Tag Archives: Mashable

“Let no thought pass incognito”

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I count myself fortunate in my readership.  Though my stats are nothing to write home about, I have something much more important (to me at least):  a handful of readers apparently willing to think with me.  I was reminded of this by a comment left on a recent post about Walter Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, one that began (auspiciously) by quoting me quoting Benjamin:

“Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

For me, this succinct comment resonates like crazy.  The re-citing of Benjamin’s language (in translation, of course) – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – redirects us to a formulation that appears deceptively brief, almost pithy, and yet is anything but.  “I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind” attests that such distilled and difficult thought takes time to unfold, if it is not to vanish irretrievably – succumbing to the threat of disappearance that for Benjamin haunts the dialectical image (a threat that, for blogger and micro-blogger , is part and parcel of reverse chronology).  Indeed, it recalls another passage from Benjamin’s writing, one I cited in a post written at the end of 2009 (http://wp.me/pLpwg-19 ).  “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of the volume One-Way Street, lists the following under number 5:  “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”  My gentle reader is precisely not letting this thought – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – pass unrecognized.  (And no one on any side of any border I can think of will miss the stringency of Benjamin’s analogy regarding his notebook-keeping practices.)
The final part of the comment is for me likewise galvanizing:  “Thank you for turning this up.”  My assumption (and I of course stand ready to be corrected) is that the “turning up” involved is not so much a cranking of the volume as a given track is played, but rather akin to an archaeologist’s (or, more prosaically still, a researcher’s) practice when it meets with some success.
But as I have written here before, this blog’s project is very much one of “turning up” writing from the proximate or more distant past that might help us to take stock of our own present, particularly when it comes to the unpredictably unfolding trajectories of media, journalism and historiography.  My own working term and concept for this has been curation, and, for better or worse, this blog is unabashedly curatorial, whether serendipitously or by design.
It goes without saying that I am not the only one who is thinking in terms of curation these days.  To borrow once again from an earlier post ( http://wp.me/pLpwg-Fy ), let me cite Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore:  “For those adrift in a sea of content, good news:  A ‘curation’ economy is beginning to take shape….” [“Twitter lists and real-time journalism,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/tech/11/04/twitter.lists/index.html ]  Whether its inception is late-breaking or old news, there is little doubt that the curation economy is the site of important work, where it may even transpire that “work itself has its turn to speak.”

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Research in motion: from my “real-time” Web notebook

I confess to feeling a certain pressure, since beginning to make an argument about the illusory, ideology-driven character of the “real-time” Web, to write quickly, to skip over the tangle of challenges required and just put something out there.  But, I’m adhering instead to at least some of the intellectual imperatives that are, in part, a legacy of scholarly training, and trying to do some homework before presenting myself as any kind of authority.  Along the way I will be sharing some of my findings.

Last fall, Mashable’s founder and CEO Pete Cashmore began a stint as a weekly columnist for CNN.com.  In that capacity, he was one of several pundits who predicted that “real-time” would be “a top 10 Web trend for 2010.”  In December, he presented his case to CNN.com‘s readership under the admonitory headline “Brace yourself for the real-time Web.”  http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/12/10/cashmore.realtime.web/index.html

For Cashmore, a significant indicator of the ascendancy of  the “real-time” Web was Google’s December 2009 launch of “real-time” search, which brought “live” updates from Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites into its search results.  Taking this epochal event as his point of departure, Cashmore asked and answered a series of questions, which are worth reproducing at some length, in part because his language serves as a model for many others who write about these matters.

Why real-time?  What’s driving this real-time trend anyway?  In large part, lowered barriers to content creation:  Posting a 140-character update to Twitter is so effortless that Web users are becoming conditioned to create….

But the real answer may be in our heads.  These technologies are literally addictive, says psychologist Susan Weinschenk, fueling a “dopamine-induced loop” of seeking behavior and instantaneous reward.”  [Cashmore is quoting a post on Weinshenk’s blog, “What Makes Them Click.”]

Real-time search  If this new paradigm stimulates our seeking behavior, it follows that search is central to the real-time Web.  Before Google entered the fray, OneRiot and Collecta stood out among real-time search engines.

The reigning champion of real-time search, however, is Twitter Search, which provides instant updates whenever new tweets are posted.  “108 more results since you started searching.  Refresh to see them,” implores a message below the search box.  Enter the topic du jour here and you’ll no doubt find yourself in one of Weinschenk’s dopamine-induced loops.

This thirst for the new and novel is by no means limited to search, however:  It looks set to pervade the entire Web in 2010.  Let’s look at a few more examples.

1.  Real-time location   Foursquare…combines real-time updates with location-based features.  Every time a friend “checks in” nearby, you’ll experience the same buzz as when your BlackBerry chirps for a new email.  [Once again I give thanks for my vintage BB, which never, ever buzzes or chirps. – Ed.]

2.  Real-time news   News reading is going real-time, too.  An increasing number of early adopters use the Twitter apps TweetDeck and Seesmic to manage their consumption of updates from both friends and handpicked news sources, while newcomer Brizzly is becoming a hit with info-junkies thanks to its superior Web-based interface.

Even Google Reader, the de facto service for those following scores of blogs and news sites, now provides updates in real-time for those feeds that support it.

Will our news addiction ever be sated?  Oh, and don’t forget that news curation is going real-time, too.  See my real-time journalism article for a refresher.  [Isn’t real-time curation very plainly a contradiction in terms? – Ed.] 

3.  Real-time comments    If the stories are real-time, how about the comments, too?  Real-time services make blog comments work more like instant messaging….

4.  Real-time reviews   Why wait till you get home to review that cafe or restaurant when you’ve got Yelp and Urbanspoon on your iPhone?  Movie was awful, you say?  Try Flixster.

5.  Real-time auctions  ….

6.  Real-time collaboration   A trend within a trend:  We’ll be real-timing together in 2010.  Google Wave, the much-hyped collaborative tool, is wiki-meets-instant-messaging-meets-email and much more….

Real-time…everything!    The trend is too nebulous to capture its every facet.  Suffice to say, a vast array of Web sites and applications will try to capitalize on the real-time Web in 2010, serving our need to be engaged in the moment.  Serving, perhaps, but never quite satisfying. 

 [Yes, it’s the “never quite” that remains to be thought here, to say nothing of the “perhaps.” – Ed.]

Slow down, Pete (“easy,” as we say to horses who are moving too fast for their own good, and possibly ours).  You’ve signalled much that is of value, and perhaps more than you know.

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fledgling’s archive, october 2009, part 1

October 2009  

10/21/2009  Grist for the (Twitter) mill  


The following notes, intended for elaboration in the near future, pertain to the language used to describe, characterize or gloss “Twitter,” for example in a Google search result, on the revised Twitter homepage (over against the earlier one) and on the Twitter search homepage.  I’m interested too in what the results of a Twitter search for “twitter” might look like at any given time.  

1.  Google search for “Twitter”:  “Twitter is without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now.”  

2.  Twitter homepage:  “Share and discover what is happening right now, anywhere in the world.”  (Remember the relative brevity and simplicity of “What are you doing?”?)  

3.  Twitter search homepage:  “See what’s happening – right now.”  

4.  “Real-time” results for “twitter” on Twitter search:  In the 60 seconds since the search results initially appeared on the screen, “381 more results since you started searching.  Refresh to see them.”  

Here is a good deal of grist for my mill.  My work has just begun.  

10/20/2009   Kant weighs in on Twitter, part 1 


Caveat lector.  This post reproduces a few pages from my notebook which may or man not be of interest (or even legible) to anyone but myself.  But I am working on the assumption that pretty much everyone who uses Twitter has at least some interest in how it produces meaning and other effects of language.   

What follow are some paragraphs from Paul de Man’s essay “Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant,” which resulted from a series of graduate seminars he taught at Yale in the early ’80’s.  The essay appears in the volume Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrzej Warminski (U Minnesota Press, 1996), which you can find on the press website:  http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/D/de-man-aesthetic.html .  Taking as its focus Kant’s much-misunderstood Critique of Judgment (also known as the Third Critique), de Man’s essay zeroes in on the notoriously difficult sections devoted to the analytic of the sublime.  

In order to make the sublime appear in space we need, says Kant, two acts of the imagination:  apprehension (apprehensio) and comprehension or summation (comprehensio aesthetica), Auffassung and Zusammenfassung.  Apprehension proceeds successively, as a syntagmatic, consecutive motion along an axis, and it can proceed ad infinitum without difficulty.  Comprehension, however, which is a paradigmatic totalization of the apprehended trajectory, grows increasingly difficult as the space covered by apprehension grows larger.  The model reminds one of a simple phenomenology of reading, in which one has to make constant syntheses to comprehend the successive unfolding of the text:  the eye moves horizontally in succession whereas the mind has to combine vertically the cumulative understanding of what has been apprehended.  The comprehension will soon reach a point at which it is saturated and will no longer be able to take in additional apprehensions:  it cannot progress beyond a certain magnitude which marks the limit of the imagination.  

[Anyone see where I’m going with this?]  

The ability of the imagination to achieve synthesis is a boon to the understanding, which is hardly conceivable without it, but this gain  is countered by a corresponding loss.  The comprehension discovers its own limitation, beyond which it cannot reach.  “[The imagination] loses as much on the one side as it gains on the other.”  As the paradigmatic simultaneity substitutes for the syntagmatic succession, an economy of loss and gain is put in place which functions with predictable efficiency, though only within certain well-defined limits.  The exchange from part to whole generates wholes that turn out to be only parts.  Kant gives the example of the Egyptian Savary, who observed that, in order to perceive the magnitude of the pyramids, one could be neither too far away nor too close.  One is reminded of Pascal:  “Bornes en tout genre, cet etat qui tient le milieu entre deux extremes, se trouve en toutes nos puissances.  Nos sens n’apercoivent rien d’extreme, trop de bruit nous assourdit, trop de lumiere eblouit, trop de distance et trop de proximite empeche la vue.  Trop de longeur et trop de brievete de discours l’obscurcit, trop de verite nous etonne….”  [Pensees, Ed. du Seuil, Pensee 199, p. 527]  

[My kindest regards if you’re still with me at this point.  I can only hope that your patience will find its reward.]  


It is not surprising that, from considerations on vision and, in general, on perception, Pascal moves to the order of discourse.  For the model that is being suggested is no longer, properly speaking, philosophical, but linguistic.  It describes not a faculty of the mind, be it as consciousness or as cognition, but a potentiality inherent in language.  For such a system of substitution, set up along a paradigmatic and a syntagmatic axis, generating partial totalizations within an economy of profit and loss, is a very familiar model indeed – which also explains why the passage seems so easy to grasp in comparison with what precedes and follows.  

[Did you find the passage easy to grasp?  Aren’t you grateful that I’m not asking you to read the hard parts that precede and follow?]  

It is the model of discourse as a tropological system.  The desired articulation of the sublime takes place, with suitable reservations and restrictions, within such a purely formal system.  It follows, however, that it is conceivable only within the limits of such a system, that is, as pure discourse rather than as a faculty of the mind.  When the sublime is translated back, so to speak, from language into cognition, from formal description into philosophical argument, it loses all inherent coherence and dissolves in the aporias of intellectual and sensory appearance.  It is also established that, even within the confines of language, the sublime can occur only as a single and particular point of view, a privileged place that avoids both excessive comprehension and excessive apprehension, and that this place is only formally, and not transcendentally, determined.  The sublime cannot be grounded as a philosophical (transcendental or metaphysical) principle, but only as a linguistic principle.  Consequently, the section on the mathematical sublime cannot be closed off in a satisfactory manner and another chapter on the dynamics of the sublime is needed.  (77-78)  

We can pause here, for now.  There is more to come on what Kant – of all people – can teach us about Twitter.  The utility and perhaps the necessity of the concepts of apprehension and comprehension (which may go by other names) for the project or reading Twitter can serve as a point of departure.  

10/19/2009    A flock of tweets (like a murder of crows, or a parliament of rooks)  

On October 19, in the aftermath of the Stephen Gately / Daily Mail fracas on Twitter, Ian Dunt took it as his point of departure in a column posted on politics.co.uk:  

It seems inevitable that within a decade we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere in the world.  

Here is the historic thing about the utility:  It brings a sense of community – real community rather than what someone in marketing might call community – to the internet.  It is beyond the power of political institutions to control.  So far, the courts cannot tame it.  Now the juggernaut of popular opinion which has it the potential of mobilizing is becoming a major player in [the] political and media landscape – a major player in its own right.  

Dunt’s claims for Twitter (which he rightly terms a “utility”) also refer to the groundbreaking events surrounding the issuing of an unprecedented gag order on the Guardian, preventing the paper from reporting on questions raised in Parliament in an effort to protect he interests of the oil production company Trafigura (see my earlier post, “#Trafigura v Twitter,” for a more detailed analysis).  In this instance, not only were #Trafigura and their law firm #CarterRuck trending topics on Twitter over the course of several days, but flashmobs organized via Twitter appeared outside the London office of Carter Ruck in flesh-and-blood protest.  

Dunt’s thoughtful column gestures toward further thinking that it does not undertake, and that I will simply stake out here for future elaboration.  For example:  what sorts of relations link the phenomenon of the trending topic and the occurrence of something like a flashmob – that is, real people turning up at a specified time and place for a common purpose?  If Twitter’s trending topics bespeak a community of people flocking fleetingly around a shared interest, what difference might this make to “what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world” (to cite Twitter’s latest homepage)?  When and how do shared interests gather to constitute a community whose life span is longer than a few hours, or a few days?  

The lifting of the gag order against the Guardian after social media (as well as print and broadcast journalism) exposed the shameful secrets that Trafigura sought vainly to protect hints at the possibility that a “trending topic” may in some instances translate as intervention, changing, however incrementally, the course of history.  On this basis, Dunt is perhaps right to suggest that it “seems inevitable that, within a decade, we will see a revolution coordinated by Twitter somewhere [“anywhere”] in the world.”  At the rate at which Twitter and other social media are evolving, a decade is, to say the least, a long time.  

10/18/2009  “Can’t we all just get along?”  


Even as thoughts, intuitions and questions regarding Twitter and its multiple impacts continue to amass like unread tweets on a trending topic waiting to be released by the ‘refresh’ button, today’s blog-prompt came unbidden as I rustled through the A-section of this morning’s Globe and Mail, which styles itself “Canada’s national Newspaper” but is also my local daily of choice (most days).  Under the category heading “Policing,” and the title “Schools, lies and videotape:  Footage tells only part of the story,” reporters Joe Friesen and Anna Mahler Paperny follow up on two recent arrests in Ontario and the problematic role played by amateur video recording at the respective scenes.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/do-arrest-videos-really-tell-the-whole-truth/article1328807/  

Raising concerns that date back at least to the explosive video footage of LA police beating Rodney King in 1991, Friesen and Paperny note that “in the jumpy cellphone video of a man being arrested by campus security at the University of Western Ontario last week, several bystanders can be seen aiming their own cellphone cameras in the direction of the action.”  Strikingly similar is the footage of another recent and controversial arrest in Toronto, that of a young man at Northern Secondary School.  In this instance, “As the student demands to know why he’s being arrested, at least three people wave their cameras to let the police officer know that everything is being recorded.”  

In Canada, at least, there is another inevitable reference point for such events and their recording, which postdates the Rodney King case by more than 15 years:  the footage of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being tasered by RCMP officers in Vancouver International Airport.  The video, shot by Victoria resident Paul Pritchard, “contradicted police statements at the time that Mr. Dziekanski was combative and had confronted police.”  


While the events that led to Robert Dziekanski’s death at the hands of the RCMP officers took place in a no-go zone separated from public areas of the airport by a (thankfully transparent) wall of glass, the recent cases in Ontario lead the reporters to observe:  “It’s symbolic of an age of instant, constant scrutiny, where the community instinct to intervene against perceived wrongdoing has been replaced by the urge to stand back and film it” [emphasis added].  

These examples, each with its own specificity as to time, place and circumstances, raise fundamental questions about the relationship between history and historiography – between the materiality of events and their transcription or registration through a variety of media (the cellphone with video camera – and SMS, which also enables Twitter – being for now the most ubiquitous).  Friesen and Paperny’s language casts the tendency toward bystander videography of spectacular or overdetermined events in ethical and ultimately political terms, questioning a perceived shift in the “community instinct” from active engagement in the present to passive witnessing for posterity.  

The article goes on to cite John Fiske, a communications theorist who has studied the Rodney King instance, and who observes that “the trouble is that the video is seen as the whole truth, when at best it is an incomplete representation of what occurred.  Only about 14 people witnessed the Rodney King incident, but millions saw the video and drew their own conclusions.  The video clip is always one person’s representation of what was going on, which is not the same thing as what was actually going on…. What ‘s going on outside of the camera may be very significant in terms of the meaning of what’s going on, what the camera is actually seeing.  But people don’t think of that.  They also often don’t think that the video clip is subject to interpretation.  They think it’s raw reality itself.”  

To the extent that this is the case, one wonders how far our understanding of media has come since the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, which an astonishing number of Americans came to confuse with the event itself.  In these terms, the image (whatever its medium) is substituted for the event, with which, however, it can never coincide.  And because the image (or, in the case of Twitter, the “characters” or the link) is mediated, transmitted, it is never, ever, “live.”  I’ll have more to say about the need, in appeals to the “real-time” Web, to bear this in mind.  

10/17/2009  Save time:  tweet.  Save more time:  retweet.  


Scrolling down my Twitter homepage a few minutes ago, I clicked on Mashable’s “Top 5 Twitter Trends to Watch Right Now” (“now” being sometime on October 17, 2009), as reported by Jennifer Van Grove (http://bit.ly/25ufvg ).  In attendance at the Blog World Expo in Las Vegas, Jennifer took the opportunity to survey a handful of authorities for their responses.  Among them was Chris Pirillo, “Lifecaster, blogger and uber web geek,” who argued among other things that more bloggers are tweeting instead of blogging, that Twitter gives some bloggers the chance to save the “time and energy poured into long-form blog posts, and instead find a way to say the same thing in 140 characters.”  Increasingly, Pirillo observes, Twitter is “augmenting blogging” in this fashion.  

For the moment, I’m less interested in the truth value of Pirillo’s assertion, than in what is apparently one of his favourite formulations, as cited by Van Grove:  “Twitter is a great place to tell the world what you’ve been thinking before you’ve had a chance to think about it.”  

Conjoining matters of thought and temporality, this pithy….  You know, maybe Pirillo is on to something.  Screw it.  I’ll just retweet.  

10/16/2009  Fledgling Initiative?  You talkin’ to me?  

I must confess to feeling a little unsettled at the moment.  Having just logged on to the Twitter blog’s most recent update (October 15, 2009), scanned its first paragraphs, and idly clicked on a link, I was startled to see the word that gives this blog its title (and some of its character) popping up everywhere on the page announcing Twitter’s new Fledgling Initiative, which “aims to make awesome wine for the benefit of Room to Read, a non-profit organization extending literacy and educational opportunities to children worldwide.”  The idea is that “every case sold will provide approximately 60 local language children’s books and promote education in the world’s poorest regions.”  And it seems that Fledgling Wine will be drinkable at the least:  “These wines are being made using some of the best vineyards in California by the acclaimed winemaking team at Crushpad [wait…is there a tie-in to TypePad here?]  In addition, 2009 appears to be an excellent vintage in California, potentially one of the best of the decade.  Buy wine for $20.00.”  (A brief detour to http://www.crushpad.com yields the fact that “we’re a combination of wine industry veterans and technology industry refugees….”)  

There is a “quick video” explaining how this initiative will help promote literacy, featuring John Wood, an ex-corporate-tech-guy who founded the Room to Read project.  Just beneath the video is “An introduction from Biz and Ev,” which I will record in full here to help myself process what it says:  

As a company that’s only one percent into its journey, we’re always thinking about our long term impact on the world.  The Fledgling Initiative embodies two things that are at the core of Twitter’s mission:  providing access to information and highlighting the power of open communication to bring about positive change.  This initiative is just one piece of that approach.  Take part in this mission and pre-buy our limited bottles of the wine. You can follow along with our wine-making activities on Twitter and at some points even participate in its creation.  For each bottle you buy, $5 will be donated to Room to Read, a transformational non-profit that brings books, libraries and ultimately literacy to people in the poorest areas around the world.  The efforts of Room to Read will benefit literacy, and in doing so they’ll allow Twitter to grow.  Because if you can’t read you can’t Tweet!  

Okay, so I’m getting over my initial reaction (Wtf?!? They stole my name!), and now my generous side is at war with my cynical side in an effort to make sense of this (and decide whether or not to pre-order a bottle of pinot, if only to have the label as a souvenir).  Earlier this week, I retweeted Mashable’s bulletin that “‘Twitter Adds 110 Million Potential New Users With SMS Deal in India” (http://retw.me/VSLn ).  And now, scrolling down the Twitter blog, I see that @BIZ had something to say about that on October 14, under the title “Hello, Bharti Airtel”:  

Twitter is committed to fostering the open exchange of information because we passionately believe it can have a positive global impact.  When people can exchange information freely and publicly they are able to accomplish great things.  As powerful as the Internet has become for the democratization of information, its range is limited when compared to mobile texting – a format uniquely native to Twitter [emphasis added].  There are over one billion people with Internet access on the planet but there are more than four billion people with mobile phones and Twitter can work on all of them because even the simplest of these devices feature SMS.  

We have seen people use Twitter to help each other during fuel shortages, track the spread of wildfires, check in during earthquakes, organize major charitable events, spread urgent news efficiently around the world, and much more.  In many of these scenarios, texting has been the key.  People exchanging information quickly and efficiently with the device that has become essential to everyday life, their mobile phone.  In many parts of the world people do not have Internet access but they can text – and that means they can access Twitter.  

As we grow, we seek to partner with organizations that share our vision for positive global impact.  Our partnership with Bharti Airtel, the largest mobile operator in India, means a huge population of people [? – ed.] can now send tweets at standard rates and receive tweets for free.  Bharti Airtel is offering people in every city, every village, every remote taluk and even the smallest panchayat the opportunity to connect to Twitter and enjoy the open exchange of information with no added fees.  We are proud to have Bharti Airtel as our partner.  Give Twitter a try with your Airtel phone by sending START to 53000.  And spread the word!  

Twitter is not about technology, it’s about people….  

Sorry, Biz, but that last assertion doesn’t hold up.  Of course Twitter is first and foremost about technology, and your denial of something so obvious in this context makes me wonder if you are being straight up in the rest of the post.  I’m left with dwindling time, several questions and a wish that someone would help me figure them out:  

1.  Why did they have to nick my name?  (This, dear reader, is a rhetorical question and does not require an answer.)  I’m so glad I claimed my URL on Technorati back in September.  

2.  How much does it cost to make a bottle of that wine?  If it’s less than $15, where does the rest of the money go?  (This is, after all, “the largest social wine-making process in history,” according to the promo video.)  

3.  How does Twitter calculate that it is “only one percent into its journey”?  Are the mixed metaphors symptomatic in some way that matters?  

4.  What “percentage” – or what niche – of Twitter users do they reckon will pony up $20 USD for an untried bottle?  

5.  How transparent is the Twitter blog?  

10/15/2009  #Trafigura v Twitter  


In an attempt to provide readers of this blog with a red thread that identifies its component parts and ties them loosely together (cf. the allusion to Goethe’s Elective Affinities – literary source of the figure of the red thread – in a prior post), I dutifully re-read my last entry, on Steven Johnson’s analysis of Twitter.  I was reminded just how  right he is to highlight the importance of user innovations since Twitter’s inception, and especially how, “thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event…has become a central part of the Twitter experience.  But just 12 months ago [he was writing in June, 2009], that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter.”  

In fact I had, moments earlier, been doing just that:  following a “live” or “real-time” feed of tweets turned up by my Twitter search under the hashtag #Trafigura.  As I tweeted yesterday, Trafigura – a moniker new to me – sounded  like the name of the horse that finished third.  A cursory survey of etymological sources yielded little of interest, though it pointed to other terms, including prefigure and disfigure, that are not without relevance to the high-stakes unfolding over the last few days.  

It is at times like these (though no two times, no two historical moments, are the same) that I become aware that Twitter’s sheer speed, evident in the hectic reverse chronology via which one tracks events as they unfold, is at once its great strength and its potential limitation.  Certainly during the Iranian election and its aftermath, as I strained to follow the rapid-fire timelines under #IranElection and other hashtags, it seemed that the requisite thinking through was racing to keep up with the reporting and other interventions frantically accumulating before each frequent hit of the “refresh” button.  Scott Rosenberg’s pithy formulation – “We publish, then filter.  Say everything first, ask questions later” – does not assuage a certain anxiety that something of potential value will be lost in filtration.  

In this case, I spent yesterday assembling a brief archive of reporting and opinion on the gag order (or “super-injunction”) against the Guardian on matters relating to the London-based oil trading company Trafigura and its attempt to cover up the publication of findings into its dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast’s largest city, Abidijan.  Rather than sythesize and paraphrase the accounts in this space, I will simply furnish links to some of them, for those to whom this may still be news, or those who want to read further.  









What will land this episode in the history (of Twitter) books is the fact that the gag order against the Guardian, links to Wikileaks and a variety of other relevant information were reported, tweeted and retweeted on Twitter, with great agility and acumen.  Among others, Mike Butcher of TechCrunch pointed out that “the entire issue trended on Twitter with hashtags including #guardiangag, #guardian, #carterruck (the name of the law firm representing Trafigura) and of course #Trafigura.”  In short, social media, with Twitter leading the pack, helped circumvent the heavy hand of censorship.  As Butcher phrased it in his story title for TechCrunch, “There’s nowhere to hide if your name trends on Twitter.  Is there, Trafigura?”  While savouring this important victory, and the frisson of watching a corporate villain attain the heights of trending topics, I would simply caution that virtually nobody stays on trending topics for more than a day or two.  Historical memory must be there to supplement Twitter, in every instance.  

10/13/2009  Twitterfied  

One wonders:  is somebody out there at work, right now, on a history of Twitter?  Will there be, one day soon, a chronicling of its origins and development that can hold its own next to Scott Rosenberg’s comprehensive history of blogging?  Certainly, in the case of Twitter, that history has unfolded in unpredictable fashion, and in ways no doubt unforeseen by its creators.  A handy journalistic account of some of the innovations and interventions that have forged Twitter’s path is to be found in “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live,” written by Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) for time.com in June 2009.  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1902818,00.html  

Johnson’s claim is that “the most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it’s doing to us.  It’s what we’re doing to it.”  What we’re doing to and with Twitter, he suggests,  falls into three basic categories:  social networks, live searching, and link-sharing.  Below are a handful of excerpts from his brief but suggestive piece.  

The basic mechanics of Twitter are remarkably simple.  Users publish tweets – those 140-character messages – from a computer or mobile device (The character limit allows tweets to be created and circulated via the SMS platform used by most mobile phones).  As a social network, Twitter revolves around the principle of followers.  When you choose to follow another Twitter user, that user’s tweets appear in reverse chronological order on your main Twitter page….  

…Twitter users have begun to find a route around that [140 character] limitation by employing Twitter as a pointing device instead of a communications channel:  sharing links to longer articles, discussions, posts, videos – anything that lives behind a URL.  Websites that saw their traffic dominated by Google search queries are seeing a growing number of new visitors coming from “passed links” at social networks like Twitter and Facebook.  

…Put these three elements together – social networks, live searching and link-sharing – and you have a cocktail that poses what may amount to the most interesting alternative to Google’s near-monopoly in searching.  At its heart, Google’s system is built around the slow, anonymous accumulation of authority:  pages rise to the top of Google’s search results according to, in part, how many links point to them, which tends to favor older pages that have had time to build an audience.  That’s a fantastic solution for finding high-quality needles in the immense, spam-plagued haystack that is the contemporary Web.  But it’s not a particularly useful solution for finding out what people are saying right now, the in-the-moment conversation that industry pioneer John Battelle calls the “super fresh” Web.  Even in its toddlerhood, Twitter is a more efficient supplier of the super-fresh Web than Google.  

This is not just a matter of people finding a new use for a tool designed to do something else.  In Twitter’s case, the users have been redesigning the tool itself.  The convention of grouping a topic or event by the “hashtag”…was spontaneously invented by the Twitter-userbase (as was the convention of replying to another user with the @ symbol).  The ability to search a live stream of tweets was developed by another startup…. Thanks to these innovations, following a live feed of tweets about an event…has become a central part of the Twitter experience.  But just 12 months ago, that mode of interaction would have been technically impossible using Twitter.  

Moving into prophetic mode, Johnson foresees a future that is permanently “Twitterfied”:  

…it’s entirely possible that 3 or 4 years from now, we’ll have moved on to some Twitter successor.  But the key elements of the Twitter platform – the follower structure, link-sharing, real-time searching – will persevere regardless of Twitter’s fortunes, just as Web conventions like links, posts and feeds have endured over the past decade.  In fact, every major channel of information will be Twitterfied in one way or another in the coming years.  

Perhaps.  Probably.  But then again, as Twitter has so lately instructed us, history lies in the unforeseen.  

10/09/2009  “Permanence is out of reach”  


Having alluded in my last post to the argument(s) to be made for blogging, as well as tweeting, as artful pursuits, I subsequently located  a few paragraphs from Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything that make a fairly persuasive case.  They also raise crucial questions about the survival, over time, of these virtual texts.  

For all the novelty surrounding it, the act of blogging is fundamentally literary.  A blogger selects some information or experience, shapes it into words and sentences, and hoists it into public view.  Linking may change some aspects of reading, and comment threads and permalinks and RSS feeds may dot the screen, but at heart blogging is a species of writing, in the direct line of descent from the Rosetta Stone through Shakespeare to The New Yorker (and the Weekly World News).  Although a blog lives for today, in the moment, more than most other literary forms, its record is intended for the future as well.  That is why so many bloggers obsessively maintain their archives, painstakingly reformatting older entries to survive each transition from one publishing system to the next. 

Will today’s blogs survive long enough to matter to future generations?  Most of us are intensely aware of the fragility of digital data:  a life savings of information can vanish with the theft of a laptop or the crash of an unbacked-up hard disk.  Many early blogs have disappeared from the Web, leaving little or no trace…. Words on the Web, we rightly fear, are ephemeral. 

On the other hand, data on the Internet has a remarkably enduring half-life.  Copying bits is what computers do – they are, as Cory Doctorow says, “copying machines.”  Copies of most material that has been posted online since the late 1990’s exist in some form somewhere…. Once a document has been widely dispersed on the Internet, it is difficult to suppress, even when you try, and have the legal right to do so. 

Paper fades; bits get deleted.  Libraries burn; disks crash.  Whatever the medium, permanence is out of reach.  No matter:  bloggers might hope to be read by children or even grandchildren, but few dream of immortality for their words.  The Web has made it possible for us to write more, to distill more and consume more…. But blogging’s critics have been so incensed over the ways in which blogging differs from the literary past that they have missed the ways in which it carries literary values into the future.  (345) 

More in due course on writing and reading blogs – and on the matter of the archive.


10/09/09  Cards on the table

   Benjamin writing
A quick check of my Typepad stats just now yielded the following:  22 posts, 8 comments, 7 followers, 760 “lifetime” page views, 38 average page views per day.  So I won’t be featured on Technorati anytime soon (though I have been, inexplicably, on Tweetmeme).  At this stage, I might feel more than a little discouraged at the time and energy it takes to gain a foothold in a medium that claims to allow for the lightning-quick, for transmission and exchange in what is termed “real-time,” were it not for two figures that I hold out, each in his way, as exemplars.  I think first of Walter Benjamin, whose work I have been reading for most of my adult life; in this context, I return to his essay “The Task of the Translator, written in 1923 as an introduction to his own translations of Baudelaire.  Here is its notorious first paragraph, as translated by Harry Zohn: In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.  Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an “ideal” receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such.  Art, in the same way, posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.  No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.  [emphasis added] 
Certainly this blog lays no claim to be a work of art – though there is an argument to be made for blogging, and tweeting, as artful pursuits.  But I did not embark on this project for the sake of my potential readers, nor with the purpose of building a readership – that will either happen, or it won’t.  What prompted me to begin blogging (cards on the table) was the prospect of a regular, disciplined practice of writing, to dislodge my habitual modes of research and more research, voluminous note-taking leading to drafts and more drafts, revisions galore and eventually, should all the stars align, publication within two years of manuscript delivery.  What I’m doing instead (or at least on a parallel track) in this still-experimental space, is essentially posting pages from my notebooks.  Which brings me to my second exemplar, the blogger who writes under the name Salam Pax.  As I indicated a few posts back, Salam blogged earlier this year about finding a notebook that had served as a diary during the months after the invasion of Baghdad, and that had gone missing in the ensuing chaos.  Five years on, he told his readers the story of the lost notebook, and added “I thought it would be good to look over these notes and share what I have from that time with you… I hope I’ll be posting things from the notebook and the papers I have, there are new links I can add and photos which have not been put on the blog at the time.  I will upload it all online and throw the pieces of paper I have away.  Hanging on to all of this for six years is enough.”  http://salampax.wordpress.com
While my notebooks, some of which date back more than five years and have likewise been retrieved from a chaotic period, can’t hold a candle to Salam’s – they have survived neither siege nor bombs, and chronicle no such historical events – I humbly follow his example in posting pages from them anyway.  But I’ll hang on to the originals, at least for a while.

 10/08/2009  Give me permalinks or give me oblivion

Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything is a valuable account of the history of Web-based journalism and the origins and rise of blogging.  In particular, his insight into “the simple utility of a reverse-chronological list” as a way to help readers understand where to look for new material is grounded in a meticulous chronicling of the early days of Web publishing.  At this stage, when many have come to take for granted the instant fix afforded by reverse chronology, when websites (in Rosenberg’s terms) are “less about subscription than about addiction,” it is worthwhile to retrace his steps, to connect what we experience now with the origins and genesis of Web publishing.




Say Everything also makes a persuasive case for the watershed character of the advent of “permalinks,”

 a code for each blog post that enabled other websites and bloggers to link back to a specific post. (Previously it had been difficult to do anything other than point to a blog’s home page, which would change all the time, foiling any attempt to link to a particular item.) Later the Movable Type platform would expand this concept by giving each individual blog post its own separate Web page as a permanent home with a unique address to which links could point.  Most other blogging tools followed suit.  This software wrinkle, lttle noticed at the time, made a huge difference:  it meant that the basic unit of writing online would change from the page to the post.  Blog posts became the atoms of the Web.

In our own moment, we are bound to pay attention to the little-noticed software wrinkles that are changing the medium right now.

 10/07/2009  ‘Say Everything.’ Really?

As a relative latecomer to blogging, and as someone whose writing has generally been destined for articles, essays and books, I am still coming to terms with the novelty of one-click self-publication.  While it continues to feel a bit strange to make public what is merely presentable prose – written in one sitting, lacking the presumptive polish of a ‘finished’ piece – I have set aside my qualms for the time being in the resolve simply to take part.

 Like others, I have learned a good deal about the genesis of blogging from Scott Rosenberg’s recent volume Say Everything, whose subtitle is How Blogging Began, What it’s Becoming, and Why it Matters.  The following paragraph seems to have generated the book’s title:

Most writers today grew up in a world where the ability to publish was a hard-won privilege, and, once won, guaranteed at least some attention on its basis alone.  That world is rapidly fading.  On the Web, publishing has become an abundant, effectively limitless resource.  Clay Shirky has laid out the consequences for us:  When publishing was scarce, we filtered first, making choices based on relevance or quality before committing words to our limited stock of paper, our costly fleet of trucks, our scarce radio and TV frequencies.  The Web inverts this sequence.  We publish, then filter.  Say everything first, ask questions later. (319)

 I take Rosenberg’s point, and recognize the paradigm shift he is indicating.  But surely any blogger worth reading asks questions before and while writing posts, comments and responses.  Interrogating one’s topic cannot be postponed till after publication, even if blogging allows for the rapid transmission of unfinished work.  And what blogger would presume to ‘say everything’ about anything in a single post?

 In my next post (or some post hereafter) I will return to Rosenberg’s valuable volume, which offers plenty of grist for a blogger’s mill.

10/06/2009  Viva Salam Pax

Salam Pax notebook 

I predicted in my first post that I would be citing the words and work of others as this blog unspools.  In the spirit of reproducing posts that are better than any I can hope to write – well, I can always hope, I suppose – I offer a sampling from Salam Pax:  The Baghdad Blogger.  I chose this entry from among other possibilities in part because it extends a poignant promise of more to come.

 “Looking back, one last time.”  March 22, 2009

 In three weeks time it’s the 6th anniversary for the fall/liberation of Baghdad.

 Baghdad falls/Baghdad is liberated…all semantics.  What is fact is our life in Iraq as we knew it ended at that day.

 Since the start of the war in 2003 we had to move house three times for various reasons.  A lot was given away or lost in those moves including a notebook I used as a diary during the days when we had no electricity or internet access, it also contained flyers and other things from those days.

When the bombing stopped a couple of weeks later and the first place with internet access opened I sent all the notes to my blog friend Diana Moon and she posted them for me on my blog.  The blog posts from that time are still online, you can go check them out. 

While looking through the boxes of belongings I found the notebook, with newspapers, photos and the flyers I had kept.  As five years have passed and we’re entering the seventh year of our post-war/post-Saddam lives I thought it would be good to look over these notes and share what I have from that time with you. 

Until the 9th I hope I’ll be posting things from the notebook and the papers I have, there are new links I can add and photos which have not been put on the blog at the time.  I will upload it all online and throw the pieces of paper I have away.  Hanging on to all of this for six years is enough.”* 

Read more at http://salampax.wordpress.com/ 

Viva Salam Pax. 

*Readers of fledgling:  cf. my previous post on Fisk’s Beirut bookbinder, who apparently throws very little paper away no matter how old it is. 

 10/05/2009  The Bookbinder of Beirut

Bookbinding koran

Never mind the fact that there is no journalist that I admire more than Robert Fisk – this is merely anecdotal.  But I find something characteristically instructive, and perhaps salutary, in his recent column for The Independent on the oldest and most honoured bookbinder in Beirut, known for that reason as “Sheik Tijlid” – Sheik Binder.  Here is a sample:

There are only five left in Lebanon, repairing old newspapers, handwritten 17th-century Korans, ministry archives, cutting and pasting and then modelling fine leather covers and impressing on that wonderful soft leather the title of each volume in gold leaf.  Riyad Shaker al-Khabbaz lives for his bunker of an office with its ancient iron presses, its century-old steel Arabic typeface from Germany, France and England. Some of his presses come from the homes of priests – who were the bookbinders of Beirut in centuries past. 

He hands me a Koran, written in black and red ink, the margins adorned with yet more handwriting, interpretations of the sura – 300, 400 years old? – and he tells me about his client.  ‘He is a man who greatly loves a Lebanese woman and he wants to give this to her as a gift.  It is worth $100,000.’ 


For those who dwell in large part in the virtual world, who spend their days staring at flickering screens of one sort or another, such an account may jar them back to a reckoning with the materiality of the written word, and the materiality of the history to which, in one of its multiple functions, it refers.

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