Tuesday 08 December 2015

Twitter’s pantomime

Twitter’s pantomime Einstraus, CC licence https://www.flickr.com/photos/einstraus/5274129253

If Twitter asked when its golden age was, the audience would shout "it’s behind you". It’s now full of advertising, hate speech, self promotion and stupid people. It’s not open to developers creating innovation, but it is open to lazy journalists cobbling together reactions to any news story. Both ubiquitous and misunderstood, it’s probably dying.

I joined Twitter late in 2006, the year of its birth. You could Tweet by text as there were no mobile phone clients and little mobile Internet. You could tweet from the website, pretty much to no-one. So I tweeted my first - an embarrassingly direct answer to the question "What are you doing?" which used to precede the input box, and then nothing for at least six months. Almost exactly two years later, Twitter was alive with people and possibilities, with camaraderie and community, with news and not news. And, with pleasure and pantomime: Twitpanto.

 

Twitpanto was the first time live drama was attempted on social media, and it was exactly as it sounded: a traditional pantomime, performed entirely on Twitter. I had the idea one day, and it ran roughly a week later. What had made it possible was the growth of a loose community of early adopters (most in this instance based around Birmingham, but not all geographically linked) and the concept of the hashtag. The hashtag had made its way over from IRC and was working well as a group tool, although it had not yet been transitioned into formal adoption or solidified into tools. It was just a way of getting a unique search.

But, it worked. People followed the hashtag and the action, they joined in with good humour; it was rowdy and boisterous much like the live action panto. It was enjoyed so much so that it was repeated in 2009 and in 2010, with slight improvements in tech and evolution in casting and scripts.

Looking back at the first Twitpanto, which was organised haphazardly and quickly. It stands out for me that it had no commercial or charitable goal. It was purely for the enjoyment and to see if it was possible, and more than that it was able to break across social groupings and filters. A nib in the Birmingham Post the following day reminds me of the cast: some people whom I was friends with mainly online and had never met; some people I had worked with; some journalists, and a cabinet minister. The cabinet minister was Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich near Birmingham, a ferocious advocate of digital technology’s place in the real centre of social discourse - but this was no demonstration piece, this was for laughs. This era, is sadly over. Could the now deputy leader of the Labour Party play Barron Tweetup today?

 

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It’s possible that the Labour party provides the stage set for a huge performance of Twitter’s own pantomime: with the script set, the goodies and baddies playing up to the audience, and the booing as proscribed as anything we’ve ever seen in a theatre.

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Pantomime has always been the most alive and open to interaction form of mainstream entertainment. Its porous nature made it ideal for social media. Twitter was the most ‘live’ (unfiltered, synchronous, time-based, open) of the burgeoning social platforms. It passed Chris Goode’s Cat Test:

The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’.

Twitter is still ‘live’ in this sense, but any one social grouping or hegemony is not. It doesn’t often see live cats anymore: the playful spontaneous memetic events that would see people across the country join in with panel game-equse puns on news events and music.

It reacts - and journalists catalogue - spontaneous events, but most often the reactions are predictable and within existing patterns of behaviour. A spontaneous event is now more likely to come directly from a news source and change the flow of conversation. This is more like Lynton Crosby’s Dead Cat strategy, here explained by Boris Johnson:

"Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief."

For each and every discussion on Twitter, there’s someone about to lob a dead cat onto the table — and if this were still 2008 we’d be all slapping each other’s backs about calling this the Dead Lolcat theory: "oh I can has simpler times?".

One of the main reasons for this is that the expansion in use of social media has made overarching community an impossible concept, but perhaps it has more to do with the way that ideas with a platform still set the agenda - they have to, for anything to gain traction. Politics, as we’ve seen in the last months, is where some of the most polarised behaviour occurs on Twitter.

This is inevitable, perhaps: we have a polarisation in politics unseen for many years and social media is lifting the curtain, not on to the fun of the stage - a stage with a democratically porous fourth wall - but on the existing sausage machine, to horribly mix a few metaphors. Politicians are - and some, justifiably - taken aback by the reactions they generate online. Abuse is wrong, threats are criminal, but weight of pressure and numbers of messages, no matter how overwhelming, is the result of a new tool. This is not ‘trolling’, this is democracy: and to dismiss disagreeing voices is a form of power. The same behaviours can be seen in online discourse around and to the media commentariat.

The commentariat are different sorts of people to you. They don’t have the same experiences: they can’t. If you have a verified Twitter account, then the interface is even different. You have a ‘verified replies’ view, a velvet-roped area inside which nothing too awful can happen. Consciously or unconsciously they bound together, telling each other to not look ‘at the bottom half of the internet’. It’s a separate world, one another Midlander, b3ta’s Rob Manuel shows up to be part of a class struggle: “The issue of class is built into the language and the structure of the web page”.

One of the methods of creating distance is the calling out of ‘trolling’, the dressing of groups as "Dear people with faces like eggs on Twitter" (Labour MP for Yardley, Birmingham, Jess Phillips - never one to duck an argument, and with a nice pantomime-related line in that Huffington Post piece).  This othering could be compared to what Chomsky calls "a variety of measures to deprive democratic political structures of substantive content, while leaving them formally intact" (Necessary Illusions, 1989). You can @reply, but if you don’t play by ‘the rules’ you won’t be answered.

Nothing is a sadder sight than a new Twitter user trying and failing to get any interaction with the famous people they follow: faux-chummy equality and desperation begets rage. Tom Watson said in his speech at the last Labour conference: "You don’t just sign up to Twitter but carry on as you were. The very nature of what you are and how you relate to the world changes" - but the centre of dialogue has now shifted seemingly irretrievably. Those in the political and public eye do need to change, but often they’d rather not. The world has changed too, and they’ve been forced to change out of their panto costumes.

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There are physiologically different positions that those with a platform and those that feel they are denied one take up. As the curtain lifts today, it’s not to hiss the villain: it’s straight in with the rotten tomatoes.

We’ve never before really had a medium that is ‘media’ and ‘platform’ at the same time: so different hegemonies can coexist, but we see the old order struggling to assert: the establishment wanting to increase the distance from the stalls to the stage.  Studies of discourse within cultural analysis talk about the ”different ways of relating mass media with the notion of discourse” (Jacob Torfing in New Theories of Discourse, 1999 — thanks to Jon Hickman for the steer on this). For us, we have to include discourse about mass media and mass media as discourse - the position in any debate of those within the establishment of the mass media is no longer fixed, but challenged.

One of the joys of Twitpanto was how it overlapped on top of the flow of conversation: if you were only following one of the cast them you would only see their lines, would have to delve deeper into finding out what was going on. A serious public figure might change their avatar to a character from a fairy story, and start talking about cows, balls and glass slippers. The landscape has changed: this could not happen today.

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We exist not only in filter bubbles, but in ‘bounded groups’: different but overlapping social groupings which are highly fluid and can coalesce around ideas quickly. The establishment is no different, but they have more power.

I’ve done some codifying work on Twitterstorms, and for me the defining way of rating them is in their relation to the conventional media cycle. The conventional media now hold all the strings on social media, and England swings from issue to issue like Michel Foucault’s pendulum. Power and societal control are in a constant battle. Michael Chessum in the London Review of Books offers us a parallel from the news this week, on Hillary Benn’s speech on Syria: "For Benn, as for most other front bench Labour politicians over the past century, the Labour Party is part of the sensible establishment that runs the state."

Being of the ‘sensible establishment’ can be a state of mind as much as a position. "None of this is to say that Benn, Eagle or Alan Johnson are Tories in disguise", continues Chessum, and it’s true that there are many well meaning people within the ‘sensible establishment’ — the commentariat too are part of their own version — but they don’t want to overthrow everything. Orwell’s summation of the work of Charles Dickens was that he didn’t want systemic change, that despite the image as a champion of the downtrodden he didn’t wish for revolution - everything would be better, Dickens thought, if people were nicer. Dickens "was not a revolutionary writer" - and the well meaning, left-leaning commentariat are not revolutionary Twitterers.

The ‘power of social media’ to unite, define or ridicule, is commodified. Hashtag, or change your profile picture, for solidarity or protest: but only in the mediated way allowed by the mass media collation. Dissent is not welcome. You will be written about witheringly from a platform.

The establishment hegemony is now more or less in control; the angry revolutionaries are left playing the back end of the cow. But, by God, can the back end of a cow create some gas, and pull focus.

Is Twitter over? As a way of causing change through dialogue, "oh yes it is", but just maybe…

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Jon Bounds

Jon is a flâneur of words and the Internet who created, wrote and directed (mainly by Direct Message) the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter. He currently edits Paradise Circus: A Birmingham Miscellany.

www.paradisecircus.com

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