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Two aphorisms and a few notes

June 19, 2008

Aphorism #1: To a man with a blog, everything looks like fodder.

Geert Lovink ends his 2006 essay Blogging, the nihilist impulse with this remarkable paragraph:

Can we talk of a "fear of media freedom"? It is too easy to say that there is freedom of speech and that blogs materialize this right. The aim of radical freedom, one could argue, is to create autonomy and overcome the dominance of media corporations and state control and to no longer be bothered by "their" channels. Most blogs show an opposite tendency. The obsession with news factoids borders [on] the extreme. Instead of selective appropriation, there is over-identification and straight out addiction, in particular to the speed of real-time reporting. Like Erich Fromm (author of Fear of Freedom), we could read this as "a psychological problem" because existing information is simply reproduced and in a public act of internalization. Lists of books that still have to be read, a common feature on blogs, lead in the same direction. According to Fromm, freedom has put us in an unbearable isolation. We thus feel anxious and powerless. Either we escape into new dependencies or realize a positive freedom that is based upon "the uniqueness and individuality of man". "The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own." The freedom from traditional media monopolies leads to new bondages, in this case to the blog paradigm, where there is little emphasis on positive freedom, on what to [do] with the overwhelming functionality and the void of the empty, white entry window. We do not hear enough about the tension between the individual self and the "community", "swarms", and "mobs" that are supposed to be part of the online environment. What we instead see happening on the software side are daily improvements of ever more sophisticated (quantitive) measuring and manipulation tools (in terms of inbound linking, traffic, climbing higher on the Google ladder, etc.). Isn't the document that stands out the one that is not embedded in existing contexts? Doesn't the truthness lie in the unlinkable?

From this perspective, the blogosphere, and indeed the entire link-denominated Web, is not a machine for exposing the truth but rather one for hiding it. For Google, and for its users, the unlinkable does not just lack value; it doesn't exist. The overriding goal, for bloggers and other purveyors of online content, is the creation of the linkable, the link-worthy: that which will immediately attract approval or disapproval, that which is easily assimilated. Bloggers break the mass media bauble, then spend all day in the nursery playing with the shards. Lovink guotes Baudrillard: "If there was in the past an upward transcendence, there is today a downward one. This is, in a sense, the second Fall of Man Heidegger speaks of: the fall into banality, but this time without any possible redemption."

A rephrasing: Does truth begin where the long tail ends?

Twitter is often referred to as a "micro-blogging platform," but twittering seems more like antiblogging, or at least an escape - retreat? - from blogging. Blogging is the soapbox in the park, the shout in the street; Twitter is the whispering of a clique. You can easily see why it's compelling, but you can just as easily see its essential creepiness. (At least it's up-front about its creepiness, using the term "follower" in place of the popular euphemism "friend.")

Aphorism #2: To a man with a Twitter account, every action is a pretext.

What are you doing? is the question Twitter asks you to answer. But in the world of Twitter, there can be only one honest answer: I am twittering. Any other answer is a fib, a fabrication - a production.

As with other media of the self, Twitter makes the act subservient to its expression. It turns us into observers of our own lives, and not in the traditional sense of self-consciousness (watching with the inner eye) but in the mass media sense (watching with the eye of the producer). As the Observer Effect tells us, the act of observing the act changes the act. So how does Twitter warp the lives of twitterers? If truth lies in the unlinkable, does life lie in the untweetable?

Yet if Nietzsche's typewriter pushed him further into the aphoristic mode and set the stage for some of his greatest works, might not Twitter be an empty cage awaiting its resident genius? It's worth remembering, in any case, one of Nietzsche's aphorisms: "Talking about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself." That's a tweet worth twittering.


A really nice bit of brain-food. I'm surprised you didn't mention the obvious paradox of truth not existing in blog form on a popular blog. I think truth is a bit of a red herring anyway. The crux of the matter, perhaps, is that in blogging (and twittering) we crave the pleasing of our audience. A little audience-pleasing in small doses is no bad thing, but we know where that leads. The problems I perceive in modern journalism are rooted in that tendency towards the lowest common denominator of popularity. Blogging may have temporarily freed us from it, but the inexorable grip of banality is reasserting itself for the same reasons online as offline. At least this time we can be the authors of our own destruction rather than needing highly-trained journalists to do it for us. Changing tack slightly, whenever I've started using a new social technology, like Facebook, FriendFeed or twitter (which I just joined a couple of days ago), I regard it as an interesting experiment. I find myself thinking in the third person looking back on what I'm writing. At first, it is not like I myself am participating, but acting out a role. What is particularly disturbing is the point where I become comfortable with this state of affairs.

Posted by: David Evans [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 04:09 AM

Great comment David!
Nick, so one can indeed be the blogger, twitter’er and the transcendentalist! I always thought that unless one can think about thinking and ultimately think with the heart its all for naught.
It so often happens in debates that sides are formed and woe-betide those who might sit on the wrong side of the line. The wont to force technology into the evil corner, or the opposite, makes that self same line a false starting point of many a long thread that ultimately leads astray.
As much as we are freed by technology it binds us to a culture that ultimately splits apart matter and the spirit!

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 09:40 AM

Posted by: Thomas [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 12:33 PM

Hi Nick,

It was good to hear you speak and to talk to you at the Xconomy forum. Very enlightening.

Anyway, on the subject of Twitter and followers. I was explaining it to my wife and she said it was really creepy and sounded like a cult. ;-)

When I told told twitterings were called tweets, she just about died. Really, when you think about it, it's just kind of silly.


Posted by: LewisC [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 12, 2008 04:19 PM

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