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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue