Monday, August 10, 2009

Binge Thinking

I know you've got something interesting to say and I’m here to help you say it in a fun and compelling way.

Describe one of your most pleasant surprises. Go on. What three songs are on your summer soundtrack? Which could you spend a whole week in: a treehouse, a tent or an underground bunker? You're stuck on an island with plenty of food, a companion, and a relatively stress-free lifestyle. What do you say when the rescue ship comes?

All these conversation starters are care of Plinky, a new-ish social networking tool whose self-styled business is ‘Inspiration, delivered daily’. Kind of like the Holy Ghost, except in that it doesn’t honour the Sabbath. If you sign up for Plinky you get one of these prompts every day of the week and in providing your answer join others who are doing the same, thus alleviating the world’s dangerous shortage of mindless chatter. For Plinky abhors a vacuum.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497-98.
They are from left to right Death, Famine, War and Plinky.
It is difficult, not to mention terribly unfashionable these days, to paint such things as anything other than innocuous pastimes at the very worst. Suggesting anything more sinister or culture-damaging would be like railing against the entertainment industry, or reality television, or television full stop, which opens you to countless and often not unfair charges of elitism, of not getting it, of being nostalgic for old days that weren’t all that good. We’ve gotten quite adept at unpacking the assumptions on which those critics tacitly rely, yet it helps that those same critics in the main aren’t as serious or able as Neil Postman: they really are nostalgic, they really do not get it. None more so than this guy. But for all the buzz-like intensity of the debate surrounding social networks, I don’t think we’re asking forcefully enough the questions of media ecology that Postman no doubt would insist that we ask: what kinds of conversation can be had on these networks? Who’s empowered to speak, authorised to say what, enabled to criticise which institutions and whom? To which I’d add: does the multiplication of voices and the multiplication of utterances really amount to a democratisation of speech, or is there a point where the returns not only diminish, but begin in fact to unravel?

It’s hard to defend Plinky on any of these grounds. Answering one inane question per day, being pushed into pontificating in unison with others under such prefabricated constraints would hardly fit anybody's definition of empowerment; and what kind of value would you yourself or anybody else assign to the word count thus generated? But mostly I want to direct your attention to the demand for constant participation, brilliantly summed up by one of Plinky's rolling slogans.

Silence is the enemy of commerce, and so many attempts to monetise the Internet depend not on the quality, but rather the quantity of interactions, as translated in page loads or ad impressions. That's why it doesn't pay for Plinky to give you so much as a day off a week. But the site’s creators also know that we are liable to ask for that push ourselves, actively seek ways to participate well beyond the point when we ceased to have something to say.

There is a rather wonderful image I recently came across thanks to punster-poet extraordinaire Ian Dalziel, a member of the Public Address community, inspired in turn here by this effort of Emma's and that I've adopted as the title of this post. Ian is the originator I'm going to credit and whose permission I asked for and kindly received, but of course I wasn't surprised when Google informed me that the phrase binge thinking had had other inventors, for it's just too perfect, too apposite, so the culture was bound to have stumbled upon it before, and it will keep finding it again and again. Each time it will be an original discovery, and another sign of how self-reflexively the Web operates, how conscious we all are of the potential for near-infinite expression and of its flipside: the surplus, the excess, the likely addiction.

Plinky asks for your attention on a daily basis and the infinitely more successful Twitter too, strictly on an opt-in basis you understand, offers to ‘nudge’ you via cellphone if you haven't contributed to the site in the previous twenty-four hours. On the face of it, the two services in fact have a lot in common:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
As mission statements go, this is eminently mockable, and so the commonplace mockery goes more or less like this: why should I, why should anybody want to keep their friends, family and (urgh!) co-workers abreast of what they're doing, frequently and quickly? Are we so vacuous and self-absorbed that we need to chronicle the humdrum rhythm and gestures of our lives, inform the world that we are catching the bus, choosing new shoes, worried that it might be about to rain? Not even Clay Shirky himself would manage to make it sound so despairingly pointless and boring.

But even to the casual observer Twitter is obviously so much more than that. I could do all manner of knee-jerk theorising here, call it a Foucaltian nightmare of diffused surveillance and self-surveillance, the fissure that precedes society's Final Crumble, or the din before its Final Rumble. But it's not Foucault, nor is it Orwell. It's Georges Perec, it's James Joyce: a formally constrained collective stream of consciousness, the simultaneous projection of what everybody, or as good an approximation thereof as we are capable of producing, is doing, or thinking, or purporting to do or think. I'm not particularly interested in being on it, certainly not at all interested in letting friends and family etcetera know in real time whether or not I'm picking my nose at any given moment (hint: I probably am), but I'm also pretty sure I could spend my life reading the #Iremember topic alone. And I'd have to, really, in its trend-topping heyday eight weeks or so ago it was growing at dozens of tweets per minute.

'Burning bus during Iranian elections 2009'
Photo by Shahram Sharif licensed under Attribution 2.0
That is it, the binge, right there. And then came the elections in Iran, and suddenly it all became deadly serious, and we all changed our location to Tehran, and it seemed that everybody already knew what to do, how to organise, as if the months spent talking about your Friday night plans had been a rehearsal for that moment when being good at Twitter was going to save lives, or so it seemed. And it's all there, documented, trickling in now but still ongoing. I did a little sampling a few weeks back, precisely between 7 and 8 pm on June 22nd, NZ time: far from the peak of its intensity and when it had in fact been surpassed by #iran as the top trending topic, #iranelection still generated 114 tweets on the first minute, some 7,440 in that hour. It will be a while before anybody could, supposing they wanted to, catch up on the topic, read it whole, as a single continuous historical document of a not insignificant moment in time.

Of course, in the din of the moment, it's not how you do it: you need to find yourself a super-reader, somebody who's following the right sub-set of participants, those with the most meaningful and relevant information, and there lies a point I shall return to in the next couple of weeks: that by far the best search engine on the Internet bar none to this day is still other people. But this week I wanted to expose you all to Ian’s wonderfully elliptical and hyper-concentrated image, for even in that precious moment when it was at its most historically useful, Twitter was also a colossal expression of just that, binge thinking: the surplus of expression that overwhelms our capacity to make sense and participate, and reminds us of just how vain an illusion it is to think that we can use technology solely on our own terms, and not be used by it in return.

I've lost count of the announcements by friends and acquaintances - all well-adjusted, sophisticated, savvy citizens of the Web - that they're taking a break from the computer, or going on a Twitter diet, if only for a day or two. Sometimes it is dictated by external circumstances, such as the recent outage that inspired #whentwitterwasdown, a topic full of slightly shrill witticisms and wise musings about the world without. But mostly, we just unplug.

So, what do you do after a binge?

When I need to step away from the computer sometimes I'll walk up Farnham Street, up to a particular bend in the road where I can see the sea at both ends of the city, let my eyes wander from the Harbour to Island Bay and back again, or contemplate the bush in the foreground and the airport in the background. It is a lovely, quiet spot, my far-too-easily reached place of seclusion: for I am such a domesticated urban beast. Nonetheless it brings to my mind - a little grandiosely, to be sure - those famous lines by Wendell Berry about coming into the peace of wild things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

But then Plinky taunts me thus:

Yes. Yes, I did. I promise I'll have something ready by next Monday.


Philip said...

Is a blogger who blogs about Twitter
A bigger, a twibbler or blitter,
Or a blot or a bit
Or a twog or a blit
Or a blotter, a twigger, or bitter?

Word Verification: fludde, the next generation of internet invasiveness, whereby digital operatives (drops) accrue via laser-emitted anthropoid kinetics (leaks), enabling the lucky user to drown in a tide of individuo-popcultitudinous infomerciality and be finally washed up, bloated, blue and malodorous, among the weed-choked back-canals of the information sewer-byway.

Giovanni said...

Rather more prosaically, but still determined to get in on the ground floor of these marvellous monetisation opportunities, I'm pleased to announce the launch of a brand new service called Plonky.

Today's prompt: "Where do you stand on the Schleswig-Holstein question?"

Please send your notarised answers by registered post to the customary address.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Giovanni, with questions like that I would be a definite starter for Plonky. (Was the Risorgimento a good thing? Describe the origins of the Hapsburg nose, from your own experience.) Reminds me of the exam questions Nigel Molesworth suffered through at St Custards.

stephen said...

Stephen is amused by this blog post.

Giovanni said...

Giovanni likes this.

rob said...

Postman is fascinating, and I think hits the nail fairly squarely in terms of a lot of contemporary culture. There's a promo running on TV at the moment for a show (The Wanted'?) about hunting down terrorists which is a poster-perfect example of television turning a big issue into shallow, trivial entertainment.
This New Yorker article rather haunts me: The Twilight of the Books-
But I'm not sure Postman is quite there in terms of the net. I'm aghast also at the vast and inconsequential verbage. The Txtspk on Twitter is literacy in a form- well, Jim "but not as we know it".
Yet there's a fair swag of evidence that writing itself is on the rise. Perhaps that's just an odd little trend, surfing against the tide. But evidence is amassing that using the internet itself increases overall literacy. 'Gaming' is proving to be less of a passive mind-blob than academics- and heh, many parents- have feared. Like much computer use, gaming and twittering have obsessive-compulsive characteristics, and can tend towards the self-obsessed or solipsistic. But perhaps they are not as 'anti-intellectual' as "I Love Lucy" or "Miami Vice'.
Thanks to you- and few others- I'm discovering twitter as a reader (also no desire whatsoever to 'contribute'). Fascinating, funny and creepy, all on the same page.
Someone out there is probably already writing the first 'twit-novel'...

Giovanni said...

But I'm not sure Postman is quite there in terms of the net.

Dying did slow him down a bit, I'd love to know know what he would make of Web 2.0. I think he's an underrated figure, both Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death remain quite relevant and are much more layered and nuanced than the polemics we are subjected to these days outside of academia. The sceptics are a pretty sad bunch and the it-getters aren't much better, really, beginning with Stephen Fry, who purports to follow over 50 thousand people (yes, Stephen, of course you do) and is prone to exclamations such as "Twitter - to hell with those who don't get it". It seems we're stuck with the mentality of Wired magazine circa 1995: either you get it or to hell with you. Thanks a bunch.

I'm aghast also at the vast and inconsequential verbage. The Txtspk on Twitter is literacy in a form- well, Jim "but not as we know it".

At its experimental best it reminds me of Finnegans Wake, and I'll talk about that a bit when I review Memory trade by Darren Tofts (the link's in the sidebar), which is about Joyce and the prehistory of cyberspace - a fantastic book. The flipside is that sometimes I have the impression that everyone on Twitter is beginning to acquire the same writing ticks.

Someone out there is probably already writing the first 'twit-novel'...


But I'm more partial to this kind of thing: Samuel Pepys on Twitter

Emma said...

Possibly the it-getters are getting a little short these days because of the number of times someone says 'so, what's with this Twitter then?'. I've explained it three times this week alone. Nobody ever asks me to explain livejournal or Facebook.

There's a livejournal app called Writer's Block which throws you a banal question every day. I loathe it. I love Twitter. You can do whatever you like with it, it doesn't constrain you or push you to use it in a particular way. I play games with it a lot. So yesterday was all about me and Megan and Che and Tom playing Moral Gates, and there's no possible way I can explain that. Other people will never use Twitter that way. The thing to get about Twitter is that there's nothing to get.

Giovanni said...

Possibly the it-getters are getting a little short these days because of the number of times someone says 'so, what's with this Twitter then?'

I think the reason that question gets asked so often is that on the face of it most of us wonder why anybody would want to be on Twitter, *based on the company's own explanation* of what Twitter is.
In an interview after Iran, Biz Stone said stated that they aim was that of creating this hyper-connectedness with family and friends (which The Onion twisted into 'Twitter was intended to be a way for vacant, self-absorbed egotists to share their most banal and idiotic thoughts with anyone pathetic enough to read them,' which is almost certainly closer to the mark).

I think why people would want to be hyper-connected is worth examining regardless of the wonderful things that (some) people do on Twitter. What kind of idea of communication does that entail? Does that amplify the voice of the it-getters?

I also think that Fry's pretence to be following so many people - and therefore of being a Twitter user like everybody else - is an implicit claim that there are no power imbalances on Twitter, that it's pure, unadulterated communication between self-contained, aware and consenting individuals. That it doesn't change you in any way, or that nobody wields more power than others. Which is untrue, obviously. He'd do well to examine that instead of dismissing the non Twitterati out of hand.

You can do whatever you like with it, it doesn't constrain you or push you to use it in a particular way.

Even if you don't sign up for the nudge, the essential imperative of Twitter is: use me. That's what creates shareholder value for the company, and really nobody cares what you use it for. You may do the most creative things with it or the most soul-crushingly boring, into the same cauldron it goes (there to, amongst other things, pollute Google searches - although I hasten to add it's not my term for it and I think it needs to be heavily qualified).

Beyond that, I think - with Postman - that the idea that you use technology purely on your own terms, which is what you seem to be saying here, is a delusion. I've really taken to this blogging thing, but am I in complete control, do I do it solely on my own terms? Hell, no. And even if it never occurred to you personally, ask yourself why do so many people, equally savvy and enthusiastic in their adoption of these tools as you are, feel the need to take a day off Twitter?

Xkcd of course put it rather memorably.

Mine isn't a polemic contra Twitter, of course. I think it's genuinely fascinating, as I said in the post, and very much in spite of its stated premise. If nothing else, I'm an avid reader. But I'm interested in these imperatives of hyper-connectedness and constant communication, the binge thinking thing, and in all its interesting implications, some of which I'll attempt to tease out in the next few weeks with your help I hope.

Emma said...

you use technology purely on your own terms, which is what you seem to be saying here, is a delusion.

Oh no, I use Twitter on terms created unconsciously by my particular cohort of Twitter users. I've never read Twitter's own description of what they think it's for. What they think it's for is irrelevant. I got sucked into it through Word of Mouth - the God of the internet.

Twitter is very easy to ignore, and a large portion of my friends are signed up but barely use it. The only time it bothers me is if I get direct messages (people are starting to use it as a substitute for email). Otherwise I have my options set for it to leave me the hell alone. I don't tweet by another other method than going to the site with my browser.

Likewise, Xanga was set up by its designers to be a site for people to share reviews. A year later, it was a blogging site. Their users took the tool and shaped it to their own hands. The owners were smart enough to let it happen.

BTW, while I don't believe SF follows his 57000 followers, 'following' them allows him to see when they reply to his tweets. About half his tweets are replies to things other people have said. And if there was a human being who COULD digest and produce information at that rate, it would be him, he's quite scary.

And y'know, there's NO txt-speak on my Twitter. None.

I've never seen people take a day off just Twitter, it might happen, but I haven't seen it, so I couldn't comment on it. I have seen people take days or a week off the net, and that I get, that sometimes it's nice to clear your head of the compulsion and check that you can still stand up and walk around. But I still check PA more often than I do Twitter, and so I wonder, why Twitter in particular for the opprobrium?

harvestbird said...

What are you doing, @harvestbird?


#Writing with a famine of #keystrokes.
This invisible salon exerts a vacuum.

I feel the short-form's #pressure
to finely-turn my phrases.

Censoring, in slowish motion,
my duties, #fears and pleasures.

Where elsewhere I might lumber,
here, I yet #fizz.



It is here much like anywhere else:
define #yourself by what you're not.
Long-spar with life's antagonists
in constant flow of idle #words.


I was #hapu there
and then I was not.


Attention seeking
becomes attention deflecting.
Sometimes on the internet
too many people, #listening.

After W.H. #Auden

Twitter makes nothing happen:
it survives, flows on south
From the busy griefs; it survives,
A way of happening (#lol!), a mouth.

harvestbird said...

In its reproduction at my place, the hashtags in the poem above link to Twitter searches. It's a gimmick, but you'll forgive me since it's hypertextual.

Giovanni said...


But I still check PA more often than I do Twitter, and so I wonder, why Twitter in particular for the opprobrium?

If I had to venture a response, I think the opprobrium is a function of the interest, and why people are interested in Twitter is obvious: it's the most recognisable new social networking tool, and it is undeniably a phenomenon. As a result, it has also come to be used as shorthand to mean "the Internet", and it attracts the kind of poo-pooing that until a year ago would have been reserved to, say, "blogging". But even on its own specific right, it generates a certain amount of anxiety that I don't think is entirely misplaced. You write that "Twitter is very easy to ignore", but the fact that so many people sign up and never use it, as you note, is symptomatic of the pressure that a new communication tool puts people under: it's new, everyody's talking about it, people use it, I need to be on it. But my life was just fine. Yet I can't afford to be left behind. So I'd better sign up and - sigh - learn to use this thing too.

Didn't cellphones also do that? Doesn't email? Being an it-getter of all these technologies comes with significant material advantages in terms of social status and employability. I totally get how people who are being modernised out of a job (which includes the occasional journalist and commentator) might see something decadent, smug or perhaps even a touch obscene in the marvellous spaces and means of expression we have created for ourselves from within this particular pale. I did argue in my dissertation that, even when they rest on untenable and occasionally retrograde arguments, these anxieties do have a place and our politics needs to account for them and for those who are left out. Which is not to say that I don't wish they were articulated better - I'm just not the person to do it because I'm an it-getter myself, unable to speak from outside my position of *massive* privilege.

BTW, while I don't believe SF follows his 57000 followers, 'following' them allows him to see when they reply to his tweets

I just click on @gtiso to do that, is there a a more user-friendly way of following threads when you follow somebody? (You won't believe this, but I have somewhat fewer followers than Fry.)

@harvestbird. *Very* handsomely done, ma'm, and precious inspiration for the next offerings.