Imagine your life reduced to 140 characters; trying to articulate the sum total of your being in a few pithy, maybe slightly ironic, words. With control over that particular challenge some might relish the creative opportunity, where others would reluctantly set to work. A more frightening prospect might be to imagine your life reduced to 140 characters written by someone else.
In a sense this is what happens on Twitter all the time. Tweets mostly aren’t quite so ambitious, but they do often casually sum something up without undertaking a rigorous and considered analysis (to put it politely). It may not amount to a totally accurate characterisation of Twitter and tweeting, but to follow a hash tag or simply read the most popular tweets gives the impression of a constant but quiet murmur of chatter in cyberspace, or incorrigible online gossiping.
Almost on a daily basis the big news stories of the day get thrown into the micro-blogosphere and millions of opinions descend on them in a poorly informed but gluttonous feeding frenzy, like a devouring army of Amazonian ants that leaves behind it a chewed carcass and a thousand fragments of flesh. Many level accusations of sensationalism and a sententious approach to analysis at tabloid journalism, but to encounter a plague of tweeters makes these accusations look tame.
To speak plainly, Twitter can seem like something superficial that dallies whimsically on the surface of things rather than drilling down to their essence. And the evil twin of its superficiality is its inanity. Consider tweets such as ‘Currently eating lunch’ or ‘Watching my dog crap in the park’ – statements that read like someone talking to themselves, an activity traditionally taken as the first sign of madness.
It might be said therefore that Twitter is an inherently restricted, superficial and inane form of communication that encourages a socially acceptable form of insanity. So what are we to conclude, given that it is so spectacularly popular? (I’ll let that thought drift …)
The immediate objection might be to say that this characterisation is unduly negative and focuses on all the obvious criticisms without looking at the positives. Take, for example, Tweetminster. Gossip in the Westminster village is far from inane for politicians and political journalists (or even snooping members of the public), and Tweetminster aggregates this gossip and cross-refers it to the big policy and economic issues of the moment. Collated online nattering in this context might, then, be seen to bring to life the bar-room banter of our political representatives in a way that was previously only the privilege of those with the right clearance.
Twitter is also a good way to syndicate and share information; interesting stories and opinions that might otherwise go completely unnoticed have at least the opportunity to compete for broader attention, rather than passing through hierarchical editorial decision-making. Opinions or issues that politicians or businesses could previously have ignored, can gain a democratic momentum in the social networking landscape that public and commercial organisations ignore only to their detriment. And at a more social and prosaic (but no less important) level, it allows friends to maintain realtime contact at great distances.
Twitter, then, can (whether accurately or not) be interpreted in different ways. And perhaps it can be interpreted in different ways because people use it in different ways, some that are arguably useful, entertaining or for the public good, and others that are mediocre, bland or plainly pointless. That agreed, the medium itself is not in question, but simply how people use it.
The striking thing about the better and more interesting ways in which people and organisations use Twitter is that they turn what might be construed as a limitation into a virtue. Gossip in itself might be seen as trivial and superficial, but to recognise that gossip in an important context like the Westminster village has democratic and professional value is a striking insight. Many (again, if not most) organisations hold conferences with the tacit recognition that professional gossip oils the wheels of business. So, yet again, informal information-sharing and professional badinage can be good. Therefore Twitter can be good (not least because it keeps the conference chit chat going indefinitely).
Insights like this start from a clear understanding about the nature of Twitter. They understand that it is a restricted, informal, chatty, fast-paced way of making contact, and exploit the better things about those qualities. This suggests that there is an ‘art’ to tweeting, perhaps in a micro and a macro sense. For the individual wanting to say something in 140 characters, they need to think carefully about how they say it. For the organisation adopting a strategic approach to how it might go about tweeting, it needs to understand the informal, democratic and open nature of the dialogue on which it is about to embark and exploit that to its advantage.
Both must recognise that they cannot hope to articulate precisely, formally or in a way over which they will have total control. If they are are going to tweet, they have to accept the nature and intrinsic limitations of what they are doing.
Twitter and driving
Inevitably not everyone does accept this or even recognise it. And it is maybe even counter-intuitive to recognise it. 140 characters is an unnaturally small place to accommodate the ego of most human beings (and certainly too small to accommodate the professional ego of businesses).
A big ego with limited advertising space can be a combustible combination, and what might seem to the author interesting, engaging, fair, cool, funny (and so on) might be the antithesis of each word for the reader. If these lost self-assumptions are not a recipe for disaster, then they might at least be counted as a recipe for mild irritation. (This isn’t necessarily to suggest that Twitter amounts to self-perpetuating irritable gossip …)
One person’s idea of a joke summed up in a few words is another’s idea of insensitivity; one person’s concise observation is to another dim-witted and offensive; one person’s balanced opinion, is another’s reactionary rant. So if 140 characters is not enough to really get to the nub of things, it certainly is enough to pull the ground out from under your feet. Twitter is inherently self-subverting, because it casts only a flimsy and fickle light on the self.
Some people are philosophical about self-subversion, but others, however limited the space, go looking for infinity. The after-effect of this cocktail is tension; a tension that arises because some people simply don’t recognise the mismatch between the full-blown reality of their universe and its feeble and feckless articulation on some newfangled piece of online technology.
This tension is a little like the tension that can arise on the road. Despite their differences, tweeters and drivers both have clipped wings. Behind the wheel you have the equivalent to only 140 characters with which to communicate with fellow drivers. This means that when someone flashes their headlights, honks their horn, swerves ahead of you, puts on their warning lights in different circumstances, gesticulates in what might seem like an ungentlemanly fashion – when someone does any of these things, though you may think you know what they are trying to say, ambiguity still grins all over the hard edges of the chassis. A young man who screams by in the outside lane may very well be a legitimate candidate for castration, or he may be rushing an elderly relative to hospital.
But despite this ambiguity – or rather because of it – rage on the road is almost palpable and more or less a cliché. Take a journey through the centre of any busy city centre, and it won’t be long before some minor example of frustration surfaces. The temptation is to think that this frustration is always a legitimate complaint on the part of the frustrated. The angry driver always knows best, and if only the object of the frustration could see things as the angry driver sees them, all concerned would arrive at a sensible outcome. Whereas in reality the angry driver is angry because the object of his frustration clearly does not see things in the same way, a fundamental difference of perspective that the angry driver cannot transcend because they are ‘communicating’ through a lubberly piece of metal and equivocal codifications of meaning.
If driving is like Twitter (and vice versa), and there is an ‘artful’ way to tweet, then that suggests there is also an ‘artful’ way to drive. Not only that, but it also says a little about the word ‘artful’. In the case of tweets, we were led to the conclusion that ‘artful’ tweeting treats the limitations of tweeting constructively. The same might be said of driving; any ‘art’ of driving must recognise the regression towards simple forms of communication it entails, and act accordingly. (This is not necessarily to suggest that all drivers should treat each other as idiots …)
For both Twitter and driving, the ‘art’ involved is not an act of creative inspiration drawn on a blank canvas, but rather, to make it sound insipid, a judgement properly informed by context. In other words, the ‘artfulness’ of both activities occurs when the activity is commensurate with its nature.
Twitter and living
As in Twitter, so too in ‘real’ life. In the case of tweeting and driving, the limitations are more self-evident. In fact they are clear from the very nature of both. ‘Tweeting’ is to communicate in less than 140 characters, and driving is to operate behind analytically inelegant moving walls. When it comes to communicating through these two means, we have already seen how restrictions, ambiguities, confusion and consequent tension can arise.
Like tweeting and driving, living is not necessarily free from similar restrictions. To live is to inhabit a body; and bodies are as seasonal as any other organic element of the natural world. They are born, blossom, grow old, decay and wither into shadows and dust.
Bodies also have minds, and it is under the aegis of the mind that bodies (mostly) interact. It is the mind that is the GCHQ of the body’s communications. And if bodies are seasonal what reason is there to think that minds should enjoy a suspended sentence? If minds aren’t an integral part of the bodily process why do they need to be educated? Surely education is part of their own growth and development? If so, they are limited by the nature of being a body, just as a tweet is limited by 140 characters and drivers are limited by their cars. The edges may not be as transparent, but in the course of a lifetime, they are just as real. And if so, the mind’s activity – reason, rationality, order and structure – is not a passive discovery of laws entirely indifferent to its own existence, but, in part anyway, a fundamental part of its own growth and expression. Reason is an instrument or a tool through which the body can engage, form and discipline. It is an art commensurate with the nature of being a body.
This means that there is no escape from the kind of analogical limitation that Twitter suggests. These words and the mind that lies behind them (perhaps because they are pithy and written as a blog that hardly anyone reads, perhaps because I haven’t really tried hard enough, perhaps because they are written in English, or for any other reason incidental to my circumstance whether chosen or not) will not build bridges in every direction. Some might come to know them, but for others they must remain anonymous and mysterious. They are thrown out blindly and in a state of surprise and wonder, like a child from a mother’s womb.
But like tweeting and driving, the edges that define the horizon of the mind are not always immediately visible, and the temptation might be to assume – arrogantly – that words do build bridges in every direction. In fact the temptation might even be to assume that those bridges already exist, and all the person has to do is speak and they will be understood, universally, unconditionally and at all times. But these ‘disembodied’ minds can surely end up only sacrificing the idiosyncrasies of other perspectives to their own. They are acts of intellectual aggression, bulldozing their way through life like tribal animals crudely defending and expanding their territory. Disembodied minds, in other words, can only succumb to road rage.
And the only palliative for the smell of burnt rubber and an offensive hand gesture is communication and behaviour that is commensurate with the unusual circumstance of being a body. Of course part of that answer must mean recognising that the circumstances of individual bodies are so complex and unique that it is almost, if not actually, impossible to completely communicate and behave in a way that is commensurate with the circumstance of being a body. So the mystery of that circumstance is a feature of the way it must encourage behaviour and expression.
To communicate, then, is to do so as a body with a mind, but also as the activity of both under rare conditions. Since communication cannot hope to entirely transcend those conditions it must do so within them. Communication, as on Twitter and from behind the wheel of a car, is an art that aims for congruity not with an apocryphal and impersonal ‘real’ world but with the conditions that give rise to any given individual reality.
Perhaps then the challenge of Twitter is not such a terrible one. It, like driving, is a child of the mind and bears the vestiges of the mind’s character. Tempting though it might be to assume that the millions of tweets that are published each day collectively amount to better communication, they may in fact simply tirelessly refract a self-image of partly successful communication under conditions of inevitable failure.