Wednesday, 6 June 2007

What are you doing? Going to the dentist?

Image from Wikipedia

Twitter has caused a lot of interest recently. Just why on earth do we feel the need to tell everyone what we are doing? As Advertising Age reports, most of what appears on Twitter is for the large part mundane, an “inane, piecemeal and ultra fleeting" commentary on life.

Which may well be true. But Twitter is perhaps, more significantly, a product of a recent shift in our perception of our culture and therefore history. Alan Moore and Tomi T Ahonen have long argued that with the rise of the internet and Web 2.0 we have seen the rise (or return) of
folk culture. We have it would seem, repossessed culture, claiming it as our own collective creation. And if this is the case, then such a shift does of course impact not only popular culture but politics and history as well. If folk power is on the rise, then all areas of social study are bound to be affected – especially history. In 2001 for instance, SMS helped to bring down the Filipino President Joseph Estrada. Reports say that text messages accelerated the scandal-ridden Estrada's exit by two months to two years. Suddenly the power of a connected folk culture was immense.

One view of history is that great men and institutions cause great events and make great decisions. But another view is of course that history is little more than a series of random, chance acts, a view based largely on the chaos theory – the notion that major events are, contrary to perceived wisdom, actually triggered by completely random occurrences that our traditional, institutionalised and lineal view of history has not recorded. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys plays around with this theme; history, Bennett seems to suggest is little more than a series of random accidents. According to
Nicholas Hytner, the play's original director, "it is the theory of history that says that if the Archduke Ferdinand had not gone to Sarajevo that day, the war would not have happened. The theory that if Halifax hadn't gone to the dentist, Churchill would not have become prime minister and we would have lost the war."

Which brings us back to Twitter where interestingly two of its most recent members are
presidential candidates updating us on their day to day lives. Could it be then, that Twitter is a kind of folk history tool? A record and map of butterfly flutters? Maybe in years to come we will look back to these updates as a resource to explain the possible random roots of a major event. Who knows what a seemingly innocuous trip to the dentist by one of these candidates may trigger in the following months?

With the rise of ‘folk culture,’ inevitably comes the rise of folk history – the notion that we are all somehow, without realising it, responsible for and part of major events. We are, after all, separated from each other by only
six other people. We have never lived in a time when we are so connected to each other. Even our smallest actions then, may well have knock on consequences that we can never fully know or appreciate. We are all butterflies in a chaotic world. Who knows which tiny flutters really trigger major events? Indeed, one of the first questions we tend to ask when it comes to recent history is what were you doing? and where were you when… For some reason we have an urge to locate ourselves, to weave ourselves into some incomprehensible web around events in the recent past. This overwhelming belief that we are all somehow connected in a chaotic web, is something currently being explored in other areas of popular culture; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s recent thriller Babel and Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash are both stories in which major events are triggered by little flutters, amplified by the chaotic and complex web of human actions. Literature has of course also long explored a similar notion: one way to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to see the failure of Friar John to inform Juliet of her lover’s plan as the cause of the tragedy. The actions of Verona’s health officials lead to the tragic death of a pair of young lovers.

Twitter could then perhaps just as easily be called Flutter because it is in some respects a response to a chaotic, folk view of history; an attempt to somehow weave this web of human chaos that we all feel inextricably part of. It is after all, an application built on the very question “what are you doing?” It taps into this notion that somehow we are all part of the same complex human web and as such it comes as no surprise that not long after it began, Twitter updates began to include those from the
BBC and other major news broadcasters as well. As a result applications like Twittervision now map major events alongside mundane ones; butterfly flutters mapped alongside turbulent storms.

1 comment:

Will said...

I like the notion of there being some form of folksiness to twitter.

In the past, I've ascribed it to being the mental equivalent of comfort food - if you need to vent, tell the world something, you can, and it's great for just experiencing the ebb and flow of people around you - that is, you are always part of a community.

I like the blog a lot - hope all's well with you.