53 The medium is the twitter

Posted on January 27, 2012 by


Yesterday I was introduced to the Webinar – a seminar on the web.

At UC Berkeley I loved taking part in seminars. If the weather was fine, we might go out and sit on the freshly mown lawn. The occasional hummingbird would join, hover, and move on. Dogs drifted in distractedly, lay down – head between their front paws – and fall asleep. We met to discuss a swath of readings, the TA coordinating lightly the proceedings. There was time for a flirtive smile, or wondering about a waft of perfume.

Webinars are “top down affairs”. The speaker speaks – at best assisted by PPP – and then takes questions. In twitter format. That the space for writing the question was absurdly small (no more than two inches, which I shared with a smiley) may be due to poor design.

When the medium is the twitter one does not create a conversation. Theodore ZELDIN, Oxford don and great historian[1], has long wanted to reintroduce “conversation” into our times. He has started a world-wide movement[2]. In his small book on the topic[3] he defines conversation: “Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they just don’t exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” (pg. 14)

The twitter message is at the opposite end of this vision. It is a shout for attention from the crowd. It is so short, so lacking in reflection and nuances, most of the thought is “lost in translation”. It is an opportunity for the speaker to jump from topic to topic – and to dominate the thinking. Politicians’ press conferences are akin to webinars: words are flashed (sometimes by compliant journalists) and the politician rambles on.

We do this in the mistaken belief that we are more efficient. We are not. What ZELDIN calls “creating new cards” – is lost. The differential between the speaker and the participants, even more, the distance between participants is just too great.

Compressing a message to twitter size loses all the nuances. The best twitter is MUNCH’s: Scream – with a smiley added for disambiguation, so as                         to soften the strident impact of boiling down thought to slogan.

Socio-psychologists are alerting us to the fact that we are very subtle persuading machines;  soft (if not short) messages are persuasive. Slogans sway, but do not convince.

Now take a different approach. In China, the CCP gathers officials at “Party universities” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfaRdSswaUA&feature=player_embedded for what I’d call extended seminars. These are not Party Congresses, where the Party line is handed down.

Here the framework is relaxed, and conducive to conversations and subtly conducive to “harmony” – the CCP’s great objective. Participants are led to consider, and invited to take responsibility for, the “whole”. It begins with morning gymnastics: a way to take responsibility for the self as whole of body and spirit.

Far from me to believe that these people who attend Party Universities genuinely worry about “harmony” and “the good of the country”. This is a far better attitude to take, however, than  the “think local, and the whole will take care of itself” which underlies Western worldview. And short conversation to twitter.

[1]           His best book in my view is: An intimate history of humanity http://www.amazon.com/Intimate-History-Humanity-Theodore-Zeldin/dp/0060926910/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327657934&sr=8-1 but also his work on France is outstanding, moving from “kings and battles” to an analysis of social groups.

[2]           http://www.oxfordmuse.com/ I recommend spending a few moments to explore the site. I find it fascinating that Kigali hosts, next to London and New York, ZELDIN’s ideas.

[3]           Theodore ZELDIN (1998): Conversation. How talk can change a life. Harvill.

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