a little twitter is a dangerous thing

Because I follow Rob Delaney on Twitter, I recently had to slog through this article, possibly not only linked on Boing Boing but actually published by Boing Boing, on “Twitter, Epigrams, and Alexander Pope“, in which the author proves that if you write an article where you mention both an 18th Century poet (erudition!) and a 21st Century comedian (relevance!), you will almost certainly get a lot of trackbacks online.

This, of course, got me thinking again, not only about JOHN DRYDEN and PATTON OSWALT, but also about the claim that Twitter had led to the rebirth of epigrams, those little humorous nuggets of wisdom that people like Alexander Pope produced by the truckload back in the 18th Century. Mr. Pensky gives us the example of a Pope epigram written on behalf of a dog, from the dog’s point of view, which ultimately reveals that we humans are all serving somebody too.

You can definitely use Twitter as an epigram distribution device; in place of epigrams written on dog collars, there are whole Twitter accounts written from the point of view of animals, beards, deceased fictional baseball players, characters in sleeping pill ads, “Stephen Colbert,” and limited edition commemorative flatware. That said, the funny thing about Pensky’s article is that he could have written the whole thing differently by substituting Ben Franklin for Alexander Pope. (I’m particularly aware of this because of one hilarious day when my friend Ted Parker, author of the excellent Twitter feed ISwearItsNotTed, went insane and posted stuff from Poor Richard’s Almanack all day.) Of the various people I follow on Twitter, at least as many use it as a means of disseminating wisdom and tips for self-improvement, as use it for sheer outrageous comedy. The only difference is that if Pensky had written the aphorisms version of his article, rather than the Rob Delaney version, he would have been published on ChopraSpace Online rather than Boing-Boing.

In fact, what I find most touching about Twitter is that you can see, in most of the people who tentatively use it, the author gingerly trying out one mode after another, depending on their mood, their inspiration, who else they are reading, and who they think is in their audience. You get the whole gamut: epigrams, aphorisms, sentimental appreciations, slander, confession, venting, coolhunting, information-sharing, spacey/stoney questions, wordplay, pop culture referencing, and trivia. Whereas Facebook seems increasingly to bring out the sheerest literalism in people, Twitter seems to create a kind of useful literary anxiety, a desire for genre and effect.

This has everything to do with the way Twitter is formatted. First of all, since there’s such a vicious limit on the number of characters you can use, Twitter is all about mystique. You have to create tweets that bristle with hints, allegations, and things left unsaid, because there simply aren’t enough words to go around. For example, I can read a tweet like Dan D’Addario’s “What if Anna Faris’s movies are exactly as funny as she is”, and of course I assume that he’s thinking of her because of What’s Your Number?, but I’m not sure, nor do I know exactly how funny he thinks Anna Faris actually is. The pleasure of those unknowns is part of the experience.

Second, because Twitter doesn’t require much of a “profile,” and doesn’t make any claims about who you are or are not friends with, you are what you write. You can’t just post pictures of yourself playing frisbee on the beach, tag them “awesome frisbee,” and be done with it. People maybe start tweeting because it feels casual, user-friendly, and instant, but they soon find themselves waist-deep in a perpetual act of self-creation.

Finally, the hash tag is, from a critical point of view, a pretty amazing invention. First of all, it connects your tweet to a particular subset of Twitter content, something that has no precedent in the long history of epigrams (Pope did not conclude with “#shitmydogsays”). Sure, there have always been editors to put together collections of “wit & wisdom” on various subjects, but this is a different phenomenon altogether, in which the wit and wisdom actually collates itself, and the linkages may or may not be valid.

Hash tags also make almost every Twitter reading an act of re-reading, because you read the tweet first, then see the hash tag, then review the tweet in order to see what the author has done by placing her tweet in that particular envelope. The tag re-writes the tweet and adds new inflections.

We all like to find continuities between new technologies and existing traditions; such continuities are both clarifying and reassuring. Certainly, when it comes to Twitter, the continuities are there: if Oscar Wilde was alive today, he would have one of the coolest Twitter feeds on the planet. But I confess to being more excited about what in Twitter is really new, which is an unprecedented heightening of the tension between the authorial, invented self and the “lived” self. I challenge anybody to read Delaney for more than a week without thinking, maybe in an offhand way, but still, “sooner or later that guy is going to leave his wife.” Alternatively, try reading Oswalt for a week without thinking “He will not be a comedian forever; in fact, he’s probably thinking about running for political office.” It’s like @ThatAlexanderPope put it, in one of his recent tweets:

So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.

#essayonman #thewayiseeit