Twitter and the End of Historiography

by by Charles Pletcher

On April 14, 2010, the Library of Congress announced on their blog that they would be archiving “every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006.” In the FAQ posted on April 28, they write, “Twitter is part of the historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends—all of which complement the Library’s existing cultural heritage collections.” Twitter, according to this FAQ, is part of our history. This decision preserves ephemeral “Sitting on the porch” tweets of Twitter virgins alomg with tweets breaking news of natural disasters. Twitter’s indiscriminate history undermines all previous conceptions of narrative. The mix of personal and global histories presents raw, unmediated presence where nothing is supposed to exist, privileging virtual reflections of ourselves over our flesh, blood, and ink. In this paradigm, our history is no longer story, but status.

Twitter Wants to be a Mirror

The observation that Twitter is a channel for modernity’s narcissism is so obvious that it borders on inane. Social media in general act as beautifying mirrors for the self: Twitter with status updates and Facebook with carefully culled photo albums and friend groups. I won’t bother to address social media’s narcissism. I want to talk about why such narcissism is dangerous. I don’t necessarily want to understand how Twitter works, but I hope to clarify what makes Twitter so hard to understand, namely its appropriation of our personal narratives. Twitter is not simply a tool for texting a large number of “followers.” Twitter runs on our mundanities, depriving us the ability to weave our details into personal narratives. Twitter doesn’t simply narrate for us; it brings narrative alarmingly close to history.

For the purposes of the following paragraphs, let “history” mean any narrative based on actual events. Twitter seems to be changing how individuals see themselves, the importance they ascribe to their opinions, and how they understand a community. Twitter erodes a person’s sense of self and presents him or her with a “timeline” (Twitter’s word) of who he or she has been. The timeline grows estranged from its author as it becomes entangled in the Twitterverse, until a person’s tweets present an overly flattering reflection which replaces an element of that person’s character. That is, Twitter influences how we see ourselves. Its self-aggrandizement allows people not only to manufacture but also to preserve (and preservation is the departure from normalcy) images of themselves that have no basis in reality. Twitter encourages this flattery through the mere publicity of tweets. By giving one’s thoughts, activities, and inclinations a readymade audience—and by making the growth of that audience the user’s only goal—Twitter disrupts not only one’s sense of self but also one’s sense of community. Twitter followers become something to cultivate for amusement.

This characterization doesn’t ignore the prevalence of self-parody on Twitter. When @liberalartsgirl tweets something like, “Whatever, I’m just gonna go to law school.  #liberalartsgirl (6:51 PM Aug 9th via web),” she makes no effort to hide the self-deprecation that signals parody. At the same time, the cycle of entertainment for entertainment snags the account’s tweets and turns them into the audience-grab that permeates Twitter. Perhaps unwittingly, tweets from the accounts of celebrities like Kanye West do the same thing: “Hotel bathrobe got me feeling like a king! (1:58 PM Sep 22nd via web).” Twitter’s propensity for caricature is not a benign side-effect of its users’ goal of building large audiences. Thanks to the Twitter platform, all tweets, even those oriented entirely towards the audience, refer back to their authors; and bearing in mind Twitter’s use of “@,” one might even say that all tweets refer “at” their authors.

Twitter Wants Permanent Transience Everywhere

I have a Twitter account because my job requires it: eleven Twitter accounts follow mine. Fragments of autobiography should not constitute history. “Trending topics” assume their ephemeralness, but recording tweets and treating them as historical artifacts suggests a purpose other than in-the-moment commentary. The ease of self-preservation offered by Twitter appeals to more than just Twitter’s users. Twitter’s massive user-base of ephemera-producing “tweeps” ensures that even non-users feel the need to preserve their actions more visibly and permanently than ragged memory allows. This impulse causes the erosion of privacy (on and off Twitter) at the core of Twitter’s threat to history.

Built for the mobile masses, Twitter doesn’t present much in the way of flashy technology nor does it offer its best experience through a web browser. Rather, Twitter still works most elegantly through a simple text exchange with 40404. No fancy web pages, no filters—just follow/unfollow, tweet, and be merry. Twitter asks for unmediated status, so its users give it to them. Unwittingly, its users give up their personal histories. Twitter encourages the impulse to tweet constantly by making tweets feel similar to text messages, only intended for a larger audience. Twitter has fewer class preferences than its technological kin: ostensibly, one only needs an internet connection for initial account setup, after which Twitter functions perfectly well thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones.

Twitter’s omnipresence permits us to forget our own stories. Twitter resolves the inconvenience of having to remember what we had for breakfast last Wednesday; Twitter even takes on the responsibility of letting us know the last time we were on Twitter—tweet about it, and Twitter records it for all posterity (truly, thanks to the LoC).

Tweets are based on events, and as such Twitter ought to exist solely in the present. Tweeted observations ought to epitomize pith and transience—some of them do. For example, “The devil is beating his wife (10:33 PM Sep 19th via Twitter for iPhone (anonymous user)).” This tweet has no context. It is nonsense outside of its moment, but Twitter has preserved it publicly as a minute exemplum of September 19, 2010. Even among the tens of thousands of tweets sent at the same moment, what could this tweet mean?

Twitter Wants Good Stories

Twitter revels in disjointed and incoherent communities. Each Twitter community revolves around a definite center, the user. Oddly, communities don’t connect when they respond to each other, because such responses often take the form of small conversations. Rather, Twitter communities arrives from disparities. A community based on difference, though, does not mean a bad community. Twitter missteps by using these differences as tokens of individuality: each group of followers spins around a single tweep.

A friend (154 following, 192 followers) recently tweeted, “why do people keep adding me on Twitter? & does this involve an obligation to be interesting now?” (1:09 AM Sep 19th via web). This tweet points to Twitter’s infamous black hole: self-reference. As mentioned above, all tweets point back to their users; tweets reflect rather than project. Twitter centers on the publication of ostensibly private thought; it confuses the personal and the universal, it obscures the individual and the community, and it inverts the quotidian and exceptional.

If we no longer need to remember the most mundane parts of our days thanks to 140-character snippets sent to cyberspace, we no longer have the gaps that provide space for personal narrative. Our personalities derive from what we come to believe about ourselves through what we have done, thought, or said—personality is an outward reflection of internal decisions. Twitter coaxes the internal out of us; it renders each of our narratives public and so external.

Externality is an ancillary concern, however. Twitter has fragmented our notion of community by advocating for its indiscriminate history. No narrative derives from tweets. They chronicle a history of selves without observers. Twitter asks us to remember only ourselves, and it aids in preserving our most fleeting thoughts. At the same time, Twitter solidifies the the self as an individual apart from a community—except insofar as that community serves his or her needs. Worse, Twitter accounts exist only as virtual selves within virtual communities—an account cannot be separated from its followers or it ceases to function as a Twitter account. Twitter numbs its users to its individuating communities, asking the users to forget their living selves for their virtual reflections. By easing our forgetfulness, Twitter hardens our isolation, and we forget how to tell a story.

Charles Pletcher B’11.5 is just gonna go to law school. #JKLOL