Is Twitter the enemy of self-expression?

Social media may have cultural relevance, but it's no good when everyone says the same thing.

There's a scene set in the near future in Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, in which a conversation between two people in a café becomes so awkward they conclude it via an instant-messaging service called T'ing, in which language is reduced to its most basic: 'GrAt. Il gt 2 wrk.' As one character remarks after the exchange, T'ing is "pure -- no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgements."

Whilst Egan understands what her character doesn't -- that even the most reduced linguistic exchanges cannot be "pure" -- the idea of appreciating social medias because they restrict self-expression is an interesting one in the context of our current eagerness to give sites such as Twitter increasing cultural relevance.

Last April the US Library of Congress announced tweets would be part of its archive, the Harvard professor Marjorie Garber recently noted that Twitter's "artificial limits on form [are] very good practice for writing and for reading", and James Poniewozik in TIME contextualised Twitter within "the history of literature [that] is the story of writers shaping their work to exploit technology."

Meanwhile in PORT magazine's inaugural issue this March, the journalist Ekow Eshun argued that Twitter is about creative self-expression, a place where "we curate our lives". He goes on, "people wanted to tell me that a 140-character limit is the enemy of good writing -- as if Hemingway or Carver or centuries of haikus hadn't made the case for concision."

The form may be similarly restrictive, but don't the how and why also define content? And Twitter's how and why is essentially anti-literary, anti-creative; Twitter is all about fitting in.

In literary Twitter circles, for example, clusters of publishers, authors, editors, journalists and agents build wide networks whose strength lies in blurring the distinction between professional contact and personal friend -- a blurring that makes group consensus all the more persuasive.

As Twitter's influence grows, instead of blithely thinking of it as a place of free expression, it might be a good time to wonder if the commingling of public and private realms doesn't potentially make expressing opinions more difficult?

Considered in this light, Twitter functions as banally as a school hierarchy: who to like, who not to, who you're allowed to criticise, who you can't etc. Whilst Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker last year enraged many with his claims that social networking was not instrumental to social change, his most salient point was that social media is "not the natural enemy of the status quo." Twitter relies on people's desire to be the same.

Nor is it really challenging from a linguistic perspective. Poniewozik writes, "Twitter is pure voice, an exercise in implying character through detail and tone", but the most striking thing about it is its uniformity of tone, how difficult it is to create any distinctive voice in its tight-lipped text box. Tweets can cause misunderstandings aplenty, but there isn't much room for subtlety.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter itself seems comfortable with its functionality, its stated desire only to transmit information. On its homepage it says, with knowing simplicity: "Follow your interests". So should we be a little more aware of its limitations?

Eshun reflects that Twitter's "merging of public and private self [is] the defining condition of the hyper-mediated modern age." The key word in the sentence is "merging". Twitter splices together public and private spheres, and doesn't have time for doubt. This is its commercial strength, but its creative and cultural limitation.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.