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Self-expression

Port, March 2011

Ekow Eshun explains how social networking offers everyone with an Internet connection a curated form of self-expression, and argues that Twitter might one day become our voice of public – and private – record

What does it take to write the perfect tweet? I ask this question in the knowledge that Twitter is hardly short of contributions from the witty, the satirical and the compendiously well informed. But far less is it a repository for the polished, economical prose that’s part of the language of, say good journalism or non-fiction writing. Why? When I raised the subject on Twitter itself recently I largely drew a blank. Most people wanted to tell me that a 140-character limit is the enemy of good writing – as if Hemmingway or Carver or a centuries of Japanese haikus hadn’t made the case for literary concision. On reflection I think the question probably came across as an odd one to ask. Twitter is primarily used for voicing opinion and exchanging information. Worrying about style or form must seem irrelevant or even antique in comparison to addressing the nature of the content itself.

But form defines content. We adopt different stylistic modes for writing official letters, scribbling in a notebook or penning a diary entry. So it’s surely perfectly valid to also consider the aesthetics of tweeting too.  If we haven’t done so yet it’s probably because of Twitter’s relatively novelty. For all its popularity – 55 million tweets sent every day – Twitter was only founded in March 2006. Like every other facet of our socially networked world, Facebook, texts, blogs, emails, even the World Wide Web itself (nee August 6, 1991) it’s evolved in living memory of most adult lives. As a consequence, we’re still developing the forms of address and narrative conventions that best fit the new communications platforms. We’re still learning to think of them as literary as well as informational media. While that thinking is pretty much commonplace when it comes to, say, blogs – we celebrate the best written and most insightful of those with the Weblog awards and an annual list in Time magazine and among other means – it’s still early days with Twitter.

From my own, admittedly limited research, it seems that the most elegant tweeters are often those that already make their living as writers. Little surprise maybe, although in the case of the many writers and journalists whose ordinarily vivid prose style fails to translate to Twitter, the correlation is not guaranteed. Those who are as good at 140 characters as they are in print include the Pulitzer prize-winning movie critic Roger Ebert, who writes with a Chanderlesque spareness shorn of unnecessary adjectives – “Retired electrician says Picasso gave him works now valued at £80m. Some doubt has been shed” – and the novelist Colson Whitehead, who specialises in sly self-deprecation: “Holed up at my country estate, “Low Ebb”. It’s where I go to think”.

But the real challenge of Twitter isn’t just about crafting a well-turned phrase. It’s about how you exploit the particular nature of the medium as an essential aspect of writing rather than an incidental detail. For instance, think about the writers whose eloquence is enhanced, not diminished, by the limitations of form. Samuel Pepys and the diary, say. Or Dickens writing Great Expectations in weekly instalments for All Around the World magazine and drawing one hundred thousand captivated readers to each issue.

Twitter’s uniqueness is its combination of intimacy and immediacy. A poet laureate of the form is yet to emerge. But in lieu of that, I’m always cheered by a new tweet from the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.

Tweeting prolifically about the ordinary details of her life in upstate New York, a life that largely seems to revolve around the demands of writing and the distractions offered by her expanding menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens and turkeys, Orlean is crafting a sort of memoir in real-time.

Individually, each tweet is unremarkable, capturing as they do the isolation and self-doubt involved in writing her current book or the unreliability of chicken sexing (“Unbelievable! Another one of my hens has turned out to be a ROOSTER! #testosteroneoverflow”), but detailed over hours, weeks and months of running commentary what emerges is a portrait of exterior and interior life that that’s wry, knowing and delivered with a compact serialiality that feels wholly native to Twitter and its formal constraints.

The merging of public and private self in Orleans tweets is not just unique to her or come to that Twitter itself. In many respects it is the defining condition of this hyper-mediated modern age.

The British sociologists Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst have argued that the ubiquity of communications technology, from social media to surveillance mechanisms like CCTV and Google Streetview, now mean that we live perpetually public lives, in which we are always on display, always performing to a camera, always observing or observed.

“So deeply infused into everyday life is performance that we are unaware of it in ourselves or others,” they argue. “Life is a constant performance; we are audience and performer at the same time; everybody is an audience all the time.”

But from Facebook to Flickr, the version of ourselves we present for online public consumption is only ever an edited aspect of who we really are. We curate our lives, selecting for display the aspects of ourselves we hope are the most fascinating, the most likely to spark curiosity or attention from others. “You’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona that fosters a narrative of who you are,” said Orlean, in an interview for the Harvard-based Neiman Journalism Lab about her writing on Twitter. The skill is to make that look easy and natural. To tell a story about yourself that feels compelling or authentic.

Last April, the US Library of Congress announced it would be adding the output of Twitter to its inventory of published works. The decision sparked much debate about which tweets, if any, are worthy of preservation for posterity. The Library cited examples like the first ever tweet from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey on July 15, 2006 and President Obama’s tweet about winning the 2008 election. But over time what we may come to treasure aren’t the tweets that mark historical events. But the ones that are nuanced enough to capture, in 140 characters, something close to a true feeling of desire, hope or anxiety. Tweets that tell us something about the texture of our lives rather than the bare facts of dates and places. Tweets that tell us a story about who we are.

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