Escaping Minimal Selves and Entertainment Cliches Through Twitter

From Paul Rosenberg at OpenLeft I headed over to Salon and Heather Havrilesky commenting on NBCs new television series “The Event”.

The real problem is, we don’t care because there clearly isn’t any larger meaning guiding the action, and the only thing we know about each character is that he/she totally loves his/her fiancé/wife/husband/children sooo much that he/she would do anything to keep them safe.

In a country where many viewers don’t have a lot of thoughtful or idealistic notions outside of a “love of family” – worthy though this love obviously is – this is what passes for character development and premise, over and over again. Even on the most popular TV shows and movies out there, this is often the one humanizing factor, the one guiding principle, the one very simple central thrust of the entire narrative.

Rosenberg extends the comment

What Havrilesky’s describing is the minimal self of neo-liberalism, for whom all higher things have either been commodified, or reduced to single-minded love of family. Given this, there simple is no possible foundation for a truly democratic politics of any sort, much less for actual patriotism.

The problem with mass entertainment and the mass media is that it lives and dies based on cliches. Just look at my comments on The Social Network; in that movie the cliche is the young man who makes it rich but at the expense of his friends and his soul. And that story gets repeated over and over on the cover of Time magazine or at the gas pump whenever prices go up. In these stories people are the thinnest of signifiers, they are nothing more than a label for an opinion or an experience. A site like TV tropes thrives because these ideas are repeated again and again.

One of the reasons why I like Twitter is the reminder that people are so much more than cliches. When blogging began to become popular at the start of the decade there were a lot of news stories about the proverbial blogger typing away in a basement while wearing pajamas. But the truth of the blogosphere that I experienced was a flowering of diversity, a new horizon of people who were interested in a multitude of different things. Sometimes those things were banal like pictures of cats or what people ate for breakfast. Today that same continuous churn from the boring to the interesting happens on Twitter. At one moment someone says something about how they hate driving in rush hour traffic, but the next day that same person may turn me onto a great piece of music I would never have encountered elsewhere. For myself I’ve called this an expansion of the horizon of my awareness.

In July Jonah Lehrer at Scienceblogs wrote about following random Twitter strangers

I’d argue that the benefits of these twitter strangers extend beyond the fleeting pleasures of electronic eavesdropping. Instead, being exposed to a constant stream of unexpected tweets - even when the tweets seem wrong, or nonsensical, or just plain silly - can actually expand our creative potential.

The explanation returns us to the banal predictability of the human imagination. In study after study, when people free-associate, they turn out to not be very free. For instance, if I ask you to free-associate on the word “blue,” chances are your first answer will be “sky”. Your next answer will probably be “ocean,” followed by “green” and, if you’re feeling creative, a noun like “jeans”. The reason for this is simple: Our associations are shaped by language, and language is full of cliches….

And this is why following someone unexpected on Twitter can be a small step towards a more open mind. Because not everybody reacts to the same thing in the same way. Sometimes, it takes a confederate in an experiment to remind us of that. And sometimes, all it takes is a stranger on the internet, exposing us to a new way of thinking about God, Detroit and the Kardashians.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.