Helen Razer, a Melbourne writer and broadcaster has examined the internet as a communication tool for some times. In fact the first time I heard the term ‘blog’ was from her during one of her programs on 774 Melbourne a few years ago, and she has written this perceptive piece on Twitter. As it is not online I reproduce it here for your reading.
More virtual communication, less real interaction
19 August 2009
Apparently, emerging media are transforming the world for the better. Apparently, it is our obligation, not just our right, to communicate broadly on digital networks. The more we speak to an audience, it is held, the more things improve. Twitter is a device upheld as evidence of our progress. In recent weeks, no doubt, you’ve heard of the compact online tool. The application, which behaves very much like a digital whiteboard, came to the attention of the world during the contested Iranian election in June. Messages ostensibly from Tehran spoke out in protest against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Across the globe, compassionate hordes saluted the electronic message service as a valuable source of news. And it wasn’t just starry- eyed geeks hailing Twitter as a font of signal intelligence. An institution no less august than the US State Department requested that Twitter’s maintenance be delayed to allow Iranians to ”tweet”.
In the weeks following the tweeted elections many spoke of an emerging digital democracy. It was claimed that Iranian dissidents had successfully used the device to dodge military action and to convene against a government regarded by much of the West as despotic. This was the ”Twitter Revolution”. This, according to many web pundits, was positive proof that everyday citizens could transform the world in the blink of a cursor. Then, a few facts emerged to spoil the party. Just as citizens of the internet were congratulating themselves on a job for democracy well done, US publication Businessweek reported that less than 100 Twitter accounts were active in Iran in June. It seemed that some of the messages may not have been genuine. And those few legitimate tweets from Tehran were, in any case, drowned in the tidal wave of sympathy that crashed in
from the West. In short, all we learned was that a lot of Westerners thought of Ahmadinejad as the devil. If Twitter provided anything at all, it was a surrogate for Saddam. Seduced by the frenzy, I, along with millions of others, opened an account. It seemed that a refusal to tweet virtually signified the refusal to breathe. ”As a media professional, it is your duty to tweet,” I was told by a journalist over tapas. She began to explain how space, time and justice had been conquered by Twitter but was distracted by the bleeping of her iPhone. Given that no one has entire conversations anymore, I was determined to find out for myself how Twitter had shifted power to the people. I read and received tweets. Most of what I read was harmless but uninspired. Much of what I wrote was poorly spelled. I kept waiting for the signal intelligence to emerge. I learned a good deal about Delta Goodrem’s frock on Australian Idol, the dining habits of my friends and where I might purchase lewd T-shirts. I did not, however, experience a moment in which I felt like a keenly informed guardian of democracy.
Last week, one of the grander moments on Twitter was enacted by the partner of the company’s chief executive. It began on Monday. ”Dear Twitter, My water broke,” wrote Sara Williams. She then went on to time her contractions via an iPhone application. A few minutes later, she reported that her contractions had become painful. Then we were told about her location in the hospital. Then, she offered, ”Epidural, yes please.” This, incidentally, was not the final message before the infant geek’s arrival.
A few hours later, the proud new mother commented that her Twitter founder husband had changed the baby’s diaper. In a post-Twitter world, something has changed. I would not call this change ”revolution”. There are two noteworthy shifts to a world that documents itself endlessly. The first is the dwindling of what we once knew as news. Captivated by personal stories of birth, dining and Delta Goodrem’s frock, we have lost our foothold in a hierarchy of information. The little things with which we are assailed begin to mean as much, or more, than stories of civic importance. More significant, even, than the loss of news is the loss of intimacy. While a new life is cause for personal celebration, it is not, perhaps, matter for discussion by the 16,000 people who received Sara’s news. Nonetheless, the audience for Sara’s short and strange intimacy grows.
And so, our own intimate strangeness grows. In 2004, the American General Social Survey demonstrated that the personal networks once maintained by people have dwindled. One in four US citizens, it was reported, have no one with which to discuss important life issues. Twenty years ago, this was not the case.
Many Australian sociologists are of the view that our culture is behaving similarly. While we maintain strange intimacy with people half a world away, the intimacy in our real lives ebbs. Distracted by the bleeping of an iPhone or the sparkle of a frock, we shun real company in favour of the virtual. ”Speechless in so many ways,” Sara Williams wrote earlier this week of her experience as a new mother. As we tweet, text and update our Facebook status I wonder that we too, even while occupied in multi- media chatter, are becoming speechless.