Monday, July 09, 2007


'I shared earlier today how good my lox bagel was this morning.'
This is Evan Williams, founder of Blogger and now of Twitter in an interview in Technology Review. I looked at Twitter a week or two ago and then stopped looking about 2 minutes later. It struck me as a vision of hell. It's so simple it's actually quite hard to describe, but, basically, people around the world log their activities and other people can subscribe and receive updates throughout the day of, for example, how good Williams's bagel was or that Pocketwookie is having a triple tall Americano before recovering his hard drive. In a further refinement Twittervision shows the messages appearing in real time on a map of the world.
It is the fetishisation of banal detail that I find so scary. How am I supposed to react to Pocketwookie's Americano? 'Oh, I like those' or, perhaps,'I prefer lattes'. And, more to the point, what does he/she get out of recording this her/his coffee preference? Certainly, I, like all bloggers, indulge in banality from time to time but only when I can add some spin or wit to it. These guys are just laying it out, flat as a pancake.
On reflection this is, I think, not scary at all but sad. It is all about recognition, about turning one's life into a story that others may read and, thereby, give one a glimpse of immortality. Twitters are a series of memorials to moments that would otherwise pass unmarked. Humans have always done this and it is always poignant - at least when it does not involve torturing, slaughtering or bullying others. Technology provides a debased, atomised version of the memorial, but it does not debase the impulse.


  1. There is also, it now occurs to me, a sense in which the banal detail is thought to be redeemed by character - this coffee is good because I am drinking it. 'Look at me! I'm a one-off!'

  2. Bryan, I'm with you. And the good news is that even the sadness you describe is debased, it is pure sentimentality.

    Of course there are whole schools of literature devoted to banal detail - look at Thornton Wilder. Or even Tolstoy! There's a guy who knew how to use an everyday detail.
    But that's art. The artist's faith in the transformative, in redemption, in the sanctity of the small detail, is still expressed through his craft, through his realisation that he must make ART, that his own work of art is not valuable except in its success as a value-laden thing. What's really worrying about this trend - I mean depressing - or is it alarming?! - is the way we are moving away from any recognition of value...

    Or are we all so postmodern now that it really doesn't matter? It's a kind of poverty. "I don't need anything significant, I can be just as turned on thinking about that guy's latte, all the way over in Australia." It's as if we're actively pursuing lack of significance, we find it more significant - but why?? Stop the train, we're going the wrong way!!!

    I don't dare look at Twitter, in case I find it in any way amusing.

    ...and I just set up a Facebook page! Jaysus. It's like a gigantc high school yearbook, and there is nothing sadder than those!

  3. Exactly, Ms Baroque. I think the hyper-individualism behind all this convinces people they don't have to be Tolstoy to give significance to banality, they just have to be themselves.

  4. it's a generation thing. if new ideas begin to scare you it's just nature's way of telling you you're getting on a bit. I'm the same with today's american youth TV, for my Dad it was mick jagger.

  5. You could always call yourself Nicholson Baker and call it a novel.

  6. It's all noise, just noise, a swishing ocean of endless trivia and mind-boggling tedium. It's the modern world's horror vacui, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, our antidote to the howling void. Pass the earplugs.

  7. Iain Dale blogged about Twitter a month or so back saying he'd joined. Like you Bryan I went and looked and then ran a mile.

    I think Ian R, nailed it. I'm happy to be getting old if that's what you have to do if you're young. Mrs. H. has long said the secret to life is enjoying the phase of your life that you are in, not trying to remain in one that's past or hasten the arrival of one that's coming.

  8. I suspect Ian is right about this being "a generation thing". It's also an in-thing among geeky, Web 2.0-ish Silicon Valley types, so there's likely also some peer group pressure involved. And as the interview makes clear, there's an investment thing in the special networking systems that underly Twitter and which the owners must be hoping will turn out to be worth a lot of money if/when bought by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. The losers, if you like, are the "useful idiots", the outsiders, the non-core users and internet flotsam who get caught up in these new ideas and really just provide the subscriber numbers to get the thing off the ground. If Twitter ever turns out to be a success, then one day, Bryan, freelances and home-workers may be obliged to twitter once an hour on that nice new iPhone to show some awful boss that they are up, out and about. To me, this is all less a case of sad than one of handcuffs.

  9. I am drinking a cup of tea and writing this sentence. (I have just finished writing that sentence.) (And that one).

  10. I have had some tea - Darjeeling - also coffee - Illy. It is sunny. I am sitting down. I might stand up in a minute. Or not. I wonder what I shall have for lunch.

  11. I am enjoying my morning coffee with a little milk--no sugar--on holiday far from home right now. Oh, and reconciling science and religion. Planning a salad for lunch. Mmmm, salad.

  12. reminds me of Yeats' visions of a senseless, disordered chaos in 'A Prayer for my Daughter' & 'The Second Coming', in fact virtually every poem he wrote. The murderous innocence of the sea...

    i'm 31 and find the whole thing kind of insane. Why can't people just live, why do they have to leave some record? i'd happily leave nothing, indeed i don't keep back-up copies of anything i post, have burnt two manuscripts of mine already, and am pleased at the thought of all i write disappearing without trace. What's wrong with life, apart from it being frequently shit, that it has to be framed & recorded? Why is coffee suddenly not enough?

    Bryan, you haven't written a post about what tea you like, please correct this at once. i'm suddenly curious.

  13. I just sneaked a little peanut butter on a crust of toast. I hope it doesn't spoil my lunch.

  14. Twitter is well named. Do I avoid people who twitter in the flesh? Yes. Am I likely to encumber myself with virtual twitterers? No. The phrase "get a life" was surely written in anticipation of those who twitter. I twitter, therefore I am? I think not.

  15. why leave a record, you ask? I think it's more an opportunity for my 15 minutes of fame rather than for posterity. I am.

    Still it saves archeologists' backs and makes historians' jobs a little easier. Have you been to yet? You get an account and then you make up a shady past and try to hide it from your online buddies.

    Had a cup of tea, three sugars. Decided to make fish supper. Had to move most of Mrs. R to get to the frozen peas...

  16. Oh, is this just another example of everybody ganging up on poor Chip Dale, just because he Twitters? Yes, I have a Twitter box on my blog but I only put it there because Iain Dale had one. Now I’ve redesigned my site, I’ll be dropping it. But before I do, at least let me defend these poor Twitterers.

    I agree with Ms. Baroque: Twitter is like Facebook, MySpace, and even aspects of YouTube, sites which encourage individuals to express themselves. Yet it prioritises moments only in the context of something much greater. They’re part of this great myth that permeates our culture in which there is nothing so great as The Individual. Every person has their own distinctive tattoos, piercings, clothes, mobile phone tones, and even blog designs. Corporations make millions by pandering to this dream of self-customization.

    Yet all it does is constantly prove how banal most people are. Most tattoos are derivative, most blogs look the same. Few have the skills to change this. Most bloggers recycle the same old rubbish and the few that don’t are rarely worth reading. I think the cult of the individual has to be one of the great lies of the twentieth century. Traditionally, great artists never abandoned what had gone before them. Now it’s the done thing.

    Which brings me to Twitter. The great advantage of Twitter is that you can recognise people’s essential banality within 37 words. Bloggers tend to waffle on at length for pages before you realise how insignificant they are. Of course nobody is remotely interested in my daily routines. Nobody can be that interested in Iain Dale’s daily routines either. Which is where my Twitter box is a huge improvement over the rest. I make everything up. It’s far more productive, much more fun, and makes much more sense.

  17. Chip, I hadn't connected that weird box thing with Twitter. Silly me. You speak wisely, thonged one.

  18. Now a serial killer who twitters might be worth reading. Perhaps someone would like to register and twitter their thoughts of what a serial killers life might be like.

    Meanwhile, as usual, I forgot that I made coffee and it is sitting on the counter getting cold.

  19. 0540: Got up. Tripped over some meat. Showered. Had Lapsang and read Appleyard. He wakes at the same time as me. Interesting.

    0710: Stabbed some woman in the head.

    0905: Bought steak knives. Made usual 'serial killer joke' with saleswoman. She has nice eyes.

    1300: Eyes now in jar by desk.

    1305: Went out for milk. Thought I saw a male stripper watching me, must be going mad or something.

    1335: Read more Appleyard. Again he writes each post at the same time as I log on. Strange.

    1337: Occurs to me that Appleyard knows when I'm going to log on. How?

    1412: So much dross on the internet. Someone should sort it out.

    1420: Bought black BMW.

    1425: Thought I saw Jeffrey Archer following me round Tesco's. Lost him in the dog food aisle.

    1450: Afternoon nap. Tired.

    1700: Overslept. See if Appleyard's written anything new. He has. Again, he wrote it just before I logged on. He knows. He must.

    1840: Spent some time clipping toenails. Not a task to be rushed.

    1910: If Appleyard knows, does The Lord intent us to purge the internet together? Or is he a rival? Not sure.

    1912: Not much on telly tonight.

    1915: Looked out of window: some bloke in a thong hanging about outside. Bit disturbing.

    1930: Going to go to bed now. Might send Appleyard a cat tomorrow. Must think about how to keep it alive in box. He'll love that.

  20. After reading Bryan's rumination about the NY Times editorial, I read the editorial itself and grew so depressed that I went back to bed and pulled the covers over my eyes. I was startled awake by a nightmare featuring NY Times Editor Bill Keller standing in some doorway, shouting "Genocide Now! Genocide Forever!"

    Having now learned exactly what Twitter is, I support Chip in his subvervise efforts, fear Mark is probably right and Ms. Baroque is not, will stay a safe distance away from elberry in the future, and decline any invitations Ian sends out to the group for a casual evening featuring home-made meat pies. And if he brings a shepards pie to our next potluck, I'm outta there. It may be far more safe to go back to hiding under the covers again. TTFN

  21. Okay, Bryan, you've moved me to post a lengthy defense of Twitter over on my blog: (=

  22. I think adaption is the key here. How you accept the new exams like 220-601 in the legacy of traditional 70-270 and same series exams, and in the same way how you accept new ideas like Twitter and the lost creeping up with 2eb 2.0 revolution and ensuring a global rise like 70-620 once had.