Monday, August 24, 2009

eppur si muove: a defense of Twitter

Recently, media scholar (and, full disclosure, my former boss) Henry Jenkins published a new post on his always-mind-blowing blog, Confessions of an Aca/Fan. This post focuses on the affordances and, in his view, the limitations of Twitter.

The post itself is the result of a Twitter exchange wherein one of Henry's followers, @aramique, wrote: "you theorize on participatory models over spectatorial but i've noticed your whole twitter feed is monologue." Ultimately, Henry responded with this: "yr questions get Twt's strengths, limits. but answer won't fit in character limits. Watch for blog post soon." Then, in his blogpost, he begins with this:

I will admit that there is a certain irony about having to refer people to my blog for an exchange that started on Twitter but couldn't really be played out within the character limits of that platform. But then, note that armique's very first post had to be broken into two tweets just to convey the emotional nuances he needed. And that's part of my point.

From the start, I've questioned whether Twitter was the right medium for me to do my work. I've always said that as a writer, I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter. I am scarcely blogging here by traditional standards given the average length of my posts. Yet I believe this blog has experimented with how academics might better interface with a broader public and how we can expand who has access to ideas that surface through our teaching and research.

Jenkins, who makes it clear that his blog is his primary focus for online communication and that Twitter is a space for him to both direct traffic to his blog and track who follows his links, and when, and how, argues that though Twitter has its value as a social media platform, it has resulted in some losses. His main concerns are linked to a core issue with the key feature of Twitter: its brevity. As it grows in popularity, he explains, deep, thoughtful commentary on his blogposts has decreased:

Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of "Awesome" or "Inspiring" or "Interesting." So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.

"[I]n so far as people are using (Twitter) to take on functions once played on blogs," he writes, "there is a serious loss to digital culture."

I guess I'm approximately as serious about blogging as a medium as the next guy who posts tens of thousands of words each month, but I'm not sure I share Henry's concern. There were, after all, those who worried that blogs would lead to the decline of serious and thoughtful intellectual conversation. But as Henry's blog (and hundreds or thousands of others like it) demonstrates, blogs can in fact afford both a higher level of expression and a greater capacity for circulation of those ideas. The phenomenon of the blog also--and this was a key element of the initial concern about the decline and fall of civilization at the hands of the weblog--means anybody with internet access, basic typing skills, and a couple of ideas about anything at all can express, post and circulate them. Blogs even support cirulation of the most ignorant, repulsive claptrap a person can imagine. The onus is therefore on the consumer, and no longer the producer, to filter out the white noise in search of real music. The fear, real or imagined, was that the general public would not be able to filter intelligently and would therefore accept any nonsense they read online.

Actually, this fear is not a new one. The same anxiety was prevalent among educated elites when the universal literacy movement began to take hold. It was the same fear that gripped members of "high culture" when movies, then radio, then television, then YouTube became increasingly popular and available. See, that's the peculiar feature of democratizing technologies: Elites no longer get to decide what's culturally valuable and filter it out before it reaches the unwashed masses. Now we all get to decide, and that's precisely what leads the privileged class--even members of this class who are pro-democracy--to react so strongly that they try to stamp it out.

It's the same cry I hear from people who oppose Twitter: There's so much meaningless noise. It's leading to a decline in critical thinking. Jenkins writes that

there is an awful lot of relatively trivial and personal chatter intended to strengthen our social and emotional ties to other members of our community. The information value of someone telling me what s/he had for breakfast is relatively low and I tend to scan pretty quickly past these tweets in search of the links that are my primary interests. And if the signal to noise ration is too low, I start to ponder how much of a social gaff I would commit if i unsubscribed from someone's account.

Twitter, for all its seeming triviality, is one of the most complex, nuanced social media environments I've ever participated in. It's layered over with the kind of community expertise required for authentic, valued participation in a vast range of social networking sites, both online and offline. Add to that the fact that Twitter users bring to their engagement with the site any number of social motivations; multiply that by the nearly limitless number of possible subsets of Twitter followers the typical user might communicate with; and square that by the breathtaking creativity that the 140-character limit both supports and fosters.

This is what's most difficult to explain to a new Twitter user, and what's nearly intuitive for those who have internalized the tacit norms of the space: No tweet can be interpreted in isolation. No Twitter stream exists wholly independently of any other. Twitter's depth exists precisely in the delicate intertwining of inanity with complexity. Yes, most of the time I skip over people's breakfast tweets. But I don't always skip over them. Much of the time I click on the links Henry posts. But I don't always click on them.

Sure, Twitter is no substitute for a series of deep, thoughtful blogposts. But my sense is that the vast majority of Twitter users know this, and don't bother trying to turn Twitter into a blog, or even a microblog--though it may seem like it on the surface.

And even if some users really are trying to do exactly that, it's much easier to focus on Twitter's constraints than on the deep, breathtaking creativity it affords. I follow lots of Twitter users who are very good at linking to interesting, useful websites; and I follow a smaller number of users who are very good at the more difficult work of leveraging the technology in infinitely creative ways.

I wanted to offer an example of this creativity, but it's impossible to demonstrate outside of its context. You'd have to follow users' hashtags, or see how they fit an idea into 140 characters, or read a surprising tweet exactly in context.

Here's the closest I can come:
@jennamcjenna can someone link me to an article that tells me something completely mind-blowing? It doesn't matter what topic.8:52 PM Jun 16th from web

@dizzyjosh: @jennamcjenna try

Related posts by other writers:

danah boyd: Twitter: "pointless babble" or peripheral awareness + social grooming?
Henry Jenkins: The Message of Twitter: "Here It Is" and "Here I Am"

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