Twitter and groan: new sounds in new media

Thursday I heard a characteristically wonderful presentation by Faris Yakob at the BrainJuicer event in NYC.  (This guy is talent with a capital T[shirt].)

In passing, Faris noted that some people now groan when the term "twitter" comes up in conversation.

Groaning?  I can see exclaiming, kvelling, even plotzing.  But groaning.  Why groaning?

The answer to this question lies, I think, in another question: why do people groan at puns?

Strip away the consensus (the one that says, groaning is what we should do in the presence of a pun), and what are we looking at?  We groan at puns, I think, because we are a little frightened of them.  They force us to see the mechanisms of language.  When one word is pressed into service for a new purpose, it "trails."  It has its old meaning, and a new one.  It is x and not-x.  Actually, it's x and y.  Language is normally our most natural and effortless of act of meaning making but now we can see through to the gears and the levers.  We can see it for what it is, artificial and convention bound, fragile and effortful.

Because a pun is "only word play," we are not allowed to shriek.  Plus, to show fear, we fear, would credit and empower the pun.  (And no one wants that.)  Ignoring the pun isn't possible because it really is unsettling.  We go for the compromise.  We groan. 

What's more we groan together.  We groan in unison.  The group asserts it's solidarity against the pun.  We reassert the power of a sound to efface the danger of a sound.   

If this is right, we may think of puns the way I think Mary Douglas might have done.  Puns confuse cultural categories and next to physical danger or physical want, this is one of the surest ways to destabilize us. 

Back to Faris on Twitter.  I haven't had a chance to talk to him about precisely what he meant, so I may have got this wrong.  But if what he meant was that non Twitterers groan at the mention of the word "twitter," we might surmise they are playing out the logic of the pun.  Maybe we groan at "twitter" because it represents a cultural confusion, a semantic overload, an immensity of messages too much for our frail cognitive capacity.

A twittering universe is one in which messages and data are constantly in transit, coming from many sources, unpredictably, in great volume.  It is always too voluminous to track exhaustively.  We can only "dip in" to this Amazon as it passes.  And it trails like crazy.  Almost always the twitterer asks us to supply something we know about the sender as a person in general and right now, and this means we must meet this Amazon of messages with an Mississippi of knowledge that makes what they say make sense. 

Omphhh!  Twitter "sees" our porousness and raises it.  Email, 400 cable channels, thousands of feeds, a million blogs.  And now many, many, many, many tweets.  We have been railing against silos, corporate and personal, but a silo now seems like a really sensible idea. 

I am sitting on the plane to Chicago as I write this.  In my line of sight, there are two business travellers playing solidaire.  Solitaire, this must be the anti-tweet.  It is a closed world that contains no novelty, scant variation, precious little challenge.  It demands a bookkeepers' eye for detail, forcing us at the end of every failure to wonder, "did I just miss a match?"  Solitaire is such a bone headed activity that I belief it exists now only as a respite from the digital jet stream.   I mean, once you've played it 3 million times, as I have, surely it sustains interest only for what it isn't. 

Anyhow, I am in a real jet stream at the moment, and I am guite sure that there are several better explanations for why we groan at the mention of the word "tweet."  I would love to hear them. 


Douglas, Mary. 2002. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Taylor. 


Thanks to John Kearon, Ari Popper and Susan Griffin for including me in the BrainJuicer event. 

Thanks to David Burn and AdPulp for the image of Faris.

11 thoughts on “Twitter and groan: new sounds in new media

  1. Paul McEnany

    I just love the thought that we now have a category of cultural confusion that we can collectively groan at. Puns and Twitter are certainly in that category, as is Brittany Spears and skinny jeans.

  2. Jordi

    Why do we groan at Twitter? Because those that “tweet” don’t stop “tweeting”. Nothing stays personal. Moments are by default public. Private moments now come through choice and effort. As you said, Twitter takes this to the extreme.

    My problem with Twitter is that there is no alternative. Twitter is the end-all be-all of “Twittering” or “tweeting”.

    You can YouTube or Hulu. You can search via Yahoo! or Google. You can use Blogger or WordPress. But Twitter has a monopoly on “micro-blogging”. This scares me.

  3. Domen

    You make a very good point, but I would also add a more mundane explanation. Part of the groan can also be attributed to the overload of information ABOUT Twitter. The social media craze seems to have peaked with T. Plus it’s a pretty annoying word when repeated again, and again, and again… Here Twitty, Twitty…

  4. Henri Weijo

    I think the “groan” part is largely due to the current overexposure and media hype it’s getting. I can’t even watch an NBA game anymore without getting mentioned that Shaq is, if fact, tweeting. Mark Cuban too! And the way Twitter is being talked about in keynotes reminds me of what happens whenever Malcolm Gladwell publishes a new book: “Brands should look to reach a TIPPING POINT (get it? TIPPING POINT!!)” or “Your business should BLINK more (see what I just did there?)”. Twitter has become almost a similar mandatory namedrop in marketing circles today, that’s why people groan, at least initially.

    I’m a bit worried at how Twitter is shaping business discourse. To me it’s more of a circle jerk (sorry for the coarse language) or a beatnik drum circle than an actual conversation. It’s all about novelty now, being the first to “break” a story or retweet what a superstar tweeter said. And don’t get me started on the overuse of “clever” quotes.

    I was a bit taken aback when some time ago that big skyscraper in China burnt down, and people were buzzing that “this is so cool, none of the big networks have anything on it, but Twitter has the story! this is really the power of social media”. It’s making us into mini-paparazzo or something.

    PS. Agreed with Jordi =)

  5. Alan

    What would Tweety Bird tweet?

    I tot I taw a puddy cat! I did. I did tee a puddy cat. Gwanny, help, help …

    What would Sylvester the Cat tweet?

    He wouldn’t. He’s not signed on to Twitter.

    What is needed is a channel not for puns but for … wit! I would call it Titter.

    But wit that elicits a titter (even an honest laugh or chuckle) is of a kind that never elicits a groan. What is the difference?

    The victim of all this (that?) is originality. We think we spot it but it turns out to be imitation.

    Ultimately, only Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley would be messaging on Titter, and occasionally Henry Morgan and Peggy Cass. And the much missed George Carlin.

    Everyone else … just listen!

  6. MEL

    I think people groan because of technology fatigue. I’ve mastered email, I read blogs, I’m on Facebook, now I have to Twitter in 140 charact

  7. Scott Ellington

    ers per thought; as though this NEW thing is actually an IMPROVEMENT over roundly articulated commu

  8. Alain Breillatt

    I would propose that we groan at Twitter because most of us look at the communication vehicle it is and wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s not confusion, it’s tired recognition of a pattern where the nattering nabobs and masses are excitedly chattering about the latest fad. Wow, you can now broadcast your thoughts out to a vast internet and mobile audience 140 characters at a time. Great! Yet another communications infrastructure that is at the same time dumbing down the tenor of our conversations. Once upon a time we had deep thoughts delivered under careful consideration in well written correspondence. I am part of the mobile computing generation so I’ve helped make all of this happen. But where does it end? So you’re tweeting – who cares? I don’t recall people walking around saying, “Look, I’m sending out email!” The closest I can come is when people used to excitedly say, “I’m calling long distance” over the telephone back in the middle of last century. But the margin of difference between the cost and the truly revolutionary nature of what long distance voice communications delivered vs. one more way to textually broadcast your thoughts to the world – there’s a huge gap there.

    We groan because we JUST DON’T CARE.

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