Monday, February 2, 2009

You Are What You Tweet

So, a couple of weeks ago I got into a bit of an unpleasant exchange with someone on Twitter (my profile page is, in case you're interested). This involved someone who I actually first met offline and several years ago, long before Twitter was even a Twinkle in anyone's eye. Of course it was over politics. What else is new?

Anyway, this person started posting news items about a political controversy via Twitter, and all of the items had a very strong slant, or shall we say bias, one that went counter to my own leanings. Now, I am all for people being free to express their opinions. And of course, that includes having the right to respond to people expressing their opinions with your own opinions and counterarguments. So I started to respond to this person's tweets. (You can send a reply that is still public--Twitter also allows for private direct messages, but that's not what this is about--but coded as a specific reply by beginning the message with the person's Twitter name, which is their profile name preceded by the @ sign. So a specific reply to me would begin with @LanceStrate.)

So I sent a few specific replies offering a bit of a rebuttal--not much in depth political discourse is possible when Twitter only allows posts, aka tweets, of no more that 140 characters--that's why it's called microblogging. And I followed the specific replies by also posting a few items, videos actually, that presented the alternate point of view. This is uncharacteristic of me, to be sure, but I found it upsetting to see someone I know posting items that I considered biased, prejudiced propaganda. This individual did respond to me indicating that he was posting this material because American media is one-sided, and he wanted to see what the other side had to say. This sounded strange to me, since there's a difference between looking at items and posting the links on Twitter. Just to reinforce that point, here are some of the specific replies I sent as this exchange continued. While I'm only giving you my side of the story, my intent is not to win an argument, just to make a point about the medium:

if you're posting one side of a controversy, you're doing more than peeking at the other side, you are advocating for them

Now, you may disagree with me, but the point is that whatever you post can come across as a personal statement. You are implicitly saying, I am ----- and I approved this message, unless you make it clear you haven't. In response to this, I was sent what seemed to be an angry message that, in entering into a dialogue and expressing a different opinion, I was "policing" this person's messages. Given that he considered what he was doing to be his own personal communication, it must have seemed like an invasion, even though to me it came across as interpersonal messages on a public forum. So my response was the following series of tweets:

Policing? Nonsense! Your tweets are public messages, not private thoughts. They're sent to me, so I responded.

Tweeting links that reflect a position on a controversy over and over is advocacy, not "thoughts"

And again, I'm not asking that you agree with me, I just think it's important to understand that one source of friction here is that there are different metaphors in play for what Twitter is, as a medium, for what it's all about. To this other person, it's a blog, it seems, a place to post items of interest to him, almost like a bookmarking function, a form of intrapersonal communication that is left open for others to view. To me, Twitter is an interactive medium through which people send messages to each other in a public forum.

In part, this also depends upon the actual technologies you use in conjunction with Twitter. If it's just something you go to on the web, it remains somewhat distanced, a list of posts. If you receive updates from the people you are following on Twitter as text messages on your mobile phone, as I do, Twitter takes on a more intimate character, and posts that you may not pay attention to as part of a long list on a web page can become offensive when one comes in as a single update on the phone.

Having said that, I do think that this all relates to the seminal work of Paul Watzlawick, as presented in the book he co-authored with Janet Beavin Bavelas and Donald D. Jackson, entitled The Pragmatics of Communication. This was one of the key works for the discipline of communication back when I was a student, and was also required reading in Neil Postman's old media ecology program at New York University. That's where Watzlawick and his colleagues presented their first axiom of communication, One cannot not communicate. The point of that is simply that everything you say or do, or don't say or do, has message value, says something one way or another, especially about yourself and your feelings. They also note that communication always functions on two different levels, one being the content level we are always aware of. The other is the relationship level, where we communicate about how to relate to one another and how to interpret the content we are sending--in fact, it is difficult to know what to make of the content unless we first have established a relationship. The relationship level is always present, but we may not be aware of it most of the time. But it is much more powerful than the content level--relationship overwhelms content, as Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom used to say in our seminar. Bring Erving Goffman into the mix, based on his well known book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and it also follows that along with establishing and maintaining relationships, we are projecting our own definitions of the situation to others, and hoping that they accept those definitions. And we are putting on a performance, playing a role, and in doing so, creating a persona or sense of self.

So, with that in mind, here are some tweets that I sent as I pondered this interaction:

When you tweet, you are not just transmitting information, you are establishing an identity, constructing a persona or self

When you tweet, you are projecting a definition of who you are, and your relationship to your "followers" and readers

Your followers and readers in turn take part in defining who you are, based on what you tweet

In other words, you are what you tweet!

This is the bottom line, because in this medium there is nothing else apart from what you put out there. There is your profile, and there's whatever URL you include, and there's your little icon. Apart from those items, you yourself are constituted, in this medium, by and through the messages you send--they create your persona, your self. In face-to-face interaction, nonverbal cues are very powerful and meaningful, and I can remain silent and communicate a great deal, especially on the relationship level. On Twitter, there is almost no nonverbal communication, it's all in what you say, if you never tweet you don't exist for all intents and purposes (silence then is truly death), so that the messages you send become you, comprise you.

Or, once again, when you are on Twitter,


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