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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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game