As the new year begins with a renewal of the obsessive media attention to “terror” and “Muslim extremists,” one of the two terrors mentioned in the previous post ending 2008, one of the novelties has been the expansion and projection of the conflict into new media like Twitter. I am still new to Twitter, which is itself new, trying to understand how it works, what people do with it, and what I am doing with it. Just as I was getting better acquainted with the network, I learned that the Israeli Consulate in New York had decided to engage in public debate with tweeters (or whatever they are called). The announcement was followed by pages of responses by the Israeli Consulate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The justification of this kind of activity came in the now much quoted words from a Jerusalem Post article:
“The blogosphere and new media are another war zone,” said Foreign Press Branch head Maj. Avital Leibovich. “We have to be relevant there,” she said.
News of the Twitter press conference was also carried by the New York Times, which raised some interesting questions in passing (see Noam Cohen, “The Toughest Q’s Answered in the Briefest Tweets,” 03 January, 2009). The Israeli Consulate faces some tough competition from other bloggers, writers, journalists, and Gaza-based persons on twitter including Sameh Habeeb, tweets from gaza, Al Jazeera in Gaza, and one of my personal favourites, electronic intifada.
These activities raise a range of questions that I find interesting, aside from the obviously political ones. If social network sites can be used for surveillance by governments over citizens (as they definitely are), is the “return gaze” of citizen surveillance of governments in equal measure? If not, why should governments worry about managing information in sites such as Twitter? Does “the world” debating Gaza online in any way matter to Gazans on the ground? Does Twitter’s current popularity in debating the Gaza invasion, see #gaza for example, reflect something of an explosion of expression given the limitations of Facebook, and the elimination of discussion boards and chat rooms by Yahoo? Does meaning come in quantities ultimately, that is, is there a lower limit on the number of words used when expression loses content and meaning? Has “less is more” reached an extreme in Twitter, when less can often appear to be just very little? Are participants being trained to join in the sound bite mode of mainstream media, to produce their own bites? Is this a “dumbing down” of the Internet when compared to blogging?
My own preliminary thoughts on this are that Twitter need not be understood in the gloomiest of terms where meaning construction and expression are concerned. The fact is that it is an extremely flexible platform, thanks to its utter vagueness and built-in open ended-ness, and given the wide range of services that attach to Twitter to make it more usable for larger expressions of thought. Twitter’s head of hair comes with a mass of extensions. Examples of services extending Twitter are: twitthat!, twitterfeed and Tweetag, among many others. Tinyurl also plays a vital role in virtually extending a sentence well beyond the confines of 140 characters and beyond Twitter itself. Yes, it seems to cater to attention deficit disorders, but on the other hand it allows fellow tweeters to decide whether they want to read more, and at least they can cover many more inputs from many more people when messages are restricted to 140 characters.
So why use Twitter? Nobody has to, nor should it be treated as the next “in thing.” My uses for it are very specific. It is a more centralized way of obtaining news feeds, in a more interesting format than I get with Google Reader, while linking me in conversations with news producers. I also run my own feeds from this blog, from 1D4TW, and from my vodpod through Twitter, expanding the number of readers (perhaps one reason why last month just a few people short of 20,000 visited this blog, or 20% of all visitors for the year). And it allows one to interact directly, without the restrictions of commentaries on blogs, which are then difficult to follow or even to remember across multiple blogging platforms (yes, Alexandre Enkerli will recommend backtype here, but I am running out of time for managing multiple services and accounts). The direct interaction of course matters a great deal from the vantage point of this “project” that I call Open Anthropology, one way of being publicly engaged and present — enjoyable and limited as well. In this vein, Tony Gigov‘s comic might sum up some of the current unease about Twitter’s perceived limitations:
Addendum: Just as I finished posting this, I noticed that my friend at Teaching Anthropology just finished posting her own essay on the events in Gaza and anthropological reactions.
A side note of interest to geeks alone: I will need to eliminate the feeds I run down the sidebar of this blog…their presence here seems to be generating vast amounts of link spamming from this blog on all Blogger blogs I link to.