Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 6, 2011

rage against the Twitter machine

In the New Statesman, A. C. Goodall writes that Twitter is really bad. She doesn’t make any arguments, she just says stuff. “Twitter is all about fitting in.” “Twitter functions as banally as a school hierarchy: who to like, who not to, who you're allowed to criticise, who you can't etc.” “Twitter relies on people's desire to be the same.” Like that: assertions without evidence.

To which I reply that Twitter is a platform and a medium, not an organized and coherent body — it’s not like a book, for instance, which can be said to have a single overall character. Imagine what you would think if someone said, “Email is all about fitting in.” Or “The telephone functions as banally as a school hierarchy.” Or “The telegraph relies on people’s desire to be the same.” Media platforms are what you make of them, and the history of each reveals that its makers expected it to have a relatively narrow set of uses and were surprised when people exercised their creativity to find remarkably varied uses.

In fact, it’s not enough to say that different people use Twitter in different ways: one person may use it in different ways. On Twitter I talk sometimes to my fellow literary academics, sometimes to my old American Scene friends (largely about pop culture), sometimes to my fellow soccer fans, sometimes to friends from church — and those are all different kinds of conversations, with different tonalities and shades of intimacy or distance. I find this fascinating. We need a modern Mikhail Bakhtin to write about the speech genres of Twitter.

Oh, by the way: Goodall has a Twitter account.

(P.S. Just to prove my point, take a look at what just showed up in my Twitter feed.)

5 comments:

  • While I certainly think that Twitter is irreducible (like all mediums), I also think that mediums do differ in meaningful ways. (E-mail, for instance, is a medium that allows for revision in a way that the telephone doesn't, while the telephone supports immediacy and a sort of different, cooperative revision.) Twitter isn't "about" something, no. But it is certainly worth exploring the difference.

  • So, if I follow Goodall on Twitter, is that really bad?

  • I have to admit, your response surprises me. Your blog is focused on media, technology, and gains and losses associated therewith. We're reminded from time to time of McLuhan's famous dictum: the medium is the message. Yet you're saying that the medium is open to the user's application. It would be foolhardy to argue either extreme -- that the medium is mostly ambivalent or the user experience is completely open. Restraints and channels designed into any medium or platform necessarily affect use. McLuhan says that effect is more significant that we generally realize.

  • You're right, brutus, that's what McLuhan says — but I don't think I agree with him.

    In any case, I certainly don't mean to suggest that Twitter or any other medium is infinitely flexible, but history does clearly show, and repeatedly, that media pretty much always end up being far more flexible than they were thought to be upon creation. Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet (a history of the telegraph) provides beautiful illustrations of that point.

  • "On Twitter I talk sometimes to my fellow literary academics, sometimes to my old American Scene friends (largely about pop culture), sometimes to my fellow soccer fans, sometimes to friends from church — and those are all different kinds of conversations, with different tonalities and shades of intimacy or distance."

    As it happens, I'm giving my very first academic conference presentation later this month (and as that happens, it's on the very same day that I'm doing my first trip as a professional mariner.)

    Fittingly, the title of my presentation "I Contain Multitudes: Twitter as a tool for the authentic performative self"

    The notion for this presentation sprang from your post about Decorum, as it related to my ongoing interests in the (problematic) place of explicit sexuality in cinema, most especially as that related to my observance of how content-ratings systems and warning seem to emerge organically in fanfic communities, and bear a startling resemblance to more recognized systems enacted to serve much the same purpose in society at large.

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