I do not like Twitter, the micro-blogging service that allows users to send short (SMS-sized) text-based updates that are displayed publicly and shared with friends social-network style.
For me, Twitter represents the worst trends in the new internet culture. It purports to allow people to “communicate” in new ways, a promise that mostly creates new obligation and infatuation to stay “up to date” and “connected.” In the world of Twitter, you (and me, and everyone) pay constant, tiny homage to a new gimmickry.
This is a gimmickry that doesn’t even rise to the level of the gadget, with its industrialist promise of technological progress. It is a kind of softer soft-pornography determined to make identity-assertion the new masturbation. Russel Davies‘ Twitter parody Dawdlr comments on this trend, asking users to send updates via postcard.
In the world of Web 2.0, a public sheds the chains of a tightly-controled mass media market in which individuals are converted into the “consumers” needed to purchase mass produced goods and services. In its stead, that public gets a loosly-controlled micro media market, in which individuals are converted into the “users” needed to create databases for sale to Google or Yahoo! or News Corp for $35 a head. But now the market outsources manufacture to those very “users.” The workers may have had nothing to lose but their chains, but the users are lining up to link their own together. It’s the new fashion; chains are the new black.
Invective like this may amuse, but it doesn’t necessarily change opinion or create discussion. My friend and sometimes-collaborator Ian McCarthy and I had been talking in San Francisco recently, looking for an intervention that would both comment on Twitter as a social force and also attempt to use the service in a culturally interesting way. What if the focus on socialization and identity is actually the least interesting way to use Twitter?
So, here’s what we came up with.
Today, like every June 16, is Bloomsday, a holiday that celebrates James Joyce and his novel Ulysses, which takes place on this date in 1904. Ulysses already offers a parallel commentary; Joyce conceived of the book’s principal character, Leopold Bloom, as an everyman counterpoint to Odysseus, whose adventure Bloom’s parallels. Each of the book’s 18 chapters take place in roughly an hour’s time.
The 10th of these, Wandering Rocks, follows 19 Dubliners walking through the city, doing their daily business, some intersecting with others. It’s a famous and often-studied section of the book, one that also speaks to an experience of urban modernity that has become second-nature to us now.
Enthusiasts often retrace the characters’ steps on Bloomsday, and innumerable animated maps and the like have been created by fans and scholars. The latter technique still doesn’t really represent the interleaved simultaneity of Wandering Rocks, the complexity yet ordinariness of space and interaction that Joyce’s writing accomplishes. And the former technique turns the ordinariness of the episode into a kind of theme park, missing the importance of the Wandering Rocks as a vignette of the scenario that grounds the rest of the novel (I’ve written about this theme more in relation to videogames in a chapter of my book Unit Operations).
We took Wandering Rocks and adapted it into a large series of 140-character or less utterances in the first person. We organized and timed these and built a database for them. We registered key characters in the novel as users on Twitter. For example:
STEPHENDEDALUS: I see Dilly’s high shoulders and shabby dress, shut the book quick, don’t let see
Then we wrote some software to automate the performance of Wandering Rocks on Twitter, so basically we just turn it on and it runs. The result, we hope, will offer both an interesting and unique perspective on the novel and on Twitter. I’ll let our critics be the judge of that.
Bloomsday tradition normally demands that festivities take place on Dublin time, which is unfortunately 6 hours ahead of the US East Coast. Wandering Rocks starts at 2:55pm, which is barely the crack of dawn (especially on a Saturday) out on the West Coast. So we decided to synchronize our performance to EDT. If you wish, you can watch the public stream on Twitter starting at 2:55pm EDT. You can also watch the individual characters, or even add them as “friends” to get the updates.
Update: the performance is now completed; while there were a few hiccups that made a very small minority of the characters unable to participate, the vast majority worked as planned, and you can now click through to read their contributions. I’ll put together some documentation of the live version to share soon.
Late last night, partly to test and partly to put a stake in the ground, we did perform the first ten minutes of the novel properly synchronized to Dublin time.