Tag Archives: George Packer

“Twitter: where typos live in infamy”

As I read Dom Sagolla’s 140 Characters:  A Style Guide for the Short Form, I will post passages that have me underlining and/or writing in the margins.

Democracy travels in wee packets of ideas, words shaped for speed and accuracy, arriving in moments of need.  Now is the best time for free speech; it is blooming all around us.  Letters packed into the crannies of text messaging programs, traded between friends and lovers, are the seeds of hope for a more literate generation.

Necessary change is what the short form represents, from a past in which only certain people had access and reach to a time when the most basic cellular device may broadcast hypertext to millions instantly.

We can now bring distributed community to places where traditional data networks have yet to establish themselves.  Any cellular device will do; they all support the basic texting protocol, because it was designed to test the network itself.

We are using the tools of the most humble quality engineer to build the most powerful network ever created.  We use this short format the way we want to use it, not necessarily the way it was designed to be used.

As individual voices are heard and become more mighty, we will see a rapid evolution in government, finance, and many sectors never before touched by the Internet.  Not all of us were born to become authors, but we are each given the chance.  Once you begin to focus on words, winding paths of imagination open up.  What was indescribable now takes form step by step.

Whatever we were before, now we are writers and authors of our own destiny.  Each of us is breaking the story of our own lives.

The protagonist is you.  The narrator of the story is you.  The first, best reader is you.  140 characters will free you from the desktop and get you out into the world.  You will remain hyperconnected and even more available than before, and there will be no catching your breath….

[George Packer would not find reassurance here. – Ed.]

The short form is without revision.  One can’t take back or retract a text message, a tweet, or the history of a Google Wave.  Much like an e-mail, that copy is irrevocable, out there in the hand of its recipient….

Instant vintage, that is what we have:  Sudden eternity, the opposite of ephemeral, unaffected by the passage of time.  Each tweet keeps its immortal bubble, as great or as flawed as it may be.  (Twitter:  where typos live in infamy.  http://twitter.com/#!/japhy/status/1872401936 )

Even in the tiny, we find truth.  The heraldry of honesty and sincerity is unmistakable at this range.  140 characters is just enough to distinguish description from deception, simplicity from simple-mindedness, and gravitas from guile. (4-6, emphasis added)

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Copy-blogging, a la Walter Benjamin

For several days now I have felt an odd mixture of compulsion and revulsion with regard to writing about Shellie Ross, mother and blogger, who ignited a firestorm (chiefly on Twitter) in the aftermath of reports, including her own updates, that she was tweeting shortly before, and shortly after, her two-year-old son fell in their swimming pool and drowned. The stark juxtaposition of a medium that is already contested (cf. my recent post on George Packer and David Carr) with a life-and-death situation that ends so unequivocally seems to cry out for commentary, critique – some discursive response from those who know and use Twitter and have a passing acquaintance with loss. The journalistic accounts (e.g. from HuffPo, WaPo and the NYT) cite tweets that alternately attack and defend Ms. Ross. Few if any manage to rise above the quagmire of opinion to attain anything resembling judgment.
So I’m taking a pass for the moment, and will confine myself to passing along material on this case as I encounter it, and perhaps return to it after greater distance and more reflection.

Reflection, in my own case, is sorely needed at this juncture. In times like this (though there has never been a time quite like this), there are a handful of writers to whom I return as instinctively as I might reach for an arm or a wall to steady myself and avoid falling down the stairs (I’ve broken enough bones for one lifetime). Chief among these is Walter Benjamin, whom I have invoked and cited more than once (just check my tag cloud) both on my startup blog, fledgling, and here on Makurrah’s Blog.  Last night, as I sought to fend off the great waves of sorrow that crash over me and recede leaving me directionless, I left the house with a volume of Benjamin’s work and my notebook, without a clue where I was headed.  I wound up at a cafe, where I copied out the following (in longhand) with a salutary sense that, if nothing else, I would be able to transcribe it again here today.

From “One-Way Street” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 447-8, under the heading “Chinese Curios”:

The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane.  In the same way, the power of a text when it is read is different from the power it has when it is copied out.  The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it.  Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.  Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it:  because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.  The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas.

Copying, submitting the mind to command – perhaps that’s the way to proceed for now.

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“The cleverness economy” and “Maxims of new media”

Yesterday’s post juxtaposed two divergent assessments of Twitter put forward by David Carr and George Packer.  Today’s configuration is of a different sort, involving two recently published blog posts that complement one another in productive ways.

The earlier of the two is “Notes on the Cleverness Economy,” which appeared on Ryan Sholin’s blog Invisible Inkling on January 20, 2010.  Find it at http://ryansholin.com/2010/01/20/notes-on-the-cleverness-economy/ .  The post begins with a brief exploration of the relationship between epigrams and tweets, with a handful of well-chosen examples:  Coleridge’s “What is an Epigram?  A dwarfish whole,/Its body brevity, and wit its soul”; or again Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies):  “Although I haven’t been able to verify this with any of my sources inside Apple, get back to work.”  Ryan acknowledges his own voluntary participation in “the Cleverness Economy,” sharing his occasional “linkless, mildly topical epigrammary, like so:  ‘I’d like to thank Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens for continuing to do their best to devalue my baseball card collection.'”  But these pithy instances are all in the service of what proves to be a trenchant analysis of the place of micro-blogging in the big picture, i.e., in terms of what, over time, will survive the swift cultural composting that characterizes our historical present.

In the grand scheme of things, however, that clever tweet has nothing to do with creating any lasting value, and everything to do with engaging my friends/followers/audience/co-conspirators on a regular basis, to keep them on the hook for longer, less clever content, such as the blog post you’re reading right now.  If all goes according to my plan.

That’s the idea anyway.

Over at Snarkmarket, Robin Sloane nails the important part of balancing the “flow” of updates, tweets, links, and general social participation with the “stock” of long-form writing, blog posts, articles, and even books.  What’s your stock/flow balance look like today?  This week?  This year?  Here’s Robin on what happens if all you do is file tiny tweets, reblogs, and shares:

Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill.  Well, you can.  but then one day you’ll get off and look around and go:  Oh man.  I’ve got nothing here.

Robin also rightly points out that search engines are more likely to glom on to the long-form stuff over time.  It’s what will show up two years from now, although your engaged and active Twitter/Tumblr following will be a pleasant and useful thing to have around.

There’s a good solid metaphor in all this somewhere for online news if you feel compelled to seek it out.

It goes something like this:

“Breaking News” is the treadmill.  It’s the “flow” that keeps your audience engaged, coming back, checking your site or your blog, turning on the TV, visiting your national news site on their phone first thing in the morning to check if anything has blown up overnight, subscribed to your hyperlocal blog’s e-mail updates, checking their RSS feeds to see what’s new.  And that’s crucial to building and engaging online news consumers.

But it doesn’t last.  The stuff that does last?  The most obvious answers include investigative and enterprise reporting, but I think there’s room these days for great infographics and data visualizations, too….

Recommended:  Find the balance, online producer, between churning out a steady stream of content and taking time to build something of lasting value beyond the next few hours.

The second post is by an online producer who seems to me to be doing something of the kind – or at least gesturing toward it.  In “A quick guide to the maxims of new media,” published on markcoddington.com on January 30, Mark Coddington takes on the task of glossing a handful of the phrases traded as shorthand among “journalism/new media nerds,” for the sake of making their sense and provenance more widely available.  He invites his readers to “Consider this your dictionary” for this sometimes opaque language, with the assurance that his “guide is very expandable.”  http://markcoddington.com/2010/01/30/a-quick-guide-to-the-maxims-of-new-media/

In the context of this juxtaposition with Ryan’s work on the cleverness economy, what is of “lasting value” in Coddington’s post is his effort to supply a history that often goes missing in the rapid-fire, reverse-chronological  trading of information, news, links and gossip.  Spelling out “where it came from” and “what it means” for each of the 8 shorthand phrases he’s selected is a service rendered, and not only for the uninitiated.  Here are a pair of the  phrases in question, with glosses supplied by Coddington.

“Do what you do best and link to the rest.”

Where it came from:  This is the signature phrase of Jeff Jarvis, the Entertainment Weekly/TV Guide/San Francisco Examiner veteran, CUNY journalism prof and author of What Would Google Do?  Jarvis first wrote it in a Feb. 22, 2007 post at his popular media-watchdog blog, BuzzMachine.

What it means:  Your best bet is simply to read that initial post – Jarvis explains the concept pretty well there.  The short version:  Rather than duplicating what bunches of other news organizations are producing just so your outlet can have its own version of the story, just ask yourself, as Jarvis says, “‘Can we do it better?’  If not, then link.  And devote your time to what you can do better.”  For another illuminating angle on what this phrase signifies, see in particular the second-to-last paragraph of Megan Garber’s Columbia Journalism Review article from November 2009 on the Fort Hood and Twitter lists.

“It’s not information overload.  It’s filter failure.”

Where it comes from:  It was the title of a keynote speech given by NYU professor and new media guru Clay Shirky on Sept. 18, 2008, at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York.  The phrase has been quoted by others (and Shirky himself) in various forms, including “Information overload is filter failure,” and “There’s no such thing as information overload; there’s only filter failure.”

What it means:  To get the fullest idea, watch the speech.  Shirky gives a hasty, Cliff’s Notes version in this interview with The Columbia Journalism Review, in which he argues that information overload has been around for centuries, and the reason it seems so problematic on the web is that we haven’t developed the proper filters for all that information.  The idea has been tied to several concepts on the web, including social filters and sharing, and curation and aggregation of news.

With gratitude to Mark Coddington for his efforts, one hopes that a slow guide to the maxims of media, period, is in the works somewhere.

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Two takes on Twitter: one thoughtful, one less so

Thanks to several links provided by folks I follow on Twitter, I’ve been able to catch up on some reading today:  two articles that take Twitter as their topic, one published on New Year’s day in the New York Times, the other on January 29 in The New Yorker.  Taken together, they provide insights into why Twitter has become a feature of so many lives, and into the resistance that others maintain in the face of its burgeoning popularity.

“Why Twitter Will Endure”:  The title of David Carr’s article for the New York Times does not pretend to disguise the author’s enthusiastic embrace of the service.  He recalls the initial roll-out of Twitter at the SXSW conference in 2007, and his initial reluctance to add “one more Web-borne intrusion into my life.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/weekinreview/03carr.html

And then there was the name.  Twitter.

In the pantheon of digital nomenclature…brands within a sector of the economy that grew so fast that all the sensible names were quickly taken – it would be hard to come up with a noun more trite than Twitter.  It impugns itself, promising something slight and inconsequential, yet another way to make hours disappear and have nothing to show for it.  And just in case the noun is not sufficiently indicting, the verb, “to tweet,” is even more embarrassing.

Beyond the dippy lingo, the idea that something intelligent, something worthy of mindshare, might occur in the space of 140 characters – Twitter’s parameters were set by what would fit in a text message on a phone – seems unlikely.

Carr then returns to the present, to ask himself whether Twitter has, over the course of the past year, turned his brain to “mush.”

No, I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible, and instead of spending a half-hour surfing in search of illumination, I get a sense of the day’s news and how people are reacting to it in the time that it takes to wait for coffee at Starbucks. [He is not ordering brewed coffee at Starbuck’s, I’m guessing, but something involving espresso and steamed milk. – Ed.]  Yes, I worry about my ability to think long thoughts – where was I, anyway? – but the tradeoff has been worth it.

Carr goes on to explain that, nearly a year after opening a Twitter account,

I’ve come to understand that the real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice.…  At first, Twitter can be overwhelming, but think of it as a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while. [Does he use his Starbuck’s cup, I wonder? – Ed.]  Much of what I need to know is in that cup:  if it looks like Apple is going to demo its new tablet, or Amazon sold more Kindles than actual books at Christmas, or the final vote in the Senate gets locked in on health care, I almost always learn about it first on Twitter….

The expressive limits of a kind of narrative developed from text messages, with less space to digress or explain than this sentence, has significant upsides.  The best people on Twitter communicate with economy and precision, with each element – links, hash tags and comments – freighted with meaning.

Carr goes on to cite Clay Shirky:  “Anything that is useful to both dissidents in Iran and Martha Stewart has a lot going for it; Twitter has more raw capability for users than anything since email….It will be hard to wait out Twitter because it is lightweight, endlessly useful and gets better as more people use it.  Brands are using it, institutions are using it, and it is becoming a place where a lot of important conversations are being held.”

It may be, as Clay Shirky suggests, that it will be hard to wait out Twitter.  But George Packer, author of “Stop the World,” will be one of the hold-outs.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/stop-the-world.html  [I should note at the outset that I find it passing strange that such visceral resistance to micro-blogging should come to us via a blog for newyorker.com.  Jay Rosen was on target in a tweet that pointed to an earlier piece by Packer for Mother Jones, “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” (2004), as a precursor to “Stop the World.”]

Packer is responding to Carr’s “Why Twitter Will Endure” at least as much as he is responding to Twitter “itself.”  His agitation – his “fear” – runs through almost every line of his post.

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days.  Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop.  The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell.  I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. [This unattributed partial citation from Carr precedes Packer’s direct invocation of “Why Twitter Will Endure,” which comes in the next paragraph. – Ed.]  But that supposes that we’re all kneeling on the banks.  In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils.  Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.

The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves – it’s an article by David Carr, the Times’s media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.”  “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote.  And:  “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.”  And:  “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice…the throbbing networked intelligence.”  And:  “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.”  And finally:  “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”

This last is what really worries me.  Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment?  That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them.  Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”).  Twitter is crack for media addicts.  It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it.

The analogy with addiction also figures in “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” (2004) which begins “First, a confession:  I hate blogs.  I’m also addicted to them.”  What is also curious about Packer’s quasi-hysterical reaction to Twitter is the complete failure to recognize that it’s called a “service” for a reason, that it is what you make it, in the very specific sense that you choose, or curate, the accounts you follow.  You have a lot to say about your incoming. The more time and thought that goes in to this process of curation, the more useful Twitter becomes.  It’s pretty simple to tailor it to one’s own purposes, whatever they may be.  And if Twitter will indeed endure, it is largely for that reason.


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