Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?
Megan Garber asks a good question over at the Nieman Journalism Lab—a question with both practical and existential implications.
On the practical side, I’ve run into this question when formulating social media policies. Twitter and other social media confound traditional communications policies and workflows, precisely because they are neither text nor speech. As text, there is a tendency to want to control it, to feed it through a traditional editorial process. But then, I sometimes note, you wouldn’t vet everything your employees say on the telephone or via email about your organization, right? You would make sure they understood the organization and then trust them.
Twitter is more like the telephone—except it isn’t, because your employee’s phone conversations are now public. There is more risk involved. Companies that are willing to take on the risk—Zappos is the favorite example—are benefiting already, but that doesn’t mean the question isn’t real.
On the one hand, people say, it’s just speech, lighten up. On the other, they say, slow down, this is writing. Garber is right that it’s both and neither, and that we’re just now feeling our way through how to deal with this fact, although we have perhaps reached the tipping point where not taking the risk is itself too big of a risk to take.
The confusion reappears strategically, with the whole issue of personal “branding.” The text/speech, formal/informal dilemma of social media has created an odd situation in which people want to act like brands—by “publishing” their speech—and brands want to be informal, like people. I see (and have probably committed) missteps on both sides, but frankly I think I’m more put off by brands being too informal. (Don’t get me wrong, I think there is great benefit to putting a face on an organization, just not when this face is overly smug, snarky, or cliquish.)
This arises, I think, from the fallacious belief that the way a technology is initially used is the way it must always be used. We saw this with blogging. Blogging must be personal was the theme of early debates, but look at blogs now. Some are personal, some are not. It depends on what you are trying to achieve.
As for persons “branding” themselves, it’s ironic that they’re sacrificing precisely the quality that brands are trying to co-opt. I don’t have to pretend I’m a person. I am a person.
On a more philosophical level—and I do believe that the internet is requiring us to revisit questions of value and meaning more urgently than at any time since the Enlightenment—the implications for, say, McLuhan are both vindicating and sublimating (in the Hegelian sense). Yes, we are returning to an oral culture, but one that is also entirely recorded in text. (Even TV, which McLuhan had in mind, will be completely text-searchable, thanks to closed captioning.)
And what would Derrida say about this strange new speech/writing, writing/speech? I suppose he would say it was always already that way.