The Content of Our Characters

I have been discussing the mysteries of Twitter with some colleagues who care about such things. Why does something go viral? What is my return on investment? How do I break through? Why do I love Twitter and hate it simultaneously?

Language is my thing. I love playing with words. I am a voracious reader; I can’t imagine a day of life without reading material that is well-written and interests me.

Twitter was a real gift to someone like me. Here was a chance to practice writing and to engage with others who had news or novel ideas to present. I thought Twitter represented the “meritocracy of the word”: a platform for thinkers who had something to say and did it with elegance. If you could do that then attention would be commensurate with your product. Then, the world intervened.

It is not a meritocracy of the word.

WHAT AM I TRYING TO DO?

On Twitter, I give myself a broad portfolio to break news, to comment on it, to engage with others who are like-minded, to learn, to laugh, to communicate messages, to meet new people and deepen relationships, to practice and promote my craft, to amplify the voices of the unheard or specific groups who echo my philosophies or stances, to provoke (civilly), or enlighten, and, finally, to benefit from my efforts.

Twitter is serious to me. I need it, to be a good citizen, to not feel alone in my thoughts, to be inspired, to be entertained, to make a difference, to inform, to commune, to make my mark, and to get ahead. To be crystal clear, I want to support myself through my writing, reporting, and broadcasting.

WHAT ARE MY BIASES?

I am compelled by social inequality and the fight for racial justice in the United States. One summer when I was 11, my parents took me and my sisters to Europe. In France, my father told me that I was very observant. They had adopted me.

I started picking up followers faster in the late summer of 2014, after Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer at the time, shot and killed 18-year-old pedestrian Michael Brown. I live a couple of blocks from the Ferguson Police Department. As a news junkie, self-styled progressive, and a former broadcast journalist, I wanted to participate in protest, and I had the tools, inclination, and experience to get the word out fast, often, and well. That is how saw my role: as a facilitator of communications and a broadcaster of the message of disadvantaged and mistreated African-Americans in St. Louis.

I met and interviewed all kinds of people in the movement. I went to meetings with them. I posted recordings and reflections on what was going on. I amplified the voices of young people. I looked especially for the voices of Black women; I think they have the best vantage point on the dynamics of American society.

I am biased toward working to lift the oppression of white supremacy in the United States, and worldwide. I do this through my words and actions. I do this through Twitter.

This involves engaging with capitalism. I am about to touch on that.

WHAT ARE MY PROBLEMS?

I feel ineffectual. I was not able to leverage social media to my advantage in my political campaigns. It is honorable to go down swinging with your ethics in place, and I am proud of what I did and was able to achieve, but I lost and that is all that matters to Twitter. OK, that’s not fair, because I made some relationships out of that time, and those people gifted me their acknowledgment.

I write traditionally, and by that I mean I use so-called standard English in my tweets, most of the time. I capitalize and use periods at the end. This marks me as an armchair analyst, one who is kicked back, away from the action. I take my time to compose tweets because I am a perfectionist who can’t stand mistakes. I am self-conscious–vulnerable–when I write, and so I care about conventional standards of writing.

I am not established in the firmament of respectability, (read, “verified”, in most cases), so, who am I? I am not a psychologist, so therefore when I say Donald Trump is a psychopath I don’t know what I’m talking about. I am not a former prosecutor, or a commentator on television, so I am not qualified to say that he is a criminal.

As far as language goes, I am multicultural. I believe in, and practice, what I will call “delineated polydexterity”. I believe in using whatever is most effective in a particular case. I can slang that dialect. I sling lingo, yo, but I gotta be careful because I’m acutely aware that it can be off-putting and that I have to be strategic with it.

My work schedule is a problem. I am not able to attend some of the kinds of meetings that I was going to three years ago. I sometimes feel like I am letting people down for not having Ferguson updates. I am trying to figure out how to do better in this area.

WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS?

What comes a dime a dozen? Criticism of the president. Also, clever sayings. They can come from anywhere. So, who are you? Clever sayings that contain content critical of the president that use conventional English standards are a part of “Bitter Twitter”, unless you have the right, and the standing, to capture the zeitgeist.

Tweets that go viral, in this telling, fall into two categories that are divided into “high” and “low” culture. In the low, anyone can score through breaking news or through the “novel”. The novel is usually conveyed through informal language that puts a unique spin on something trending in popular culture. Somebody blew up the other day talking about Kim and Kanye and Beyoncé and Jay-Z. News, in this case, is video of the two Black men getting arrested at the Philadelphia Starbucks, for instance. The other way to pop is to embody the right and the standing to capture the zeitgeist. You do not have the right and the standing to do so for us unless you have a large following and/or the “check”, which can convey that you have “done the work” in your field.

The deluge of content is a big problem, this competition for attention. Who knew everybody was a writer, or a hopeful broadcaster? There are hundreds of good podcasts to which I would like to listen. Who has the time? You could spend your whole life just learning from podcasts. I mostly avoid them, because I simply do not have the time.

Controlling your feed, or timeline, is a concern. I follow 2,700 people. If I click on a photo or read a story I’m lost when I come back to the timeline. Where I was is gone. I’m sure this is an issue for others.

The Patreon phenomenon. I see this as Big Money wanting you to have Little Money. Someone posted the “patrons of Patreon” list, I will call it, recently. It is composed of  venture capitalists who hope to profit from this system of writers begging on the Internet for donations so that they can live and pursue their writing. I don’t know how that is supposed to work. The VC’s think they do, which cannot bode well for the front end, as a class.

A Pew Research Survey taken recently showed that almost a majority of young American adults have a favorable opinion of socialism. They are the most anti-capitalist generation in a hundred years. Their answer? Every last one of us should hang out a shingle. The effect: the most capitalist generation ever. If I ain’t asked you for rent money, I ain’t never gon’ ask you for money to write. I probably should.

STYLE IS HALF THE MESSAGE

Using no caps and no periods at the end of sentences seemed to spring from convenience, but this is actually a highly-self-conscious strategy that often acts on us subconsciously when we view Twitter. The lower case flow has the effect on the reader of appearing to be Dispatches From The Front, where the writer is in the trenches and under fire, and he must pop off his words, rat-a-tat-tat style, before he gets knee-capped or overwhelmed. Most Twitter users are not literally under siege. The style is a goodly part of the message. Young writers have figured this out. I would bet that their follower counts are a little higher on average. These writers announce through their style that they are au courant, and their tweets comprise what I call “Sugar Twitter”. These are the tweets that more often give you those hits of dope.

Lead a trend or sum things up. Anybody can do the former, only celebrities are allowed the latter. What I mean here is “virality”: this potential to get traction, i.e., mind space. For instance, I can say the same thing Walter Shaub does, a day before him…the reception to the material is altogether different.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Most of us know that we are being exploited in one or several areas of our lives. We are under-employed, or under-paid; we are under-valued. Why do we do that to each other, in this space? Why is my content of such little utility in this particular marketplace? I don’t know, and, perhaps to my detriment, I don’t do much analytics on it. That is why I wrote this; thinking out loud and writing it down is the main way I analyze things.

My friend Owl of Owl’s Asylum said on his podcast that somebody will write a thread and most readers only engage with one tweet in that thread. They judge it, maybe do something with it, and move on. I think he’s right, but I don’t do it that way. If I see one tweet of a thread that interests me I will go into that thread. That is the number one way I have found people to follow in the past year. Threads give me a good idea of where that person is coming from.

Give people a shot. Think about raising your standards, and cutting your “sugar”.

I hope this stands out to you. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. from his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, I have a dream that one day we will be judged not by the cuteness of our bios, but by the content of our characters, all 280 of them.

 

 

 

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