For reasons I have yet to pin down, I have been struggling to theorise Twitter. While I am an avid user and an unabashed proponent of the service, I’ve found myself at a loss to explain why Twitter is so compelling or what some of its cultural implications are beyond the usual accusations of narcissism. In my previous attempt, I tried to think of Twitter in terms of a space for producing a personal narrative and I still think there’s something useful there to work with. But I remain perplexed.
Funnily enough, it was the recent Emily Gould brouhaha that got me thinking about this again in similar but slightly changed terms. Most reactions to the NYT Mag piece have generally fallen into two camps: Andew Keen-esque rants that declare that it is meaningless and narcissistic; or pieces discussing the importance of the revelations about the underbelly of Gawker, blogging and the NY media scene.
But one of the things Gould grapples with in the article – and this is where I believe the importance of both the piece and its reaction lie – is the manner in which identities are produced, ‘textualised’ and branded online. And I would argue that this occurs through the linking of selves to ‘presences’ on the Web. By presences, I mean persistent ‘texts of identity’ that exist ‘out there’ and are not simply expressions of ourselves – i.e. taking what is inside and telling it to the outside – but are, rather, places to almost literally ‘put ourselves’. To that end, this is what Gould says of blogging:
“I think most people who maintain blogs are doing it for some of the same reasons I do: they like the idea that there’s a place where a record of their existence is kept — a house with an always-open door where people who are looking for you can check on you, compare notes with you and tell you what they think of you.”
The two previous paragraphs essentially say the same thing and I’ve just been too stupid to recognise it before. And I think this sense of ‘putting yourself somewhere’ is what makes Twitter work as a microblogging tool, a record of identity and a place to create a story about yourself – and indeed, to deliberately be a bit exaggerative, ‘create yourself’.
But identities have always been ‘texts’, if by text one means ‘something that can be read’. When I wear a certain piece of clothing, hold my body in a particular way, use certain slang and so on, you use a code in order to interpret or read those actions. Sure, the frame of reference is always shifting – a trucker cap meant one thing in the 50s, another in the 00’s – but the mechanism stays the same. I perform something in a particular way in relation to a number of cultural reference points and, in some fashion, it is interpreted.
The internet, in things like Twitter, changes this in a few important ways. First, it locates these performances of identity outside of the body and in doing so, breaks the connection between performing identity and time and place. Rather than having to enact a particular facet of myself at a moment in time – wearing a particular thing, behaving a particular way – I can place a part of myself at a given ‘location’ online and then orient myself in relation to it. Unlike the dependence upon a body, Twitter, blogging and other digital modes of expression become spaces to project not only who I am but who I want you to think I am, in a way that isn’t necessarily bound by place and time in the same linear sense. There is instead a non-linear back and forth and a weird simultaneity in which I exist both ‘here’ and ‘there’. Furthermore, I am in effect making a text of my identity for you to read ‘out there’ and in doing so, am also recreating myself and re-imagining myself ‘in here’, in relation to the me that I am constantly writing online.
Secondly, this text exists in a persistent but constantly shifting public space. Unlike expressing oneself in a book or in a song, in Twitter I quite literally inject my thought into a public timeline, a public space that does not exist in space at all. By ‘tweeting’, I put my thoughts into the ‘flow of ideas’ and the ‘stream of culture’, and indeed, when this sense of the stream is temporarily gone (in one of Twitter’s many downtimes), it is as if Twitter loses all its appeal.
These two things combined – the projection of identity into a virtual space and its reception into and persistent presence in the public sphere – are what I’ll argue form some of the reasons that Twitter is not only addictive, but important. But while I’ve so far spoekn in rather flattering terms, I think the Gould saga also points to the manner in which this ‘projective saying‘ involved in both Twittering and blogging is also potentially dangerous. There is, after all, a push to look after the brand that is oneself, whether that it is a brutal sort of honesty in one’s writing or a need to push the next story at all costs. But more to the point (as these problems are not unique to digital forms), is that the digital space still runs by and through economic models. While Gould wrote before Denton switched to the ‘pay-per-pageview’ model, the push for her to write such honest pieces came from two major places: a blogging culture that valued hits; and a blogging audience that linked an online persona to a real identity. As such, the production of this text of identity – this projection and movment of part of oneself online – is always prey to being subsumed by economic concerns that treat texts as commodities, the same mentality that lumps all forms, whether music, literature, film etc. into the term ‘content’. While this absolutely economically necessary – indeed, is the mechanism by which the digital economy works – that does not therefore make it good for individuals.
So there are obviously upsides and downsides to all this. The positives are that Twitter and similar services have created an entirely new sphere in which to to inscribe our identities; the negative is that this space is not our own and will not simply do what we want it to because we want it to. There is obviously more to be thought about in regards to Twitter specifically and online identities in general. For now though, if you’d like to add or challenge something, comments are (as always) welcome and appreciated.