Twitter and the Left

Malcolm Harris lives in New York where he is a freelance writer and a senior editor of The New Inquiry. We spoke to him about his Meanland essay in our latest issue, ‘Twitterland’.

What do you think makes a great tweet?  And who are some of your favourite tweeters?

I don’t think there’s any one formula. There are at least a dozen great ones. And more every day. Teju Cole has received deserved attention for his ‘small fates’ – 140-character, tragic true stories, mostly in Nigeria but sometimes in New York. @Benladen started the metastasizing #nodads hashtag, which I didn’t have time to cover in the piece but I would have liked to. Lately I’ve been obsessed with @DrTeens247. @rare_basement, @weedhitler, and @AdrienneMTK, just to name three, are each funnier than any working stand-up comedian I’ve heard. All these people use totally different formats, but they all work.

In your article you write about the untapped potential of twitter for those of us working and writing around progressive political issues. Could you talk a little about what that untapped potential may be?

The real opportunity, I think, is to learn new ways of talking and, even more importantly, coming into conflict. It’s a forge for new kinds of political subjects. But I don’t want to give away too much.

It seems to me that the Left traditionally looks at economic/political/social issues and opens up dialogue around them, or rather illustrates that they may be more complicated than they first appear. Tweets, on the other hand, are all about making things shorter, sharper, snappier, more simple and digestible. Do you see it as a challenge, therefore, for a left to use twitter well?

The ‘Left’ is never happier than when they’re explaining the way things really are. It’s a strikingly un-self-conscious interpretation of false consciousness. But pedantry isn’t attractive; you can be as correct or complex as you want on Twitter and no one will necessarily have to pretend to care. Lecturing doesn’t work – it’s an interactive medium. I’ll contest ‘digestible’ though – some tweets are like gristle that sticks in your mental teeth for days. So if it’s a challenge, it’s an important, productive one. But I guess I think about it more as a shift – we get to see who’s built for what’s coming and who’s not.

In your article, you write: ‘Users don’t collectively require evidence to create a rumour, just a plausible and compelling story. The best tweeters aren’t admired for their reporting skill but for their ability to speak from a world slightly different to reality.’ Are you arguing that we need to understand reporting and tweeting as two completely different beasts, which should be held to completely different ethical standards?

Held by whom? Who holds reporters or tweeters to ethical standards? Me? You? The Murdoch family? On Twitter, the real answer is Twitter itself, and I think we can and should critique their policies and practices (I mention banning @Anti_Racism_Dog in the piece).

But we shouldn’t pretend we even really believe there’s anything credible about writing for a newspaper or magazine. The best coverage of the Anaheim, CA police shootings and the popular responses were on Twitter, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people in the Orange County press corps who weren’t constantly refreshing @Killuminatii and @amberjamie99pct’s feeds. And if they weren’t, they should have been.

If Twitter is not expected to comply with any rules of journalistic integrity could that limit its potential as a media platform?

Journalists aren’t expected to comply with the rules of journalistic integrity. And I’m not even talking about the Jason Blairs or Judith Millers or Jonah Lehrers of the world – they’re just the exceptions that make us think the rules are in tact elsewhere. It’s not a few rotten apples, the whole concept is a big fucking joke. And everyone has known it for a long time. To belabour the point further would be an insult to the readers.

What are your thoughts on the new Chinese twitter/facebook platform, Sina Weibo and the capacity for twitter to break open the floodgates in countries with state controlled media and Internet?

That would be an overreach on my part. But I can say I watched Anonymous culture change from one dominated by racism and xenophobia to the home for the most earnest advocates of global solidarity. It’s a generational shift, but it also had a lot to do with the NATO bombing of Libya, and Twitter providing an alternative to the standard isolationism/interventionism dichotomy. People outside the country had access to Libyan voices who, it turns out, speak for themselves quite persuasively. I still don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of that event.

I don’t know if you’ve ever followed Noam Chomsky’s tweets (or whoever is tweeting on his behalf) but what I’ve noticed about them is that ‘he’ doesn’t seem to restrict his comments to the allocated 140 characters but rather writes a long sentence and just breaks it up across a few tweets. Do you think all writers and public intellectuals should now be expected to convey their thoughts in twitter capsules?

Yes, I do. That may not be popular, but I think there’s a responsibility to write for living, breathing readers. I can’t imagine forgoing that opportunity to reach people. If writers/scholars/journalists aren’t willing to learn, then they’re immediately ceding a lot of ground. That said, I’ve heard that novelists and poets often think of their responsibilities differently, and I don’t want to start a fight with poets.

For many writers and intellectuals, an important part of being creative is being able to tune out from the world, to disconnect and to contemplate. Is that still possible in a world of tweeting, 24-hour news cycles and constant media stimulation? How do you as a writer meet that challenge?

Sure it’s still possible; go live in the woods and write on bark with blackberry juice or something. It’s not an issue that I have personally, so I’m not particularly empathetic about it. That’s probably harsh. I write with 20–30 Chrome tabs going and music blaring in my headphones. Sometimes it feels more like channeling or translation than generative ‘art’ of any sort. I’m cool with that, but it does conflict with classic independent journalist/writer/scholar archetypes. If people are still attached to those, then I can see why they’d be resistant. But I think that’s a losing battle, and ultimately a distraction from more important challenges. Besides, the solitary writer has always been largely a mystification – every lefty journo wants to be George Orwell in Spain, but they usually forget his wife Eileen was there too.


Read ‘Twitterland’.

Bec Zajac

Bec Zajac is Overland’s publicity officer. She is also a Master of Journalism student at the University of Melbourne and a broadcaster at 3CR community radio. She has published in Overland, New Matilda, Brooklyn Rail and The Age.

More by Bec Zajac ›

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