make me realize what a powerful tool Twitter is, and also how much it has affected the way I process my world. As an NBA community member, I rightfully love Twitter for the way it keeps me connected to the game like nothing else. As a reader and writer, though, it has given me something like mental high cholesterol, a condition I need to manage if I’m going to be able to stay in any kind of shape.

In the end, I’m back on Twitter, and I’m excited to reclaim its benefits. I will, however, be experimenting with ways to limit my exposure. I think that the healthiest way will be to allow myself to either be fully on Twitter or fully off -- no leaving it open while I write or do other things, but perhaps for the three hours a day I’m going through other bloggers’ work or watching game footage. I need to find some balance between the problems Twitter poses my productivity and the benefits it provides me -- I need to carve out a relationship that is less compulsive and more utilitarian. This is easier said than done, of course, and I’m only cautiously optimistic, because to borrow an axiom, once on Twitter, always an addict.

You can follow Danny Nowell on Twitter at your own risk at @dmnowell.