imomus (imomus) wrote,

The case against — and for — Twitter

Click Opera is probably the result of some kind of bad craziness. I'm often asked -- at my lecture in Oslo last week, for instance -- how I can find the time or the motivation to update it with a major cultural essay of some kind every day. I just say "I'm insane". A longer, slightly more accurate answer would be that it takes me a couple of hours in the morning, that that isn't a huge investment for someone who doesn't have a dayjob, that Click Opera has led to lots of paid work, and that I'm a media-head (and probably a narcissist) who's always made little magazines for small audiences. When I was 15 and lived in Montréal, for instance, I put together on photocopiers at my dad's Concordia office a little magazine called Curreview, circulation five (the immediate members of my nuclear family). I do this sort of stuff because it's fun, and because "happiness is a byproduct of absorption"; you can't get happiness from a bottle or a pill, but you can get it from working at something you love.

But recently I've noticed that Click Opera got even more anomalous than it was before. My belle lettristique entries stand out even more from the entries on my Friends Page than they used to. And the reason is Twitter. Everyman-and-his-wife is switching to microblogging; to twittering, tweeting, and status updating on Facebook (which is obviously designed to be a Twitter-killer, but may well be failing). The same way Facebook made your email inbox quieter by shifting messaging over to shouts on a restricted proprietorial site, Twitter has made microblogging proprietorial. It's also evangelistic: my LiveJournal Friends Page now increasingly features content "automatically shipped by LoudTwitter". Example (this is actually on my Friends Page right now): "14:16 Oh to hell with this, I need food. #" Wow! Hold the front page, stand by at the command centre!

You could easily see the tweet as an inherently worthless form, some kind of spreading weed, replacing meaningful content with something scattershot, trivial, phatic, desultory -- eroding topsoil, decreasing crop yields. Blogging has certainly sped up since the arrival of the tweet; the minimal investment makes folk post more as microbloggers than they would as bloggers, and you certainly learn a lot about their transient emotions and habits, the microevents that make up their day. But if blogging has sped up, it's also lightened up. Blogging has caught a bad dose of ADD.

Five years ago Click Opera and a Tokyo-based blog called Neomarxisme began sparring productively over differing interpretations of all things Japanese. Marxy and I used the conflict to generate content, debate, alliances, positions, arguments, actions, paid articles. It was the blogging equivalent of certain academic rivalries, and I personally found it very valuable. Neomarxisme is now defunct; Marxy diversified into four or five new blogs (Clast, Mekas, Neojaponisme, Meta No Tame, google 'em), some paid for by employers, some run as businesses, some collaborative. Although several of these new blogs feature excellent and weighty content, none has attracted the creative energy, the debate, the passion, or the scale of participation Neomarxisme achieved. Marxy recently promised on his Twitter feed: "I am either going to start Twittering a broader range of topics or create a more news-feed-y twitter feed. I will let you know." He added: "I will also commence blogging again in the near future. I have been too busy charting the course of my life in this recessionary age."

The idea of "Twittering a broader range of topics" sounds sort of absurd to me, like the story The Guardian ran on April 1st: "Twitter switch for Guardian, after 188 years of ink • Newspaper to be available only on messaging service • Experts say any story can be told in 140 characters". Are people really going to try to shoehorn serious content into such a minimalist form? Why? Just because it's a trendy meme, a successful startup, a dinner party topic? Because they can do it when they're out-and-about, using mobile devices? Because it's not as daunting to start a 140-character tweet as it is to commence a 2000 word essay?

I recently visited the STASI Museum in East Berlin and was struck by how capitalism has now reproduced virtually the entire omni-surveillance machinery the communists had during the Cold War. The only difference is that we've done it voluntarily -- why bother concealing tiny cameras inside fake boulders or lapel blooms when someone will happily tell you his every passing thought or action on the internet, sitting in full view of a camera he's paid for himself? Similarly, who needs an Orwellian Party to enforce the use of Newspeak when microblogging imposes a 140-character limit?

Then again, then again... Couldn't "workers of the world unite -- you have nothing to lose but your chains" have been a tweet? Couldn't "we meet at Trafalgar Square at 1pm, then take over parliament" be a tweet too? Couldn't all the important things ever said be reduced to 140 characters? There's nothing more wonderful than seeing a short form given some kind of lapidary perfection, or even some obscene directness. It isn't just poets like Martial who enjoyed the maxim, or Auden who recommended the liberating strictures of those divine structures, rhyme and metre. What about pecha kucha, which stops designers mouthing off for hours about their work by imposing a strict formal limit: 20 slides, 20 seconds to talk about each. Anyone who can't sum up what they do in six and a half minutes isn't a good communicator, right? It's the same with Twitter, right?

This isn't an anti-Twitter tirade. I enjoy reading people's Twitter feeds. I recently made a new bookmark folder for them, and it's filling up quickly. I've personally always loved short forms, and I think they're much too brilliant to be wasted on phatic how ya doin'-type stuff. Short forms deserve more imagination. It isn't easy to know how to use them, though. Ever since starting my Facebook page I've been a bit flummoxed by the Status Update feature. I went through a phase of posting paranoid, petulant meta stuff on mine:

Nicholas Currie is adding value to a Web 2.0 social networking platform.

I went through another phase of just saying what I was doing or thinking (twittering, in other words):

When iMovie crashed just as he was about to save a big project, Nick cried out "This sucks ten billion bags!"

I started linking the kind of pages I'd usually only link from Click Opera once I'd found a big theme to unite them all. But that seemed to be frittering or twittering material away. After that I tried Big Important Ideas:

When future civilisations look back at us, they'll say "Oh yeah, that time when the top 10% of people owned 85% of all global wealth!" And roll their eyes.

Currently, I'm running a series I call Ultrashort Fiction:

Ultrashort Fiction 1: Ernesto Strongheart was devastated, one afternoon, to discover that his dog had just been pretending to like him.

Ultrashort Fiction 2: The tactful art professor would dress up as a clown before critiquing his students' work. The costume, he reasoned, would allow them to dismiss hurtful remarks: "Why should I care what a fucking clown thinks of my work?"

But probably the most telling and truthful Status Update I ever made from Facebook is:

Nicholas Currie is best appreciated on LiveJournal.

Let's hope they never fritter-twitter it away. You know who I'm talking about.

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