Is It Possible to Tell a Life Story Using Twitter?

                                twitter-bird-white-on-blue                              =

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I would like to begin by saying that I am an English teacher, and so I am by nature curious about what people write and the difference between intention and execution. I should state here that I am a teacher who is not English, but who teaches the subject of English. And by English, the subject English, I wish to emphasize that I teach American literature, composition, and what might be termed American Studies with a tendency toward Cultural Studies methods, and, what comes next is crucial to my argument, and, I teach these subjects using the spoken and written language called North American (American) English. There, does that make sense? Wait, did I clarify that I don’t believe in public executions, but rather, I believe in properly executing good writing?

As readers might be able to guess, I am making an argument about the slipperiness and comedy of language and how it is easy to push away clarity, even when clarity is the very thing the writer seeks. Twitter, a social media platform that is thrillingly interesting and easy to follow, is also crushingly poor at trying to tell a full, robust, clear story.

For example, what if someone wanted to tell their life story using twitter? What would it look like?

For the 41 year old professional cyclist Chris Horner, the American rider who just won the 2013 Tour of Spain (Vuelta a España), your life and career might look like this (if, that is, you want a new contract and don’t yet have one, and if, that is, you are not a little bitter about the capricious nature of pro cycling finances and sponsor goals, and if, that is, you have created a preening, solipsistic hashtag of #ididthat):

Chris Horner’s tweets:

9.37pm Pacific Daylight Time: 15 years old and up @ 4:30am before school starts to train while dreaming of winning a grand tour. I did that!

9.44pm PDT Riding your bike to work so that you can train for hours in the dark after works done. I did that!

9.53pm PDT Hitching a ride across the country for months w/no money (almost I had 400+-) to race. I did that!

9.58pm PDT Sleeping in hotels,host family houses,cars,and park benches to get to the races. I did that!

10.02pm PDT Pro teams won’t give you chance, so you buy your own license and race as an independent. I did that!

10.09pm PDT Race pro for years w/out pay just hoping to make enough winnings to pay rent. I did that!

10.17pm PDT Win everything in the US, pass on the big pay check, go to Europe for minimum pay. #ididthat!

10.27pm PDT Live in Europe in a small apartment W/no car,computer,phone,TV, only a walk for company. #ididthat!

10.28pm PDT Oops. Only a Walkman for company. #ididthat!

10.33pm PDT Take a step back hoping to go forward again. #ididthat!

10.39pm PDT Winning again but told I’m to old to go back to Europe a second time but keep fighting anyways. #ididthat!

10.45pm PDT Sell everything I own for a second chance at a grand tour, fly over with a 140bucks in my pocket. #ididthat!

10.54pm PDT Start going up the ladder with each year passing while never getting that leader respect and belief. #ididthat!

11.00pm PDT Up @6am w/3kids so I can drop them off @school before I go train all day for the Grand tours. #ididthat!

11.03pm PDT Finding that belief, given the leadership, delivering on it. #ididthat!

11.13pm PDT Moving up the ladder w/that continued belief, big sponsors on board now. #ididthat!

11.18pm PDT Whole season disappearing fast but still working hard to make it to those grand tours. #ididthat!

11.21pm PDT Amazing help and belief from all my family, friends, and fans to get back there. #ididthat!

11.32pm PDT Works paid off, forms back, but by now some have lost belief. #ididthat!

11.40pm PDT So much stress & work 4another start at a dream that began many years ago. #ididthat!

11.43pm PDT A life time of work and a stage/jersey arrive and disappear over night. #ididthat!

11.51pm PDT 100% is given and second time it happens, only to pass just as fast but belief is returning. #ididthat!

12.04am PDT The jersey returned only this time for life, the stories to tell before & during it are epic & life time. #ididthat

12.08am PDT Yes it was worth it and yes the dream continues… With or without the belief. #ididthat!

What Chris Horner Should Have Said If He Was a Preening, Solipsistic Academic:

9.37pm Pacific Daylight Time: 15 years old and up @ 4:30am before school starts to read the Iliad and Odyssey. I did that!

9.44pm PDT Writing about the intersection btwn arduous sporting events & Homer’s tales links me 2 Fr critic Roland Barthes. See Mythologies. I did that!

9.53pm PDT Hitching a ride across country to see Derrida speak at JHopkins in 1967. I did that!

9.58pm PDT Sleeping in hotels, host family houses, cars, and park benches to understand Kerouac’s OntheRoad. I did that!

10.02pm PDT Pro lecture circuit won’t give you chance, so, at 19, you create your own college curriculum and go it alone. I did that!

10.09pm PDT Study for years with no pay and no health insurance to become completely self-made (how American!). I did that!

10.17pm PDT Win every academic award in the US, pass on the big pay check to join Fox News, go to Europe to study phenomenology. #ididthat!

10.27pm PDT Live in Europe in a small apartment W/no car,computer,phone,TV, only a book for company. #ididthat!

10.28pm PDT Oops. I did have good health insurance for once! #ididthat!

10.33pm PDT Take a step back hoping to go forward again (thanks Heidegger). #ididthat!

10.39pm PDT Winning adjunct lecture position, again, but told I’m to old to go back to Europe a second time without grant funding. #ididthat!

10.45pm PDT Sell everything I own for chance to study with Chomsky, fly to MIT w/140bucks in my pocket. #ididthat!

10.54pm PDT Start going up the ladder and have to serve on every damn committee known to man (sic) Was adjuncting better? #ididthat!

11.00pm PDT Up @6am w/3kids so I can drop them off @school before I work…actually this is normal and not so interesting. #ididthat!

11.03pm PDT Finding that belief and leadership are hard to deliver. #ididthat!

11.13pm PDT Moving up the ladder, now sponsored by MS and Dell. Did I lose my moral compass? #ididthat!

11.18pm PDT Whole semester disappearing fast but still working hard to publish peer-reviewed articles. #ididthat!

11.21pm PDT Amazing help from graduate students who actually wrote most of my work. #ididthat!

11.32pm PDT Works paid off, but promotion forms sent back; did somebody lose their belief in me? #ididthat!

11.40pm PDT So much stress & work grading papers and writing grants 4another start at a dream of getting tenure. #ididthat!

11.43pm PDT A life time of work, promotion arrives and disappears over night. Notetoself: don’t date students. #ididthat!

11.51pm PDT 100% is given and second time it happens; notetoself: don’t date admin. #ididthat!

12.04am PDT The promotion returned only this time I’m the new Chairman of the dept!, the stories to tell before & during it are epic & life time. #ididthat

12.08am PDT Yes it was worth it and yes the dream continues… With or without the belief. What the hell did I just type? Who cares? (thanks Neitzsche) #ididthat!

Conclusion: The split between the signifier and signified is the undoing of consciousness.

Postscript: After some reflection and conversation with cooler heads, I  think that there is more correspondence between twitter and Horner than I first thought. For instance, notice that as Horner’s stature as a professional cyclist has increased since his Vuelta win (and arguably since his 9th place finish in the 2010 Tour de France), his media presence has increased, even if his interview responses may provoke raised eyebrows. I remember when he inelegantly questioned many pro riders and their strategies during both the 2004 and 2008 US Olympic team qualifying races. His language and riding techniques might have, or might not have, been aligned. But his name was not as powerful, and so this issue did not have the larger repercussions that Horner’s current contract negotiations have. The future of pro riders’, especially older riders (Horner was born in 1971) bargaining power is, at this very moment, under the microscope by many competing interests.

Twitter has a similar issue as it has offered itself as a publicly traded company. According to a report by Gerry Shih, writing for the Toronto Sun Times:

Since its inception, the 140-character messaging service’s simplicity and mobile-friendly nature – it can be used by any cellphone with a text-messaging function – has helped speed its global adoption as a source of real-time information. Unlike many social media services, it can be used anonymously.

The company’s laissez-faire approach to monitoring content, together with an aggressive posture in challenging government censorship requests and demands for customer information, have made it the darling of civil liberties advocates and political protesters from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

But now, as it prepares to become a public company with a valuation expected to exceed $10 billion US, Twitter must figure out how to make money outside the U.S. International customers make up more than 75% of Twitter users, but only 25% of sales come from overseas.

That means opening offices and employing people on the ground: there are now seven overseas offices and counting. And that, in turn, means complying with local laws – even when they conflict with the company’s oft-stated positioning as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

These conflicts, paradoxically, arise not so much in countries with repressive governments – the service is banned outright in China, for instance – but rather in countries with Western-style democracies, including Brazil, Germany, France, Britain and India.

Should readers raise their eyebrows upon learning that twitter is opening seven bricks-and-morter offices that will be staffed, I can only guess, by actual, living people? How should twitter communicate with governments, other contractors, and police? What modern-day philosopher does twitter invoke when talking about free speech?

Twitter now has an image and a business problem, even as it presses on, becoming bigger and more successful. And this is the case with Horner, too. He has become more successful, and his “brand” or his name has also increased in awareness and, possibly, he hopes, marketability. But Horner is without a contract for next season. The problem for both twitter and Horner is how to manage their brands. Should twitter tweet its privacy policy, or should it be told using, say, a few hundred thousand characters? Should Horner tell his story and promote his brand, perhaps drawing in the fans/readers sympathy using a few hundred characters, or should he look to other personalities who have needed to manage their brand. I can think of Charlie Sheen and Miley Cyrus as two more notorious examples. I hate to drag Lance into the fray, but he certainly managed his brand successfully for a long time before his marketing scheme fell apart. Of course, the word “successfully” can withstand some further critique.

These reflections lead me to believe that the rhetoric of daily life inextricably is bound up with distributing technology: twitter, blog, Youtube, text, poem, novel, phone call, etc. How we negotiate who we are and how we are always involved in the never-ending need to tell a story of who we are and who we want to be means different things in different media sources. Put another way, just as St. Augustine, Mary Rowlandson, and Ben Franklin sought out the Confession type of autobiography (handwritten!) to reinforce, consolidate, and reconfigure their identities, so too are twitter and Horner seeking out autobiographical writing (online (social) text) to reinforce, consolidate, and reconfigure their identities. They have made interesting choices for giving voice to who (or what) they were, they are, and want to become. And it us up to their readers, fans, users, and critics to make sense of their writing process. The obvious answer to my title question, is it possible to tell a life story using twitter, is yes, it is. But doing so has unforeseen costs.

And lastly (I promise), I have to say that the notion of Ben Franklin on twitter is glorious. Hmm…#iambenfranklin?

Cheers,

Prof. Scanlan