Twitterary Theory: Meaning, Context, and Responsibility

Tweeting in Context

Gustavo Gomes, CC BY 2.0:

A few days ago Fiona wrote two posts about Twitter, tweets, and Twitter essays: in the first, she discusses Jeet Heer, who numbers tweets to structure them together into an essay; in the second, she talks about how a person ought to read tweets. In particular, Steven Salaita had an offer for a tenure position withdrawn over a tweet which seemed, on its own, to be incendiary:

Zionists: transforming “anti-semitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

Salaita claims that, in the context of his overall Twitter career, this tweet isn’t as bad as it looks; it means something different when it is part of a whole. Fiona therefore asks the following question:

How far forward or back in someone’s tweet corpus must we look to be satisfied we have enough context? What are our responsibilities as readers? What are the boundaries of a twitter storm? What is the flock that holds our unmarked sheep?

I want to approach this question—approach, not answer—but first we need to get into some literary theory.

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Brief Conversations and Social Media

or, On Brevity

I want to register a hesitation I have about social media or certain kinds of social media. In one of the book promotion videos we watched for this class, Jose van Dijck shows some of Facebook’s promotional material, in which Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry’s, says Facebook has allowed him to “engage in a large-scale conversation” with customers. In the discussion threads I expressed some skepticism about this. I wasn’t just skeptical about the idea that a corporation would engage in dialogue, however; I was also skeptical that Facebook could host a conversation, let alone a large-scale one. Indeed, I am skeptical that a large-scale conversation can exist.

I tend to think of conversations as an exchange of ideas; this might include mutual exploration of a topic, or persuasion attempts, or debate. No matter what, though, conversation (as I understand the term) involves getting someone else to understand how I am thinking about an issue. In order to do this, I need to “show my work,” in the terms of high school math class. The more information I give you about how I think—my values, my intellectual style, my assumptions—the more likely you are to understand why I think what I think. So this puts certain constraints on conversations: short conversations and conversations in which participants do not get to really know each other (in an intellectual way) are less likely to be successful.

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