Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Twitter: first impressions

Having a conversation with another person about the appeal of Big Brother, or how - or why - it works, is impossible if that person has never immersed themselves in the experience of the programme. And although Twitter has not attracted the same kind of hostility, it is another 'text' (I'll come back to that word) that has emerged from an evolving mediascape, creates channels/possibilities/modes of self-presentation that did not hitherto exist ('at all?!' my 'nothing-is-entirely-new' inner voice demands), and needs to be participated in to be understood.

I deactivated my Facebook account some time ago, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to enter the world of Twitter, posing as it does, or so it seems to me, some similar drawbacks and dangers.

But first I'll focus on a few differences (and apologies if my Facebook knowledge is now outmoded). Twitter seems in some ways to be less of a 'me' medium (resisting the coinage) than Facebook. The subject of a Facebook status update, almost unavoidably, is the profile owner him or herself, because each update starts with their name. One could say this is true of Twitter too, but I've so far only encountered one person who systematically treats their tweets like status updates, making their name the first word, as it were. The default mode is for the name to act like a character name in a script: it merely identifies the person, and is followed by their utterance, of which it is not a part (to be boring about it, most people start tweets with a capital letter, but continue status updates after their name with a lower case one).

And I'd say there's a much greater tendency for tweets than status updates to be non-autobiographical. They are often not about something that is happening to the person, but something happening 'out there' (where?) that the person is moved to comment on. My good friend Tom Hughes (@yestomhughesyes) once told me about something New Media scholar Henry Jenkins wrote about Twitter, which I think I'm remembering correctly as: 'it is a combination of "I am here" and "Look at this"'.

Time to dip into some of Twitter's textual features.

A minimum of personal information

No favourite movies, quotations or books fields to populate, thank goodness. You even only get 160 characters for your 'Bio' (note abbreviation). The Twitter self is only minimally a static or achieved thing.


I wonder what the average Followers/Following ratio is. Public figures often have thousands of Followers but themselves only follow a handful of people. I expect that ordinary members of 'the public', like myself (and the majority of Twitter users) will follow more people than they are followed by, as they will follow public figures, organisations, etcetera. I myself feel a lot more comfortable 'following', say, Mark Thomas, than being his 'friend'. Twitter as a whole seems to offer a much better interface with people one could not in any meaningful sense describe as friends than Facebook.

Retweets and hashtags

Another indication of one's Twitter stature, besides the number of Followers one has, is how many times one's tweets have been retweeted (I still await my first!). Looking at it from the other and more important angle, Retweets are another manifestation of Twitter moving away from autobiography and towards something more like a public sphere. They will often register and promote solidarity and public awareness in the face of injustice.

Hashtags are a filtering device that, so far as I can tell so far, act as discussion threads.

I do not yet understand how 'Favourites' work, even having skimmed the information about them on the 'Help' section (perhaps I was reading too fast? - more on that shortly).

140 character limit

The most frustrating thing about this so far is that I've sometimes been moved to put up a quotation - usually from a pop song - but when I've cut and pasted it into the box, I'm overdrawn.

I've already seen that this limit lends itself very well to certain forms. The Facebook status update equivalent is one, of course. I've also been happy to reconnect with Gary Delaney (@GaryDelaney), whose comedy form of one-liners is a perfect fit with the medium. A lot of Tweets allude to some external phenomenon, often a current event which the reader is assumed to possess prior knowledge of (and if they don't, a quick search engine excursion will soon solve the mystery). Many - especially those by news organisations and their representatives - summarise a story or event and provide a link to a fuller account.

(I must quickly express my admiration for the tinyurl system, which is so easy to use and such an innovation! At the same time though, whilst there is an elegance to the brevity of them, their sheer randomness does make them seem a bit ugly/chaotic to me.)

Back to my Google Reader

I suddenly realised this afternoon that whilst I'd been assiduously refreshing my Twitter page throughout the day (encouraged by the parenthetical number which tells me how many new Tweets I have to read), my iGoogle page with its Google Reader gadget had been closed for some time.

My Google Reader has become a bit less compelling lately partly because I get links to some of the same subscriptions more quickly on Twitter.

But there's a larger point about the relationship of Twitter (a 'micro-blogging site') to blogs. I've found myself that some of my blogging energy has been siphoned off to Twitter. Things that I might have previously blogged about, I've simply 'pointed to' in a Tweet.

And then there's the question of how Twitter makes you read. It's all about brevity, and speed. I don't follow many of the links that are offered to me, and even when I do, I'm still in Twitter mode, reading at the driving equivalent of motorway speed, so I tend to tear through the longer piece, often thinking at the end that the Tweet gave me the meat anyway! Which leads me on to my next point...

Lost in the ether

My blog subscriptions sit and patiently wait for me in my Google Reader. But if I'm not on Twitter 24/7, I lose out. In theory I could probably catch up with all the Tweets of those I'm following, but that's because I don't follow that many people. Does Twitter have the capacity to deliver and retain all of the Tweets on the feed of someone following, say, 300 people (not uncommon)?

The 'text' of Twitter cannot be mastered, and is different for every one of its users. How would one go about analysing it? What parameters would (could) one set?

Perhaps it's best to think of Twitter as something one tunes into and out of. The default graphic of the clouds makes sense to me in that way - when signed in, one is plucking voices from the ether for a while.

To end

Twitter has made me feel more political. This might partly be a result of my signing up the day after the UK general election, but of course the site lends itself very strongly to the discussion of contemporary issues of widespread import.

And in this dark new era of public spending cuts, where the humanities will certainly take a further hammering and instrumentalists are likely to tighten their grip on 'knowledge production', the value and importance of the critical study of media (the quintessentail 'Mickey Mouse' degree subject and a perennial favourite whipping boy of the tabloid press, who would rather citizens did not possess the tools to deconstruct what they read) need to be championed.

I have been generally positive about Twitter as an instrument for reinvigorating the public sphere, and my personal experience of it these past few weeks has been exciting and overwhelmingly positive, but I have my doubts and reservations about this new medium's speed, brevity and transience. We are all encouraged every day to marvel at the possibilities of technology: how shiny it is, how efficient, what it can do. But technologies always fit into existing social structures, even whilst they have the potential to transform them.

Visions of a brave new world of digital citizenship carry with them new possibilities for exclusion - of the old, the impoverished, the disabled, the illiterate (Professor Charlotte Brunsdon in particular has helped me appreciate the importance of this point).

Who does Twitter exclude? What kinds of citizen does it create - or, less deterministically, what modes of citizenship does it encourage? These are among the questions we need to be asking.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Notes on Springsteen, part one

Even though I'm not an American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognize why so many people find Springsteen bombastic or histrionic (but not why they find him macho or jingoistic or dumb - that kind of ignorant judgement has plagued Springsteen for a huge part of his career, and is made by smart people who are actually a lot dumber than he has ever been), 'Thunder Road' somehow manages to speak for me.
Nick Hornby
It was quite a thrill yesterday to momentarily contribute to the output of Radio 4 rather than merely listening enthusiastically. On last week's Saturday Live, Tracy Chevalier (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring) chose Bruce Springsteen's 'The River' (taken from his 1980 album of the same name) as one of her 'Inheritance Tracks'. This week, the following e-mail was read out:
Far from disspelling American stereotypes, Miss Chevalier's tracks and musings served as a reinforcing catalyst. Bruce Springsteen in 'The River' sums up all that is bad about the USA: redneck racism and insular allegiance to a flag, not a free-world ideal, and a nation which shirks its responsibilities. The American Dream is merely an American delusion.
(Now it is just possible that the writer is saying that Springsteen is depicting and diagnosing 'redneck racism', rather than simply propagating it, but this was a ten-second but in a magazine-style programme, so dominant impressions are what we have to consider.) I could not let this go unchallenged. I went to the programme homepage, and fired off a comment. Imagine my delight when about twenty minutes later, my e-mail was read out, pretty much verbatim:
I have no idea why on Earth you chose to read out such an ill-informed dismissal of Bruce Springsteen. He might perhaps be accused of a brand of macho sentimentalism or unuseful nostalgia but the charge of racism leaves me baffled and rather angry.
But for someone with as much of an investment in Bruce Springsteen and his music as I have, these few words only mark the start of a conversation I would invite.

The original comment that the editors chose to broadcast is close to being a rant - especially as it claims to find all of the negative attributes it outlines contained in 'The River'. In that song, a man tells the story of his life: he gets his girlfriend pregnant, marries her, works construction, struggles later to find work, measures the distance that has grown between him and his wife, and remembers going down to the river with her. It's a highly condensed life-story, and the details that Springsteen uses to bring his sketch to life are objects ('a union card and a wedding coat') and emotions ('I just act like I don't remember/Mary acts like she don't care'). Macroeconomics play their part in the narrator's woes, but he simply states 'Lately there ain't been much work/On account of the economy', and leaves it at that (Simon Frith has noted that Springsteen's focus in his songs on 'individuals' fate[s]' make his brand of populism ambiguous). Whence 'redneck racism' or 'insular allegiance to the flag'?

In my reply I tried to acknowledge arguments that have been levelled against Springsteen and which I can see the reasoning behind, even if they are still arguments that I would still ultimately aim to counter. Saturday Live's stand-in presenter (the Reverend Richard Coles) got closer to aesthetic and cultural issues that I think are genuinely at stake when, after the original comment, he asked his guest, 'When you hear the Boss, Jodi [Picoult], do tears spring to your eyes and do you want to hoist the stars and stripes in front of your clapboard house with your apple trees nodding around?'

Immediately after firing off the e-mail I began to think I had conceded too much (see the Nick Hornby quote at the start). But that need not trouble us if, as I suggested above, we treat the above comments as simply the opening rhetorical moves in a much more extended discussion.

Unfortunately it has taken me longer than I though to write even this much. It's almost midnight, the last song on Nebraska has just started ('Reason to Believe'), and I need to go to sleep, so I shall have to end with a promise to continue this at a later date, in the I-hope-not-too-distant future.
I know you're lonely
For words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free
All the promises'll be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win
'Thunder Road'