Twitter marks the return of an old literary form: It’s a model Ben Franklin used to help bring the community of the American revolution into being.
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. and to my annoyance, I quickly found out that I was not the first person to notice this, but I press on] 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 compression[1. 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.”] 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.[2. 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.]
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.
[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Takats and Joseph Adelman, Mike O'Malley. Mike O'Malley said: Poor Richard's tweets: http://theaporetic.com/?p=761 Subjectivity, distraction, and social change […]
I’m not clear about whether we’re talking about exactly the same thing here, but as an avid consumer of quotes, epigrams and aphorisms myself, I can’t say that I agree with you. Twitter is quite different from what I do.
I no longer keep a paper commonplace book, but I now do something similar with what’s called in the computer world a “fortune file.” This file, which includes, amongst many other things, all of Alan Perlis’ Epigrams on Programming is something I can browse from time to time and, as well, on most systems I am shown (along with the other usual information, such as the hostname, the last time I logged in, etc.) one of these quotes.
The key point about these is that they’re little nuggets of wisdom designed to trigger reflection, rather than merely impart a “fact,” and because of that they’re timeless and reward repeated reading and review over a long period of time. It’s always interesting to compare what I thought about a quote when I saw it a few years ago to what I think now, how my experiences have changed or revealed more and different meaning in the quote, and what it might lead me to look at in the future.
Tweets, by contrast, strike me as ephemeral; they’re usually inextricably embedded in their current moment and context. How often do you (or does anyone?) go back and look over old tweets searching for new insight? Who spends even a few tens of minutes, much less days or months, polishing or revising a tweet to try to improve its future value?
Am I indeed talking about something similar here, or have I just missed your point?
That’s a great question and you might be right–I was new to twitter at the time and trying to figure out what it meant.
First, I don’t think Franklin imagined his aphorism as timeless or even as particularly weighty. He deliberately ignored, in his real life, many of the things professed in the almanac. I’m inclined to see them as provocative rather than “canonical” in intent.
And you are absolutely right that copies of Poor Richard’s almanac might have been kept around the house, but I doubt they were: at least not till after Franklin became world famous. The thing that made them worthy of saving and reprinting was partly Franklin’s fame.
I was thinking also of how the aphorisms created a shared culture, a “public” among their readers. Twitter does that for its users-sharing information, sharing sometimes incisive commentary or critical analysis: it’s a “public.” I know journalists use it in exactly that way.
I resisted twitter for a long time, because it seemed trivial and ephemeral. Most if it is–like most of life. But people I respect use it heavily, and I wanted to figure out what was going on. I still don’t entirely know
Fascinating. I’d had a suspicion that the Poor Richard’s…err…”sound bites” were not quite the same sort of thing I was talking about, both from your description and the examples you gave—they did not seem to me particularly weighty.
(By contrast, most all of Perlis’ Epigrams, while they might be quite opaque or even just silly to an outsider, address [often in quite a humorous way] problems that are just as relevant now as they were twenty-five years ago [an age in comp. sci.] and many of them address issues that had started to come up even twenty years before that.)
That said, “provocative rather than ‘canonical'” is, well, exactly the place of my favorite epigrams: they define nothing except a good starting point for a discussion–ideally provoking it in a brazen manner–and such a good starting point that decades later (and I’m talking 20th century “decades” here) they are still do the same.
Looking at the latest Internet stuff (I’ve been using it and its precursors for close to 30 years now), I feel that blogging has some great potential, and it’s often even realized. Not only do we get cheap publishing (albeit with the issue of how you find the good stuff amongst the crap), but it seems to me to not only revive but popularize the idea of the essay (at least to some degree), and in almost its purest form.
But Twitter? Right now my personal feeling about Twitter is that if you can fit what you want to say in 140 characters, and do it several times per day, it’s almost certain to be something I can not only safely ignore but truly ought to ignore if I’m interested in pursuing what I will call, for lack of a better term at the moment, an “intelligent life.” (How many tweets does it take to equal a feature article in Harpers or The Atlantic?).
That said, it’s early, and though I, a very early member of the Internet (really, Usenet) generation, somehow can’t find interest in Twitter or Facebook or various other things, I could be quite wrong in my current estimation, either because I’m missing something, or (far more likely), nobody’s really hit on what you can do with it yet. So put me into the, “skeptical, but watching” group when it comes to this.
Let me end with an “exercise for the reader.” (Not in the spirit of attacking Twitter, but because this actually could be an interesting thing to try.) You managed to quite well shorten a few of Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom to 140 characters or less; can you do the same with Thomas Carlyle? Any few random bits from the first chapter of Sartor Resartus will do.
We appear to be of one mind about Dr. Franklin and his enduring relevance in the age of Twitter.
[…] Poor Richard's Tweets. – The Aporetic 29 Oct 2010. 1 The almanac was a collection of astrological tables,. mix of general info about the entire world, some trivial and some crucial;. The germ of the American revolution sits in the phrase, waiting for sun and rain. Poor Richard's Tweets. – The Aporetic […]