twitter and the class struggle

A couple of weeks ago, the media was full of stories about the glorious future Twitter represented. This week, to coincide with the establishment of the Overland Twitter feed (we’re like the kid who took up hula-hooping just as everyone else got a yo-yo), it’s been all backlash, all the time. Here’s a sample:

When I read about news anchor David Gregory of NBC plunging into the world of Twittering to tell us he is eating a bagel or ABC’s Terry Moran ripping off a Tweet as he boards a plane, geez—I wonder—who are these people on their hand-held devices or home computers glued to this cliff-hanging action?

How far are we from the minutiae of someone’s stomach virus, a lost button on a favorite pair of corduroys or, to steal loosely from the late John Updike, the announcement of a perfectly coiled bowel movement in the bowl after the morning’s first cup of Joe?

For the most part, I entirely agree. As I said a few days ago, the Twitter question ‘What are you doing?’ is the epitome of banality. In the real world, it’s a phrase only barely more meaningful than the ‘Have a nice day’ of the fast food attendant.

But the more interesting question then becomes something slightly different. The Daily Beast article asks who these people are, these wastrels fascinated by such mundane exchanges. Well, they’re the same people answering the latest Facebook quiz or circulating videos of koalas drinking water or idling browsing Youtube. Isn’t that the dirty little secret of the whole internet? The web has grown exponentially not just because it’s an astonishing technological marvel with almost unlimited potential but because it came at a time when a far greater proportion of the population than ever before works in white collar jobs, jobs that have been increasingly proletarianised.

Once upon a time, if you worked in an office, you could claim a certain respectability (at least when compared to your factory-hand neighbour). Now, though, most white collar jobs have all the characteristics of an assembly-line. The tasks are easily learned and tedious; there’s no craft skills to speak of; you exercise no control over your workplace; you know you can be easily replaced. Instead of swinging a hammer, you press a button — and that’s pretty much all that distinguishes your job from factory work.

Except there’s one other thing. You spend these hours of tedium in front of a computer, and that means you can seek opportunities to divert yourself in a way not possibility for earlier generations. In that way, the growth of the internet represents a very, very low level of workplace struggle, a resistance that dares not speak its name. You might not belong to a union or even especially identify yourself as unhappy at work — you just surreptitiously surf the web all day.

That, it seems to me, is part of the explanation for the success of these Web 2.0 applications. Yes, they’re inane but they’re not meant to be anything other than inane. They succeed because they recognise that what we want from the net most of the time is inanity. We’re not looking to download free e-books from Project Gutenberg, we want to email friends with pictures of kitlers, precisely because it feels like a way to steal a second or two to ourselves in the midst of the eight hours we spend hunched over someone else’s keyboard.

Which is not to diss the internet in its totality (what would that even mean?). In some respects, the faux sociality of these networking sites seems less damaging than the other historic driver of web technology, pornography (about which more some other time).

In any case, the point is not to wave our fingers disapprovingly but simply to suggest that there are material reasons why the almost magical technology of the internet is embraced for such drearily prosaic ends. If we want to change the internet, we need first to change our lives.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. I like your analysis, but I am a little wary of the anti-Facebook/Twitter hysteria. I mean clearly we’re all doomed, post-literate, getting dumber, our attention fragmented by the all-pervasive technology of interruption and distraction. And we do use it as a way to escape ourselves, to escape the reified conditions of our daily lives. But the thing is we also use it to connect to other people, and to congregate around communities of taste. The mass market has fragmented into a million million tiny shards of niche interest, but this is not a bad thing if you know how to work your niche. Also I think one of the reasons facebook is so successful is that you don’t actually have to have anything to say to keep in touch — you can send someone a stupid application request or give them a poke. Same with Twitter. It’s a way of sharing the banality of everyday life with other people, and frankly the banality of some lives is pretty damn interesting. Like any tool in the history of human interaction these technologies are going to be taken up and used in ways that were not imagined by their inventors. There’s an article in The Age today by Brigid Delaney who argues among other things that web 2.0 gives us the power to sculpt our identities, but this is hardly a new thing. We do that every day by choosing what we wear and what we reveal about ourselves to other people. What’s new is the unprecedented possibilities for interaction and the fact that so much of our lives is now lived in the public domain. I went to see Joe Trippi speak last night, and one of his arguments is that the internet age is the age of empowerment, and that old models of big, centralised organisations with top-down control are failing. The striking thing about the Obama campaign was how they were willing to cede control, and to use social networking technology to give their members the tools to organise. This, in the end, beat out Clinton, who used old money networks. I think I’m making about ten different points in this rambling post. My main point is: whatever you do with Twitter or Facebook or whatever new technology that comes along, don’t be boring.

  2. I actually think the ambient energy of twitter is powerful, interesting, and sometimes poetic – despite the banality of some parts of it. Are you just reacting to the pressure to use it as a work tool? That is, in a way, a different issue I think.

  3. Oh, I’m probably just in a bad mood.
    But, yes, I have been finding the experience a little underwhelming. It feels like junk food — superficially appealing, even addictive, but eventually making you feel sick and disgusted with yourself.

  4. In response to the idea that Web 2.0 inanity reflects the inanity of work:

    I freelance as a programmer, and I know of others that do too (quite a few in Melbourne, many more in Australia). All of us use twitter (which was what pushed me toward it in the end). Many of us fall under the definition of the ‘Creative Class’ (which is a bit of a misnomer in some respects – bigger issue). It means most of us get to work from home, in our own hours, projects usually struggle to replace us, and there is a strong notion of craft (it seems very artisan, in fact), etc..

    Twitter and other, pre web 2.0, forms of communication are used regularly. The signal to noise ratio is still quite low, unfortunately. But twitter can be used effectively to share URLs, news, etc., in a way which is effective with such short snippets of information. Though I’m not sure if the larger picture – the hyped information shared, the purely capitalistic projects, etc. – is any less ideological about Web 2.0 inanity. I’ve also seen NGOs use them to discuss quite interesting work.

    I think there’s a large revulsion factor in the hype these technologies attract along with their mindless adoption, but the tools can be used effectively with some consideration. Of course, sometimes it’s interesting to just not bother with a technology, even if it’s popular, if it can’t be used originally.

  5. Re. the pitch comment – I would say there is only a point to being on Twitter, if you think there’s a point to being on Twitter. (A twitter is a twitter is a twitter, as Gertrude Stein once said). If it just gives you the shits I suspect you may not live up to Stephen Fry’s excellent twitters (I think he’s one of the most followed twitterers in the world).

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