Monday, March 2, 2009

Twittering Feminism?

Last week, the little corner of the blogosphere that I follow was suddenly all a-Twitter: Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Hugo Schwyzer, figleaf, and Latoya Peterson at Racialicious announced that they had shiny new Twitter accounts - all but Hugo expressing various degrees of skepticism. (Skippy: "it's really kind of stupid, if you ask us.") This followed close on the heels of that Politico article revealing Karl Rove as the most popular twit in the political Twittersphere (thus proving Skippy right), and a blistering Alternet piece by Alexander Zaitchik proclaiming the birth of Twitter Nation and the death of intelligent discourse.

I'm a pretty hardcore Twitter refusenik (more on that in a moment), but all this chirping - combined with the recent shitstorm in the feminist blogosphere - made me wonder how Twitter shapes the hierarchy of issues and blogs. And so, when Feministe's latest installment in their response to the shitstorm appeared this morning, I seized on the chance to ask in comments about how Twitter and email function behind the scenes at Feministe. Both Holly and Cara (twice!) took a generous amount of time to reply. Their responses are worth reading.

Basically, Holly doesn't use Twitter at all. Cara says she uses it mainly for social contacts - commiserating and venting, keeping in touch with friends, and sharing links:
Some might call that networking, and I suppose that it is, in a certain way. Mainly, I use it to keep me sane throughout the day, to keep in touch with people, and because Twitter is just plain addicting. The people I follow are those with whom I had an existing relationship prior to/outside of Twitter, and those who have consistently responded to my tweets in thoughtful/amusing ways.
This all sounds much more banal than evil, to me.

I'm not meaning to suggest that this means we should all go back to sleep and set aside all of the issues that flared in the recent shitstorm. The feminist conversation about race that intensified during the past few weeks needs to continue. It's been going on at least since Ida B. Wells castigated Jane Addams for ignorance about lynching, and it probably won't be obsolete in my lifetime (unfortunately).

Nor am I suggesting the hierarchy of feminist blogs is unproblematic. The linkage map from the Feminist 2.0 conference shows that the "big" blogs benefit from upward linking; smaller blogs, not so much.

But accusations of intransparency seem ill-founded to me when all you need to do is ask. The Feministe bloggers have been hugely receptive to this. I was persuaded by Cara's portrayal of decision-making at Feministe (and I'm guessing at other group blogs) as decentralized, bottom-up, and often anarchic. This is plausible not just because I think Cara has shown herself to be trustworthy and credible over her career as a blogger, but also because none of these folks are blogging full-time. They just don't have time for more coordination. And maybe I'm naive or idealistic, but I see a real and importance difference between the process Cara describes and the way the mainstream media adheres to a narrow, often top-down agenda.

From that comment thread - and from glancing at the Twitter feeds for Cara, Jill Filipovic, Renee, Amanda Marcotte, and Jessica Valenti - you can definitely see that Twitter spawns networks, albeit pretty loose, informal ones. Nothing here suggests a vast feminist conspiracy. Rather, it looks to me as though people are using Twitter to avoid writer's isolation, swap interesting news items and posts, and comment on their cats' behavior. (That last use is especially laudable, in my book.)

The end result appears to be networks that look pretty familiar to me from academia, just more technologically sophisticated. These networks probably do matter a lot when it comes to putting together panel discussions, essay collections, and so on. In that way, they may also reinforce a sense of hierarchy, though this all appears pretty benign to me.

The alternative is not to eschew networks altogether; it's to open them up to be more inclusive. As a Twitter Luddite, I can't really judge whether that's happening, and anyway I think it's up to those feminists who've been marginalized in the past to say whether they feel included and what that means for them as bloggers or activists.

I do think Twitter automatically tends toward hierarchy in its high-schoolishness, and that may be more problematic. People with any degree of prominence typically have far more people following them than they follow in return. The numbers start to look like a popularity contest. At the top of the pile - just like in school days - is the big bully, Karl Rove. But it's also true that four of the five feminist Twitterers I just mentioned have substantially more followers than people that they follow. The exception is Renee, who has over 800 in each category, and I can't imagine how she does it! Seriously, no one can expect reciprocity of people who are being followed by hundreds of their readers, and I'm not suggesting that feminists should be any different. I think it's worth noting the Twitter hierarchy, however, and asking how it might affect other hierarchies (not just the one in the feminist blogosphere).

As for me, I'm not going to start using Twitter, although I did squat a name for myself, just in case. I already fail to update my Facebook feed for months on end. I don't need another time suck, and Twitter strikes me as a huge one. Also, I (obviously!) don't gravitate toward short-form writing; if you think this post is long, you should see my dissertation. I'm not convinced that many people tweet well. While a few are inspired by the 140-character limit to be pithy and clever, most just stick to the mundane. At its worst, Twitter may be a machine for taking smart people's thoughts and making them simpleminded.

I suppose you could tweet in haiku form?
Kids are still awake
Heads unquiet, full of thoughts
Too much like their mom
That's my life at this very moment. Sorry, I no longer have a cat to report on. If I did, her hairballs would feature prominently. Yet another reason to keep me off Twitter.


DaisyDeadhead said...

Re: Feministe threads.

I was upset that the subject of email lists was simply CLOSED. I signaled my disgust by simply leaving all threads on the topic of the Professor WhatIf piece.

GIANT elephant in the room, scares the hell out of everyone. Nothing will get solved unless the subject of the posses is fully addressed.

Unfortunately, everyone is terrified of the posses, so there is that.

Sungold said...

Well, before you left, you said some great and essential stuff on those threads. The age issue, the class/employment issue, the time issue: these are all really big deals and too often intersectionality gets boiled down to gender plus race plus (maybe) sexual orientation.

I keep hearing whispers about these email lists. Lauren discussed them some toward the end - did you see that part?

I would like to know more about that, myself, and honestly it would deserve a separate post. Which, I believe, you demanded. Not sure if that's forthcoming but a gal can hope.