Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Twitter: 140 Characters is Just Enough Rope
There's no law in the U.S. against making an ass of yourself. Yet. But there are always consequences (and please don't take the noose image literally, okay?).
Gilbert Gottfried aka the voice of the AFLAC duck is the latest celebrity to go down because he crossed the invisible, ever-shifting boundaries of cultural sensibility on Twitter. Maybe some of his less compassionate Twitter followers were ready for a few bon mots on Japan and tsunamis, but his paymasters at AFLAC, who do a great deal of business in Japan, were not. You would think a guy would give a thought to where his pay is coming from, wouldn't you? Perhaps Gottfried was just tired of having kids and drunks begging him to do that duck thing every time he stepped out of the house to grab a burger, and the Japan tweets were part of his wicked-clever exit strategy. I think he was just doing what comics do. Every culture has its clowns, and their job is to either momentarily re-direct our gaze from the grim horrors of reality, or to hold a mirror up to us so we can see how foolish we are. But timing really is everything, isn't it? And sometimes never is the best timing.
The market's ability to deliver truly egalitarian judgments is one of the beauties of capitalism combined with free speech. There's no need for pesky government legislation to punish breaches of taste and cultural correctness. That's the good news. The bad news is that public forums are not just minefields for celebrities, but for any one of us poor slobs who opens his or her mouth.
Posting on Twitter is like standing up in the middle of a jam-packed cocktail party and screaming to get people's attention. You must scream to be heard. And isn't being heard what Twitter (and Facebook, MySpace, Tumblr, etc) is all about? No one joins Twitter to keep up with family and friends. Facebook is good for that--like a 24/7 high school reunion where it becomes clear to you over and over and over again that the people you knew in high school are completely irrelevant in your current life. Twitter is different. It's a vast microcosm (yes, I mean to say that) of millions of people projecting the idea of Who They Want You To Think They Are.
In the past, I've highly recommended the book Hamlet's Blackberry for understanding human and Internet connectedness. When I was thinking about Plato's Allegory of the Cave for this piece, I went back to it to see if William Powers had mentioned it, but he didn't. I think it's very relevant when we think about what we're doing when we put ourselves out there in Online Culture Land.
Basically, we're casting shadows of ourselves for people to see. That's all they can see. They never see the real us. We do this in most aspects of our lives, but it's never more obvious than in places like Twitter.
It's important to note that most people probably do not lie about themselves when they get on Twitter. The information they share is simply selective. They self-edit just like they do when they meet people in person. Unless they're very like one particular person I'm related to and love very much, they're not likely to share intimate details of their or their children's lives with relative strangers. They share bits of their day, stories they like on the Internet, observations about human nature, pop culture, thoughts on books they've read, their winsome child's latest witticism. They poke fun at themselves when they do something silly. (Wait, I think I'm describing myself.) The point is that everything they're projecting is actually a reflection of themselves.
But as much as I like to get to know people, I honestly don't need to know too much. I don't want to know if you think your wife is a bitch. I don't want to know the state of your bowels or your moldy carpet or your priapism. Really, thanks. My guess is that you don't really want to know that my biggest personal concern right now is the grisly, irritatingly visceral onset of perimenopause. I thought not. (So I'll save it for a book. Maybe. That audience is more self-selecting.) Self-editing serves an important social function. It helps people maintain critical personal boundaries.
Some tweet for purely professional reasons. These folks keep the focus on their work presence and their industry. It's about them, but it's primarily about what they're selling. They're all about the platform and the brand. People are brand mad.
It used to be that there were a very few p.r. and advertising professionals who understood branding and could make it happen. Old Hollywood was all about the brand. Their stars were rarely allowed off of the studio lots without full makeup and adoring fans in tow. Their sexuality was always hetero and their nails were always clean. Or at least photographers were kept away when the star wasn't camera-ready. Legends were created that way. Someone was in charge.
Now, we're all p.r. agents. Our 140 character tweets must be witty or vaguely, cleverly, acceptably offensive. They must offer value if they are to be retweeted and repeated and judged to have value. You can smell the desperation when someone hasn't been retweeted in a while. Sometimes they'll disappear temporarily, or they'll start poking celebrities to get their attention. See me! Hear me! Know I Exist! I am the product! I am my own art!
All this is particularly true of writers and writer-hopefuls. It used to be that fans could just write to writers through their publishers. Writers were mysterious. Writers were cool and rare. Writers were special. Writers spoke through their books, magazine articles, and, for the very famous, their interviews. It was their publisher's job to sell the books. Oh, they might show up at a bookstore or two, or have a big launch party if they were in NYC. But writers didn't say much.
Now, you can't shut them (us) up. They're everywhere on Twitter, Facebook, et al. And most of them (like me) really don't have the vaguest idea of how to sell what we have to sell because we're trying to sell ourselves and our work at the same time. It's hard for us to know where one ends and the other begins. And most of us do it without benefit of professional makeup artists or copywriters. We are dangerous, but mostly to ourselves.
I'm going to stop writing about writers here because I'm sure to get myself into trouble. If I start breaking down Writer/Tweeters into the categories in which I often think of them, such as Bestselling Writer Who Is A Jerk In Real Life But Fakes It Really Well, Bestselling Writer Who's Too Needy, Mid-List Writer Who Pushes the Self-Effacing Envelope Way Too Hard, Agent Who Really Should Be Out Selling His/Her Clients' Books Instead of Tweeting About His Lunch, I will get people thinking about who I might mean and thus hurt people's feelings.
Writers, like everyone else, have tender egos. And nowhere is it more evident that we are all--writers, actors, comedians, pundits, parents, teachers, exotic dancers, film reviewers, auto mechanics, nurses, et al--egocentric creatures. That's how we're made.
If you are a frequent tweeter, I'd love to know why you do it. Entertainment? Instant gratification? Curiosity about your fellow travelers? Because your profession seems to demand it?
Why do we put ourselves out there if our livelihoods don't depend on it? We're social creatures, yes. But we're in uncharted territory here. Suddenly, we are all living in an 18th century salon or a cocktail party from hell. It's risky, and not for the faint of heart. Not only are we all called upon to act like p.r. people--we're all performance artists.
There has been one interesting development in the celebrity department of the brave new world of self-revelation. As our personal exposure has become more obligingly intimate, celebrities--particularly actors and musicians--have been forced to take it to the next level. Reality shows aren't real enough anymore. Plus, they're scripted, anyway. We demand to see their lives played out in micro-bits, and they seem to oblige. Some are more dignified than others, and keep their tweet-lives professional yet charmingly revealing at the same time (@SteveMartinToGo) comes to mind. Others, yuck.
One of the things that got me thinking about Twitter and personal exposure in general was Bret Easton Ellis's The Daily Beast piece on Charlie Sheen. (Read the piece. Ellis makes a coherent argument for what he's saying. Plus, you'll want to know what the whole Empire and post-Empire thing is about.) Here's a standout quote: "What Sheen has exemplified and has clarified is the moment in the culture when not caring what the public thinks about you or your personal life is what matters most—and what makes the public love you even more."
Really? Is this what matters most?
But any objection I have to Ellis's deification of Charlie Sheen, the guy with "the supposed propensity for violence against women," is beside the point. What matters to me here is the idea that the hordes who are fascinated with the ostensible uber-reality of someone like Sheen might actually believe they're seeing something real. Ellis writes, "Do we really want manners? Civility? Empire courtesy? Hell, no. We want reality, no matter how crazy. And this is what drives the Empire to distraction: Sheen doesn’t care what you think of him anymore, and he scoffs at the idea of PR. “Hey, suits, I don’t give a shit.” That’s his only commandment."
I call bullshit on that. Sheen has simply created a new vision of himself for us all to gulp down with our popcorn. Maybe he's convinced himself that the self he's revealing is the real Charlie Sheen. Maybe that's the beauty of it. His self-editing has fooled even our cultural elite into thinking he's the real thing. If so, he's brilliant and lives on a level that damned few (it can only be hoped) of us will ever achieve with our own paltry efforts.
Consequences can be unpredictable. Go figure.