Saturday, April 25, 2009

In defense of Twitter



It's hard not to notice the sudden obsession mainstream media have with Twitter lately. Just the other day the
New York Times had three, yes three, Twitter stories on the same day. I'm not sure why Twitter is suddenly generating so much attention, some attribute it to Oprah but I noticed it prior to that as well. Like most "new" media, a lot of the articles and stories are merely trying to make sense of why and how people are using the technology/application. And as we have seen, a lot of this attention seems to be a bit negative or dismissive. I came across this article (on Twitter nonetheless) which offers a witty yet poignant discussion of Twitter: How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter. My two favorite lines are:

"...she [Dowd] 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?"

Interestingly there exists a long discursive history of girls' relationship to writing, originally because they were confined to the home and thus encouraged to "sit around and scribble in a book" but also because girls' education also took place within the home. Of course men have always written as well, but historically their writings were considered more "important" biographical or historical accounts than were girls' "personal" writings. The article goes on to say,
"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™."
The sarcastic remarks draw attention to the ways in which "panics" about new media technologies and users are always already embedded within larger anxieties related to class, race, gender, and politics. The author is right, who cares if people want to Tweet inane thoughts to one another, it's not "threatening the way we live" or the "quality of writing" nor do I think it's indicative of increasing narcissism as many would have us believe. And furthermore, by merely focusing on "inane narcissistic thoughts" most critics fail to recognize the larger social, political, and cultural implications of the media technology. For example, consider the innovative ways Twitter was used during the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks; it's hard to deny the significance of the technology. 

Personally I use Twitter for so much more than just following my friends (who often post witty comments), but rather I also follow journalists, politicians, athletes, scholars, and bloggers. In this way I tend to use Twitter more like a news aggregator than a social technology. Many of the interesting articles and editorials I read on a daily basis I came across because of my Twitter network. Like all media, there are good uses and bad, but I really struggle with critiques that dismiss the "mundane" uses as somehow insignificant. Our lives are comprised of "mundane" "ordinary" interactions that are chock-full of importance. 

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