Twitter Totter

I sure hope Maureen Dowd’s optometrist didn’t read what she wrote at the end of her Tuesday newspaper column, “To Tweet or Not to Tweet”:

I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account. Is there anything you can say to change my mind?

My guess is that a honey-sweetened eye-flesh-eating episode would not bode well for the continuation of her syndicated column. Opening an account is worse than this? No. Dowd’s position is ridiculous, and this hypothetical alternative to opening an account would prove painful and unwise. Nothing against red ants; I’d take Twitter over Dowd’s daring stunt in the Kalahari any day of the week.

Of course, Dowd is laying bait for the twittersphere in her diatribe “interview” with Twitter creators Evan Williams and Biz Stone. The truth is, I’d have missed Dowd’s column altogether had it not been for Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG’s retort, “How the Other Half Writes: In Defense of Twitter,” an anti-Dowd rant that takes exception with a few points in the editorial, which Manaugh describes as “brain-dead.”

Manaugh basically identifies Twitter as a “note-taking technology” that can be put to many different uses. He might be right, but I don’t think of Twitter as a note-taking technology exactly. I mean, if that’s what it is, aren’t there better ones? Second, Manaugh answers at length Dowd’s comment about Twitter being designed “for bored celebrities and high-school girls,” as he goes on to reframe Twitter as a tool for everyday writing. Finally, he compares Twitter to private journals. With this line of argument, he downplays the social aspects of @directed tweets and says he has no use for or interest in them. If you glance the entry’s 70+ comments, you’ll see there has been a fair amount of objection to this third point, perhaps the most dubious of his positions in response to Dowd.

For me, the gem in Manaugh’s response was this:

You take short-form notes with it, limited to 140 characters. The clichéd analogy here has been with Japanese haiku, but perhaps we might even reference the Oulipo: in other words, Twitter means that you are writing, but you are writing within constraints.

I was well aware of the 140-character limit, even familiar with the analogy to a “less is more” aesthetics. But I hadn’t heard of Oulipo, a group of French writers, thinkers, and artists, including Raymond Queneau, who worked at deliberately constrained projects. Queneau’s Exercises in Style is perhaps the best-known example of a project produced according to this group’s constraint-bounded undertakings. Thus, the suggested tie between Oulipo and Twitter sparked a few ideas for me. I’ve been thinking off and on lately about the relationship between style and technology because I will be teaching a pair of classes in the fall concerned with their intersection. Where style and its close counterpart genre introduce explicit constraint-affordance capacities, they are, arguably, technological, and I find this to be especially conspicuous with a platform like Twitter, even if I have not used it all that much. Because it is conspicuous, it might be a good place to first address the style-technology relationship. I mean that Twitter and its 140-character limit is a good, simple case for grasping style-technology interdependence. I want to say more about this, but I am short on time for now. The style-technology relationship, however, is going to be on my mind over the next couple of months.

One last point about Manaugh’s answer to Dowd: I think they also stand as solid examples of the distinction Richard Lanham draws between strong and weak defenses. Dowd’s is a weak defense, it seems to me, in that she gets caught up in a moralistic binary: her anti-Twitter way is superior to any other that would use Twitter at all, much less take it seriously, engage with it productively, and so on. Manaugh, on the other hand, leverages a strong defense because he allows for an unfolding process through which its uses will determine its many different values (also values yet-to-be). Both are
worth holding onto for this reason, if not for the stuff on constraints.