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.