When an Internet Skeptic Takes to Twitter
Sven Birkerts on Contradiction and Tweeting Against the Tide
When she heard that I had opened a Twitter account, my friend and long-time editor, Fiona McCrae suggested I write something about that fact. Fiona and I first met in the mid-1990s when she took on the manuscript of The Gutenberg Elegies, and we had many good conversations about the technologies that were coming in like a storm tide. Indeed, her smart questions and pointed urgings did a good deal to sharpen my skepticism. Though I felt she approved the basic position, she could easily slip into the Devil’s Advocate role demanded of any good editor.
Now, a good 20 years after the fact, she discovered that I was using Twitter and called me out on it. She was not the first person to do so, but the first person I’ve wanted to reply to in some more objective way. I have used her asking as instigation. I take the question with me on my walks, making my way up and down the neighborhood hills with a kind of Firing Line debate going on in my head. See me turn aggressive on myself, get defensive, find a rebuttal, then refute that from a different angle… But no, in fact all you see is a middle-aged guy striding along, looking from side to side and up and down, his features, I’m quite sure, betraying nothing.
Twitter—where to even start? I hate the toddler-talk sound of the word, and I deplore the unceasing purposeless chatter-stream that breaks the attention of anyone who tunes in—the mad bazaar of self-promotion and aspirant witticism, with links to everything under the sun, which, further, infects our political and cultural dialogue in untold ways with the ethos of glib compression and the market fever of “trending”… I could go on. What’s interesting to me, though, more than deploring the development (one among so many kindred developments) and its impacts, is to explore how it is that someone who feels this way—me—nonetheless checks in and posts a number of times a day.
I’ll start with the obvious things, and there are several. First, rationales—like the fact that my work life now has me at the computer far more than it did in former times. Whether drafting response letters to my students, reading manuscript submissions to AGNI, or carrying on the pestilential to-fro of administering a writing program, I so often feel trapped, without recourse, like I might go mad with all the labor-intensiveness of all my scrolling screen. So when I came upon Twitter—I who come to everything late and to some things (Facebook, e.g.) never—I felt I had stumbled on a mindless and simple getaway.
As indeed I had. I could pause at the bottom of the page while editing someone’s submitted memoir and click over to let the mind roam for a few minutes. I’d willy-nilly chosen enough literary types to follow that there was always something to browse—though I will say, back in the deploring mode, that browse is as immersive as it ever gets. One does not go to Twitter for a read, or if one does, I haven’t learned the art of the mental switch-over yet.
But browsing Twitter is not tweeting, and I’ve been outed as a someone who tweets.
It was not long at all after joining that I found my trigger finger itching. I was following my colleague, writer Brian Morton, and taking great pleasure from his 140-character drolleries. I felt myself wanting to answer, and, of course, wanted to post my own aperçu. And why not? What was at stake? Besides, of course, this complete digital skepticism I’d been promulgating for the last two decades, and which was still, in truth, my deepest belief? What a conundrum. I wrestled, but not for very long. Baser instinct won out and I posted. But as I did, I assured myself that I was really not being hypocritical. After all, I who had inveighed against the effects of internet culture was already spending half of every day on said internet. And doing so while still very much persuaded of those effects. Doing so because the very systemic transformation I’d been talking about now required it of me. If I wanted to make a living and support my family, that is.
Hypocrisy, slippery slopes. It gets worse before it gets better, if it can even be said to have gotten better. We’ll see.
From the moment of the first post, but really from the prompt return tweet from the very same Brian Morton, a response which was, in effect, a welcome extended to me which reached his followers, I had stepped in deeper. Now my ego was involved, my writerly vanity—all those impulses that drive the pundit and the classroom wise-ass on. For from that tweet came followers. Out of internet nowhere. Followers coming, I felt, on the strength of Brian’s kind greeting, and who were now—here is the leap of ego—waiting to see what I would come up with. I was in a torment of conflicting beliefs and urges.
The next phase, then, was that of playing the not-entirely-admirable game of looking for conquests, for retweets, likes, and followers. It’s like watching the fluctuations of a stock you’ve bought, except the stock is you yourself and you can’t really sell it. But so what? Here was a sidelong amusement for a dreary day at the desk, and the added rationale that it’s an activity strongly endorsed these days by one’s publisher, where it’s called “building a platform.” With a book in the works, I knew it could not hurt to work on one’s name-presence in a certain small corner of the literary culture.
I was, however—and remain—averse to any actual promotion of self-wares, cannot abide the “I’m thrilled to be reading with” variety of tweet that has been aptly tagged as “humble-brag.” No, my idea was to put up quotes and little observations that struck me as I drove this way and that along our local Fresh Pond Parkway. And—this was fun—I one day created a curmudgeonly little avatar who I could bring out from time to time to deplore some indignity or anomaly of modern living:
Bingo! That gesture added a certain alter-egoish fun to the whole business. And so things continued for months on end—my tweets all composed and sent from a computer—until one day, just over a year ago, the complex capitulations of life (aging parents, dispersed children) led to my getting my first iPhone, and… Well, that’s all she wrote. Because with this new implement came the discovery—and I have written about this—of the astonishingly fine little camera function, and the possibility, which I could not have imagined, of sending out images taken as tweets with nothing more than the light pressure of a finger-tip. I was a goner.
And a goner I remain—completely suckered in by my own craven ego and by the capabilities of these several digitally-empowered gizmos.
But I did suggest some paragraphs ago that things would maybe get better, and I flatter myself to think they have. To say how that is, however, I have to get a bit less anecdotal and more reflective. Because all of this process did not happen quite as easily and glibly as I have made it seem. It was accompanied at every point by considerable gnashing and wailing, my conscience reacting to these incremental concessions to the Tempter. What was I doing? What were the psychological and intellectual consequences of all this polymorphous media-play? Was I undermining whatever it was I imagined I had created for myself with all these years of reading and writing and cultural polemicizing?
One response I had was that I was in fact working, using my own behavior, and reactions to it, as a kind of research tool, becoming a participant in the experiment which I had hitherto imagined myself conducting more dispassionately, But though there was some truth there—there was—it did not completely wash. It did not account for my pleasure and immersion.
Another argument, or rationale—one to which I do subscribe—came to me gradually. I began to realize several things about the tweets I was tweeting and how they suggested a deeper, maybe alternative, perspective on the whole business. I saw there were two different things working in tandem and that possibly they were linked.
I had over time become aware that I was posting my different quotes in a very particular and idiosyncratic way. I was not leafing through my books to see if I could find something clever or interesting to post, though I was not opposed to either adjective. I was doing something else. I was, often several times a day, conducting what I thought of as an I-Ching-ish operation. I would, in effect—literally or figuratively—close my eyes and try to divine what I felt was the mood, the aspect, the “vibration” of the moment. Was it agitated, sad, nostalgic, irreverent, somehow profound? These were all projections from my own mood, of course, but I treated then as part of the larger ecto-sphere. Once I had I isolated the feel, whatever it was, I would then ponder what writer, artist, or thinker best represented that. Was it a Rilke morning, or more Groucho Marx, or Joan Didion? Once I decided, I would take an internet ramble in search of what the right thing, and when I had found it I would post. Sometimes to no effect, and sometimes to an immediate flurry of response. It was a game I played, and play.
The other recognition, different, had to do with the taking and posting of photo images. These, I’d known this all along, were special outtakes from my day. They were instances of arrested attention, of heightened focus. Trees, flowers, clouds, shadows, reflections… And I was doing this, I saw, in tandem with my thinking and writing about attention. Attention—the very thing I felt was being threatened by our digital gadgets and our digital living. So I came up with the notion that I was in a very small way using the medium against itself—creating little platforms of opposition. Doubtless I was deluding myself, but the delusion fed into certain relation to my surroundings, and to a changed mind-state as I went through my days. I fastened more and more closely on things I was seeing, and in doing so felt myself countering the otherwise dissipating nature of my activities.
The two things—the I-Ching-ing of given moments and the finding and posting of things seen and attended to—gain resonance for me through the process of tweeting. Both I could do alone, pursue as private acts, of course. But as with writing, it is the abstract projected idea of audience, and the idea that one is communicating a mood or an act of seeing to some others—that stokes the incentive. To think that I can on my afternoon walk catch the light gone powdery in a cluster of dandelions and—if I like what my lens has taken—post it to my imagined constituency, appeals to me. I register it as a moment of imagined connection, and I like to think that the effect of a good image—for it works this way for me—is to push against some of the self-advertising momentum of the feed itself. I am not saving humanity with this little game, but I am treating my tweets, when I can, as little highway billboards for a cause ultimately counter to what that cataract of unrelated character-bursts represents. Quixotic, for sure.