The video above is a “funny” take on the role of Twitter in our everyday lives from this past summer (I think). I know, who cares about celebrities and nothing is less funny than explaining why something is funny. But because the video isn’t really that funny to begin with, we’ve nothing to lose by quickly hitting on some of the points it makes. Humor is a decent barometer for shared cultural understanding for just about everything, indeed, often a better measure than the op-eds and blog posts we usually discuss in the quasi-academic-blogosphere. Those who made this video themselves are trying to tap into mainstream frustrations with smartphones and social media and their increasingly central role in many of our lives. So let’s look at the three main themes being poked at here, and I’m going to do my best to keep this short by linking out to where I’ve made these arguments before.
This is a common trope deployed against all things digital: ebooks are shallow, digital activism is slacktivism, and Twitter usually gets the brunt of it. Whether it is because of its childlike name, the short 140 character limit to each tweet, the fast-paced and often ephemeral discussions, or the fact that few Americans actually use the service, the very mention of Twitter in a room often induces laughter. I’d like to ask folks here why the digital is equated as more trivial in general, and why Twitter gets this attack specifically?
My first reaction is that if someone is tweeting things you find trivial, don’t follow them. Social media is like a radio, it’s all in how you tune it; if your Twitter stream is a bunch of tweets about lunch, you’re doing it wrong. Stop following those people (unless you want to read those tweets). Don’t blame the site for this. Follow great comedians and you get a stream of some of the funniest people telling you jokes all day. Follow top-notch journalists and you get a stream of them breaking and discussing news. For me, it’s being able to read a bunch of smart folks sharing links and discussing them. Ultimately, this is so obvious that there must be more going on here, and I think it has to do with disqualifying certain ways of knowing and speaking. All claims to “triviality” are claims to knowledge and thus power. More on this here, where I take Noam Chomsky to task for missing this point: http://www.salon.com/2011/10/23/why_chomsky_is_wrong_about_twitter/
Stop Tweeting about Life and Live It
This is another popular anti-social media trope: that we are all talking about life rather than experiencing it. I do think there is merit to the line of critique, but some nuance is needed in its deployment. Here, per usual, is the claim that social media is separate from life. Time spent tweeting is time spent not-living. This is a fallacy, what I call “digital dualism”, the incorrect assumption that social media is some other, cyber, space separate from “real” life. No, social media is real and, further, research has shown that time spent on social media is often associated with more time spent face-to-face. More on digital dualism here: http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/
The IRL Fetish
This is classic “IRL Fetish,” whereby the offline is obsessed over as if it is disappearing in order to make certain folks oh so very proud of themselves with their magic ability to put their phones away and live “real” life. This is not simply appreciating being logged off, but is a fetishization because it (1) neglects the fact that the offline and face-to-face are actually proliferating in part due to digital technologies and (2) it forgets that turning off the phone and getting away from the screen are actually not logging off at all. What happens when not looking at the screen is much of what we’ll eventually post to social media. More on this here: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-irl-fetish/