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The Soul of Twit

June 14, 2010

One of the best examples of citizen journalism and satire created by the semi-walled garden that is Twitter (walled in by architectural constraints, not by barriers to entry) is the @BPGlobalPR account, an account which began as a parodic commentary on BP’s flaccid response to the mess they created and subsequently attempted to minimize and ignore.  Time chronicles the history of the account nicely in yet another example of meta-journalism as the only consolation prize that the mainstream media can offer because of bias concerns associated with the real thing.  The account is particularly laudable and worthwhile because it serves to buck the normal media cycle of marginalia and incrementalism (or should that be excrementalism?), which can really distort the audience’s perception of overall trends, costs, and ramifications that may inhere to a given current event that spans over the course of more than a day.  Even Rolling Stone’s take smacks of the mainstream focus which is to react to how Obama is dealing with the crisis that BP created with its own well.  That’s not to say that Obama shouldn’t be involved in crafting both reactive and prospective solutions.  It is simply a default angle to focus the attention and blame on the administration because that’s what the corps is used to covering, even when the administration is not the most relevant actor here.  As Colbert put it quite aptly, “It’s BP’s well, so the only person to blame is Barack Obama.”   It is instead to say that there is a dearth of journalistic imagination and the resources to support new and more relevant angles when it comes to the mainstream media that has its own structural biases to focus on the administration.  As is so often the case, the comedians (as political cartoonists) can speak to the truth much more directly than their “journalistic” counterparts.  E.g.,

Thus, the @BPGlobalPR account and free media generally allow people to inform and update one another of significant developments on a schedule that is not subject to manipulation by press release and PR damage control that has gotten used to holding the reins of the 24 hour news cycle.  Nor need those updates conform to developments designated by the interested actors that control the flow of information in the manner and terms with which those actors are willing to address them; instead, actual significant developments and comparisons can be addressed as they arise.  And by creating a timely, if artificial, intersection between entertainment and an important news issue, the mere act of a tweet here or there can act as a lightning rod for second- and third-degree media coverage (thereby virally spiraling outward) by virtue of the power of the message, rather than the style.  Take, for example:

We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to come.

or

We’ve created something that will affect your children’s children. Can YOU say the same about YOUR life? #nailedit #bpcares

or

Eating at a very expensive restaurant and spilled salad dressing on my pants. Not sure how to tackle this.

and

Funny, no one has thanked us for seasons 3-15 of Treme yet. #bpcares

I’ve come to believe that this is what Twitter–and, one could argue, the semantic web in general–really has as its core competence: focusing attention.  More substance will necessarily lie beyond the singular tweet (nobody seriously believes that 140 characters is enough to produce anything more seriously contemplative than a Buddhist kōan or a beautiful joke like “I believe we can build a better world! Of course, it’ll take a whole lot of rock, water & dirt. Also, not sure where to put it.”), but that tweet can be a perfect signal for what to look for next.  The tweet need not terminate, but when it does, it can still be quite good.  E.g.,

But back to the real point, the fact that the tweet and the link and any other form of signaling on the Internet can focus attention is also made more significant in terms of citizen journalism because of the potential insulation that can be created by semi-anonymity.  While some people will decry anonymity because of its effects on conversational civility (and Goddard’s law, for example), the reason for that is because anonymity is freedom unleashed; it allows people to be free to be the assholes they really are without concern of the backlash.  But by allowing the assholes to have their say, we also give the freedom and cover for more significant comments and perspectives to bring the truth to the fore.  And of course there is the Eric Schmidt school of thought that says maybe you shouldn’t have something to hide.  But, of course, that attitude of anti-anonymity can be abused significantly:

But today, anybody with a blog can (and all too often does) smear you, defame you, or invade your privacy.  Their motivations are many: politics (if you read VC, you might have strong opinions), envy (think job promotion), mischief (think 4chan), etc.  If you don’t have a big presence in Google before being attacked, Google will inevitably find the smear and bring it to the top of your search results: and tabloid material often rises to the top of a Google search because it gets the most clicks and attention.

This has real consequences for real people.  Consider false-but-hard-to-disprove allegations.  How do you respond if a political opponent, a personal enemy, or simply a random stranger creates a blog claiming that you harassed or had an affair with a subordinate?  What do people think when they see that in the first three Google results?  It’s true that more speech can help push the false information down in search results, but it is near-impossible to prove the negative.  And once that seed of doubt is planted (“did Obama shake hands with the President of Iran?” “was Kerry at a rally with Jane Fonda?”) your name is forever tarnished.

And with 300 million little brothers out there amenable to turning over their information to the state, who needs an unwieldy big brother?

Why would anti-abortion groups not photograph every person who walks into an abortion clinic, use facial recognition to identify them, and use public name-and-address databases (see below) to target mailings (or harassment) to each person’s home?  Why would anti-gay advocates not do the same for people who frequent gay bars, or liberals target “Tea Party” activists, or statists target libertarians, etc?  Or insurance companies outside bars to monitor drinking and driving, smoking, or any other risk factor that could increase rates?

Institutions in power hate it when the locus of attention and therefore public awareness is shifted away from those incumbents and the narrative they define.  That’s why citizen surveillance of the state, rather than the other way around, has become a criminal offense in so many states (and perhaps most alarmingly relevant to this trend, it seems as though the Pentagon has begun a manhunt for Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks).  Control over identity and control over the channels of speech are a form of thought control and repression of potential dissidence or opposition to currently prevailing regimes (be they political, commercial, religious, cultural, or otherwise).  The implications on our collective freedoms should be taken seriously, even if we can only do so one tweet at a time.

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