Tweeting Around

by zunguzungu

Twitter is, of course, a notoriously ephemeral and transitory medium. In the moment, a twitter conversation can be immensely rewarding and powerful; reconstructing it afterwards can be almost mind-bendingly frustrating. And, of course, anyone who’s ever tried to find again something they vaguely remember reading on twitter three days ago will recognize the particular and unique agony of failing at doing so. I rely on google reader to archive a lot of my blog-reading for me, and it’s quite efficient at doing so; if for only that reason, if twitter is going to be gobbled up by either google or facebook, I’d prefer it to be google, if so it must be.

Anyway, a couple days ago, I wrote a series of tweets about the infamous Groupon commercials that aired during the Superbowl — which, because I hate America, I did not watch — and these tweets struck a chord with Alexis Madrigal, who compiled them and wrote a short post around them. I had tweeted:

  • Reading people’s complaints about Super Bowl commercials, I’m struck by the feeling that what people are really upset by is the basic fact that the capitalist profit motive is an amoral drive.
  • Yet since that can’t register as a scandal — capitalism, you see, is good! — we instead use vague, almost meaningless sentences like “in poor taste.”
  • The joke of the Groupon commercials, after all, is the foolishness of people who think commerce can be a form of social good.
  • The joke makes no sense unless you accept the disconnect between selfish-desire (purchasing) and social good (charity).

I’ve placed them in this form because it better demonstrates the underlying prosody of twitter, the 140 character ceiling that each utterance must kneel beneath. After some remarks of his own, Alexis placed them in a paragraph form, though, and it was in that form that Zoe Pollock — pinch-blogger for Andrew Sullivan — re-posted my text over at Sullivan’s end of The Atlantic online, in an even shorter post on “Groupon and a Greater Good,” what was really just three links.

That post caught the attention of a free market blogger named Sean W. Malone, who penned an apologia for commerce as a social good that contained — interspersed with the usual capitalism-will-save-us-all-from-the-tyranny-of-society talking points — these lovely sentences, which I have dis-aggregated for my own amusement:

  • ŸWhat I do care about, however, is Mr. Bady’s ridiculously misinformed view of capitalism and commerce in general.
  • Bady’s ignorance is all-too-common, but it’s always depressing.
  • So, Bady is quite wrong. Commerce is a wonderful thing.
  • Where do people like Bady think that the money and resources for charitable donations comes from?
  • Charity, which Bady considers to be the only social good, is – in fact – purely consumption.
  • Bady’s view of what’s in society’s best interest is ultimately the thing which would bankrupt and impoverish everyone. Sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it?
  • I want to see more of that, and less of the nonsense spouted by Alexis Madrigal & Aaron Bady.

Malone’s actual argument is the usual sort of free market cant that one hears from this sort of person, and I don’t repeat it because it’s a line of ideological argument that I’m so familiar with I can’t even bother to rehearse it (Malone, by contrast, is so baffled by the reasoning which would impel me to make those statements that he imagines into existence my belief in charity as “the only social good,” a particularly amusing invention given he had only four tweets to work from). The other amusing thing for me, by the way, was that the charity he suggests people give to happens to be one which I have (anecdotally) heard terrible things about from people who were on the receiving end of its benevolent capitalist uplift. I say anecdotally because I didn’t actually witness the way the entire project fell apart for the Tanzanians I knew when I was there, but I did know them personally, and I did hear their stories, and they had nothing but bewildered disappointment and frustration with the organization in question (which I’m not naming because I don’t want to be googled on it, but if you click the link you can figure it out).

Anyway, then, Kip Manley — with whom I twitter-correspond — responded:

I say, old chap, Bady said the profit motive was amoral, not immoral, so unless you’re arguing that seeking profit is itself an inherently moral act, that greed is, essentially, good, then you might want to reconsider—what? You are? That is what you meant? —Oh. Well. Um, in that case, I suppose, carry on? —And, uh, good luck with that.

It’s an interesting experience, watching your words go out into the world and achieve a life of their own, and I really just wrote this post to reflect that experience. Despite the fact that all of these people used my actual name, in fact, those tweets feel less like me than most things I write; I was interested in the problem for about ten minutes, had an idea and a nice conversation with a bunch of people on twitter, but then I moved on to other stuff. It was only after those words had been rebundled and repackaged by others that I tried to revisit them, and found that I couldn’t; my mind had moved on. Later that day, Ms. Zunguzungu had demanded to know what I had actually said to provoke such a response, and I had a hard time even remembering what I had said. “Something about capitalism, I think?” But it wasn’t even my argument anymore; if I were to wrote a post on those commercials — which I won’t, because the moment has passed for me — I suspect I would write something not completely different but also not completely the same as those tweets. Those tweets for me in that moment, but most of the words I used there are terms I’d want to think more carefully about now, probably less boldly and less assuredly, and certainly as a result of the conversation that ensued. I wonder if the evocative (and vague) brevity of the original tweeted words were the reason why they struck a chord? Perhaps that (hypothetical) post would turn out to be less useful for other to think with, if it better reflected a deeper meditation on the topic. Brevity is powerful in that way.

Or am I simply reflecting the feeling of alienation from those particular words? Perhaps, if I thought more about the topic, I would write exactly the same thing again. I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out; I just don’t care enough about Groupon to spend time figuring it out. But to return to that moment, let me give you some of the twitter-friends that I was talking with, whose tweets I’ve also aggregated as paragraphs, just because:

@anticapitalproj first noted

The odd thing about the groupon spot, I’m not sure your registering, is its strange relationship to the history of the FREE TIBET bumpersticker movement that swept the upscale liberal left in 90s, which presented itself as a kind of political thought, expressed itself through boycotts (cf. shopping and politics), and was also veiled sinophobia/anti-communism for the privileged.

Zeynep Tufekci told a story:

I attended a Free Tibet event in UT Austin (my grad school). Afterwards, bunch of us went to a nearby pub. There were two Tibetans among us. Conversation turned to vegetarianism, its relation to Buddhism, respecting animals, etc. Then came time to order. The two Tibetans, who were looking somewhat bewildered anyway, both ordered cheeseburgers. Gasps went around the table. It was the funniest folks meet the “natives” moment.

People project their ideals to “natives.” Well, they are people. They don’t need to be noble or beautiful or be the cradle of civilization to deserve freedom or security. There are many problems with this “noble savage” activism:

  • First, people we cannot mythologize get ignored.
  • Second, when the inevitable messy truth of humanity peeks out, supporters get discouraged.  No, not all Egyptians are helping blind ladies cross the street today.
  • Third, demands that don’t fit our mythology get sidelined. I saw this with the Zapatistas movement.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall pointed out:

Tibetan *fish* curry?! Shit is landlocked.

David Parry (@academicdave) offered:

I keep wondering how those ads would have played differently if the actors had been stars associated with the cause. I.e. Richard Greer for Tibet. And in conjunction, what were the actors in the spots thinking ? And why havent they gotten any blowback. Because I think part of what they tried to do — but fell utterly flat for so many reasons — was poke fun at celebrities.

@shotgunshack was baffled:

They’re off. They don’t make their point. They are too close to how lots of real people seem to actually live and think. Or maybe they are such brilliant satire that I am not getting them?

@Southsouth suggested some context

That’s how Israeli Zionists historically saw Palestinians: ‘natural’ extensions of the land, like cactus. Conflated them with the flora of ‘nature,’ exaggerated form of romanticizing frontier Indians simultaneous with land grabs.

To which @hermara added:

Same in Australia in early years; land declared “terra nullius” and Aust Aborigines classified ‘fauna’

So there’s that.

As a coda, while we’re on the subject of long-form twittering, let me add a compiled Devil’s Dictionary of tweets that Ben Wedeman wrote with the label “Mideast lexicon,” and which was compiled in (sort of) this form by Borzou Daragahi this morning:

  • “unhelpful” – absurdly counterproductive, but we won’t lift a finger
  • “consensus” – we agree to do nothing.
  • “bulwark of stability” -brutal police-state with horrendous human rights record.
  • “stable” – unpopular dictatorship, will be overthrown by popular revolution in 2, 3 years max.
  • “negotiations”-Talking about framework for discussions to lead to meetings to talk about face-to-face exchanges, etc
  • “serious situation” – we’ve completely lost control. Burn the files now.
  • “we strongly condemn” – we will issue another statement
  • “security assistance” – tear gas, rubber bullets, plastic hand ties, and more.
  • “foreign elements” – anyone whose anti-regime criticism is difficult to refute.
  • “cycle of violence” – we know who is to blame but don’t want to say it.
  • “we condemn” – we will do nothing.
  • Ÿ”stability” – police-imposed “quiet” for few years, maybe decades, ending in revolution.
  • Ÿ”restraint” – please be discreet when slaughtering your opponents. Someone might be filming.
  • Ÿ”reforms”-changes authoritarian regimes promise, then discard as soon as pressure eases.

Words are promiscuous things, as someone has probably said.