I resisted Twitter for a long time, as I’m already too easily distracted. It’s obviously great for networking and sharing links. But it preserves the form of working without the content. Tweets come in, they reference something, bite, gulp, you’re done. They don’t impose the awful burden of a reply, like email, and they don’t have that awkward “are you still there” quality of instant messaging, which ends up compelling idiocy. But they have a quality of always saying “somebody ought to do something about this.”
A friend’s recent blog post, for example, drew 35 comments–nearly all of them tweets. “Somebody ought to be thinking about this! Handle it!” And they kind of give you the illusion that somebody is–a person you follow tweeted this, so the community is on it, good work, community!
But it occurred to me that Tweets are pretty much the same thing Ben Franklin did in Poor Richard’s Almanac.1 The almanac was a collection of astrological tables, which Franklin thought were mostly crap, set in a matrix of bits of useful information, along with Poor Richard’s famous aphorisms. There are 600 of them collected here. You could tweet them all, most with no modification, some by selective modernization and compression2 to wit:
Wouldst thou enjoy a long Life, a healthy Body, and a vigorous Mind, and be acquainted also with the wonderful Works of God? labour in the first place to bring thy Appetite into Subjection to Reason.
comes in at 60 characters over the limit. It becomes:
Do you want long Life, a healthy Body, a vigorous Mind, and to know God’s wonderful Works? First subject appetite to reason
without losing much of its preachy self righteousness, or the little kernel of linguistic playfulness that makes Franklin’s scoldings tolerable. Just look at the link–the 600 aphorisms could all tweet.3
So the tweet is an old and much-honored literary form, not something new.: not a sign of the loss of attention or time necessarily. Poor Richard’s Almanac went out to the whole literate public: it contained a promiscuous mix of general info about the entire world, some trivial and some crucial; and Poor Richard’s “tweets,” which were sometimes useful, sometimes crushingly tedious and often just mildly witty diversions.
The similarity between Poor Richard’s aphorisms and tweets is so striking that it’s worth examining the context in more detail.
Modern readers of Franklin’s Autobiography can’t miss the central role books and words and print play in Franklin’s life. As he travels he often meets people who want to talk to him merely because he owns some books, as in this amazing passage:
The then governor of New York, Burnet (son of Bishop Burnet), hearing from the captain that a young man, one of his passengers, had a great many books, desir’d he would bring me to see him…The gov’r. treated me with great civility, show’d me his library, which was a very large one, and we had a good deal of conversation about books and authors. This was the second governor who had done me the honor to take notice of me; which, to a poor boy like me, was very pleasing.
At this point in his narrative it is 1723: Franklin is seventeen years old, and technically a runaway apprentice: and as he says this is the second time a colonial governor has called him out. Such is the power of the community of print in the early 18th century.
Throughout his narrative Franklin mentions books and even more the community of readers. He sets up a lending library and a book discussion group: his social life is conducted around reading, and his commercial life around writing. On his way “up” he repeatedly constructed fictitious identities and wrote under false names–like “Poor Richard;” there’s his famous mock epitaph, in which he compares himself to a book; there’s his participation in an international community of scholars and scientists who speak to each other in letters and books.
Poor Richard’s Almanac used “tweets” to entertain and provoke and inform, but they also marked out a community. Reading them, repeating them, passing them on built up the community of “the enlightement,” a new form of subjectivity marked out by rationality, individual self-improvement, and faith in progress.
Individually Franklin’s tweets are often trivial and irritating. Collectively they announce a new era forming. For example, this “tweet” from 1743:
A little well-gotten will do us more good,
Than lordships and scepters by Rapine and Blood.
Put aside the now-awkward rhyme of “good” and “blood,” and these roughly 100 characters express a world of ideas. They propose the rule of law over power and violence, orderly progress over fast gain. Even more, they insist on the possibility of “well-gotten” gain: no apology needed for riches acquired: as Max Weber famously noted about Franklin, he’s made wealth creation a good in and of itself, a sign of virtue and order and morality, no need for god or church or conscience. Cliches today, these ideas found modern life. Franklin also advances what historians sometimes shelter under the umbrella term “republicanism,” the idea that small wealth honestly earned is more virtuous than great wealth seized by kings. The germ of the American revolution sits in the phrase, waiting for sun and rain.
If Poor Richard’s aphorism both marked and created a community of new kinds of people, new subjectivities, what work is the twitter community doing? I’m not sure–nobody in 1743 knew where they were headed either.
But one thing I can’t subscribe to, as much as I’m troubled by the distractions that Twitter enables, is the idea that this represents something radically new. Franklin’s aphorisms distracted as well. Most obviously, they distracted you from idleness and in a larger sense, distracted you from loyalty to the King or the old regime. Poor Richard’s maxims reminded those who read them that others were reading, and that somewhere, somebody was doing something about it. In distracting people from the old they built something new.
- and to my annoyance, I quickly found out that I was not the first person to notice this, but I press on ↩
- it would be worth comparing this kind of compression to compression in modern music,: in both cases the dynamics are lost but the message becomes more “punchy.” ↩
- without loss? no–see above. It would be really interesting to compare compression in music with compression in words. In Keeping Watch I argued that the evolution of modern movie narrative depended on and drew from the time management principles of Taylorism: I have to wonder if the taste for compression evinced in tweets is related to the taste for compression in music. ↩