With the caveat that this post doesn’t have much to do with architecture, but with the further caveat that I will be speaking about media – specifically online media – next week at the Australian National Architecture Conference, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts here about Twitter.
Inspired in this specific instance by Maureen Dowd’s brain-dead editorial in yesterday’s New York Times, but also by the obvious glee with which so many people have denigrated the note-taking value of Twitter, it seemed like time to address the subject. Ever since a friend of mine once claimed – very late and after many drinks – that “Twitter is the death of humanism,” I’ve been regularly thinking about how a simple note-taking technology could inspire such apparent dread in so many people.
First, on the most obvious level, Twitter needs to be differentiated from what people write on Twitter. The fact that so many people now use Twitter as a public email system, or as a way to instant-message their friends in front of other people, is immaterial; Twitter is a note-taking technology, end of story. You take short-form notes with it, limited to 140 characters.
Second, the comparison I often make here is with ball-point pens.
Imagine a world where everyone uses typewriters: they write novels, manifestos, historical surveys, and so on, but they do it all using typewriters.
Now the ball-point pen comes along. People use it to write down grocery lists and street addresses and recipes and love notes. What is this awful new technology? the literary users of typewriters say. Ball-point pens are the death of humanism.
Nevermind, of course, that you can use ball-point pens to write whatever you want: a novel, a screenplay, epic poems, religious prophecy, architectural theory, ransom notes. You can draw astronomical diagrams, sketch impossible machines for your Tuesday night art class, or even work on new patent applications for a hydrogen-powered automobile – it doesn’t matter. You can draw penises on your coworker’s paycheck stub.
It’s a note-taking technology.
Who cares if people use ball-point pens for writing down phone numbers and movie times, or even drawing little hearts on someone else’s notebook in the middle of English class? It doesn’t mean that they hate literature.
Similarly, who cares if someone uses Twitter to say that they’re bored, or to list what they ate last night? It doesn’t mean the barbarians are at the gates.
This leads to a third point, which is that, according to Dowd’s own absurd logic – she describes Twitter as something “for bored celebrities and high-school girls” – well, first of all, who says high-school girls aren’t supposed to write? And why is it anyone else’s business if a bored person, who happens also to be famous, decides to share random thoughts with the world?
However, what very much bothers me about this attitude toward Twitter is something else: if you were to go around the United States reading the handwritten diaries of, say, high-school girls or adolescent boys or even well-read college students, you would find equally inane chattering: “I feel fat today.” “Can’t wait for summer in Boca! But I need new shorts.” “My history professor is HOT.” “I hate holidays. Christmas at home is so boring.”
Are you really going to tell me that the average contemporary, hand-written diary is any more interesting than that? In fact, one could easily argue that private, paper-based journals would be volumetrically much worse than Twitter in their sheer scale of self-obsession.
Yet the anti-Twitter crowd doesn’t appear to oppose the use of personal journals during adolescence. For instance, will Dowd soon also be writing an editorial that excoriates lonely teenagers for writing down their thoughts on paper? After all, she bizarrely implies, “high-school girls” shouldn’t be allowed access to new forms of writing technology, so she must have been apoplectic when cheap pens and affordable notebooks first arrived in the office supply store: suddenly anyone, even blonde girls, could be writers.
This strange and somewhat disturbing resistance to seeing other people writing was encapsulated quite well, I’d suggest, in a question submitted last month to ForYourArt, referring to the fact that people were using Twitter during Postopolis! LA.
A concerned reader wrote in:
Can you please explain to me why people sitting next to each other twittering into cyberspace is SO much more important than sharing ideas with the people beside them??? Does twittering really expand, engage ideas and other opinions – or does it further isolate people from the communities right next to them???
The only way these questions would make any sense at all is if this person also hates people who use notebooks in public – indeed, if this person looks down upon public note-taking of any kind. Does she also have a problem with someone taking photographs – or producing other, non-textual forms of event documentation – or is there just something particularly inexcusable about the desire to make textual records of a live event?
If I attend a public lecture but I start to jot things down in a Moleskine, it would seem that only a particularly virulent form of social fascism would ask me to put that notebook down and begin “sharing ideas” with the people next to me.
No thanks – I’d rather write, actually.
Again, I fail to see any clear distinction between someone’s boring Twitter feed – considered only semi-literate and very much bad – and someone else’s equally boring, paper-based diary – considered both pro-humanist and unquestionably good.
Kafka would have had a Twitter feed! And so would have Hemingway, and so would have Virgil, and so would have Sappho. It’s a tool for writing. Heraclitus would have had a f***ing Twitter feed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, now that the other half writes – all the jocks and high-school girls and video store employees and D-list celebrities – it seems comparable only to a kind of police action that the people who once thought they were the chosen writers, that they were this generation’s idea-smiths, are now so up in arms.
Those other people – those everyday people who weren’t supposed to have thoughts, who aren’t known for reading David Foster Wallace or Dostoevsky or James Joyce, those overlooked people from whom we buy groceries, who fix our cars, clean our houses, and vote differently than we do – weren’t supposed to become writers.
Now that suburban housewives in Missouri are letting their thoughts be known via Twitter, it’s as if writing itself is thought to be under attack, invaded from all sides by the unwashed masses whose thoughts have not been sanctioned as Literature™.
In many ways, I’m reminded of Truman Capote’s infamous put-down of Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”
So there seem to be quite a lot of assumptions at work here, with so many class, political, and even gender implications for who is allowed to speak, who we are meant to listen to, who can write, how they are permitted to do so, in what social contexts writing is meant to occur, and what topics can be legitimately addressed by others, that I’d hope a much longer discussion about this might someday take place. Until then, we get Maureen Dowd.
So Twitter is very obviously not the answer to everything, and it never should have been portrayed that way; but it also very obviously is not the death of humanism.
Twitter is just another option for people to use when they want to take notes – and it’s no more exciting than that, either, to be frank. It’s a ball-point pen.
Get over it.