Saturday, March 19, 2011

Learned on Twitter: The Human Voice

Glossary (you'll need this before you read the post):
Twitter:  "social networking and microblogging service"
Tweet: A "facebook status" length comment. Most frequently a link to article or other online artifact.
Retweet: Someone who "forwards" someone's tweet through their own tweet.
Timeline: Where tweets appear in real time order of being "tweeted". Comparable to a newsfeed but very short tweets from only those you follow.
Following: Twitter allows you to choose who you follow and not necessarily who can follow you (facebook reversed). If you follow someone, their tweets will appear in your timeline.

I should tell you that I have a twitter account. However, I've been a long time friend and admirer both the committed luddites and those who seriously question the use of technology and social media. Wendell Berry is a personal hero of mine (mostly as a writer, but you can't get his writing without his thinking on such matters). Still, I've always had an affection for social media, even back in the poorly managed days of xanga. Perhaps I've even been sheepish about my quiet enthusiasm for it. I kept up facebook and blogged since 2005. My tech skills are low ( I can't use smart phones or play with computers) but I still enjoy the play involved in new tools.

But none of this is important. What is important, is that I have a twitter account. And things have changed.

What exactly? It didn't start right when I got it and was learning how to "follow" and come up with interesting "tweets" or how to connect twitter to facebook. It didn't start changing when Steve Lutz sat me down as a CCO staff seminar to explain a tweetdeck, hashtags, etc. [Though, as Steve pointed out to me, it could be said that he was responsible for influencing me to even get one in the first place]. And "the change" certainly had nothing to do with people's response to my own nonsense sayings.

It had a lot to do with poetry. And Egypt. And Libya.

Let me explain. On twitter, you can "follow" the tweets of not only individuals (who rarely say much of substance) but of organizations who link to articles, blogs, pictures, etc. As a writer, it was amazing to get reminders and access to online material I would never have found on my own but appeared in real time. I suddenly felt connected to Paris Review and Image Journal. I got poems everyday from Poetry Foundation. Makoto Fujimura links to other artist's work. I felt in the thick of things. I started recognizing contemporary writer's names from group tweets or, even better, retweets.

But Egypt really did it. Egypt changed everything.

I started following arcarvin. He was in Egypt when everything happened. I followed him because someone (NPR perhaps?) retweeted him and suggested I follow him. I did. Suddenly, my timeline of tweets was flooded with retweets that acarvin had found about Egypt. Or rather, it was filled with retweets from Egyptians and journalists in Egypt. It was better than watching the news. It was better than reading an article. Sure, the news is sketchy, a lot of it unconfirmed, un-contextualized. But it is in real voices. It is anything but filtered. The youth of Egypt were overthrowing the government and I was reading their words transfixed on twitter. Later, articles would come out through bbc and npr on events I had already heard were happening. I am still following Ghonim, one of the online organizers of the demonstrations that overthrew the government.

And now I read tweets from Libya. My heart breaks daily. I am pressed with constant reminders to pray for freedom and for peace to exist at the same time. I have not brought myself to see the uncut footage of the fighting. But I read the words of those within the country. They are immediate words. They are close voices. Their distance from me on twitter is the same as my distance to my friends on campus who tweet me about what we learned in dance class that day: a few blocks away. That connection does not come in an article. Do not hear me say that twitter will do away with the news. It does not. Rather, I've read more of npr, new york times, bbc, local news, etc since having twitter than ever before. The reports are necessary. So is the ability to connect to human voices and characters within the distance of articles, op ed pieces, updates.

The news moves on to Japan as well. Artists keep tweeting about their books. Paris Review keeps tweeting interviews and online content. I keep tweeting about what I learned in ballroom class. I wonder if I should stop following acarvin and Nicholas Kristof (from nyt) because they take up so much space on the tweet feed sometimes. But I can't. I can't stop hearing these small bursts of voice. I cannot ignore them.

The world is changing very quickly. And I want to watch the people who are changing it, in their own voices and words. Yes, the written word continues to change everything.

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