Sunday, January 20, 2013


Does anybody else find it weird that there should be an academic citation style tied to the offerings of a single company? To me, it seems like a minor but telling episode in the continual erosion of the commons, or more precisely the cultural secession of control of the means of communication to private enterprises.

Minor, in that who really cares about citation styles, especially in light of all the far more significant ways in which corporations have ate away at academia. Telling, in that it means that “tweet” has become part of the general machinery of communication, a generic term like Kleenex or Xerox (or Google) that just happens to be owned by a corporation.

We have accepted tweeting into our lives, just as we have Facebooking and all the other similar platforms for social life. In Twitter’s case, I sort of implicitly trust the company not to do anything too stupid, not to change the rules too drastically (this is in part helped by their radically simplified model). With Facebook, it’s quite the opposite, we are resigned to them changing the rules all the time, knowing that we will grumble and complain and a very few folks will loudly resign from the FB world, and everyone else will go on.

I myself tweeted last year:
sɹəʌɐɹ⊥, əʞıW (mtraven). “Oh please, if FB can "sabotage what it means to be human" then your humanity wasn't much good in the first place.” 30 May 2012, 4:00 p.m. Tweet.
FB won’t make us less human, because human is a very expansive idea, there are many ways to be human. But it does threaten to change human culture in ways we don’t quite understand. It seems roughly analogous to what happens when privately owned shopping malls displace genuine public urban street life – you get something cleaner, more managed, more pleasant in many ways, but also sterile, depoliticized, and subtly or not-so-subtly oriented towards getting you separated from your cash.

Academia is supposed to be an island somewhat isolated from commercial pressures and fads of the moment, the part of society that is able to consider both the long term and the common good. If it was stronger and functioning properly, it would have come up a better way to refer to chunks of social media conversation, something that was more general and more archival.

In this case, they fucked up even the job of setting a standard for Twitter, since they didn’t include the URL or unique id that would have actually made reference possible. This makes me think that there were no technical people involved in this, and it is a case of some poor humanist grudgingly forced to acknowledge a new reality. They would have done better to embrace it more fully.


Chris said...

You have a funny notion of erosion. Before Twitter, there wasn't anything to cite because Twitter didn't exist. Having a citation style for Twitter sounds more like growth than erosion.

mtraven said...

It's a certain standard of practice that is eroding, a kind of agreed-upon wall of separation between the commercial and academic (as I said, this is an extremely minor hole in that wall compared to some others).

scw said...

Is there really any subject worth serious academic study that needs to take cognizance of tweets?

How does their advent affect, say, the study of the higher mathematics, physics, or chemistry? History or political economy? Philosophy, literature, the fine arts? Architecture, engineering, medicine, or the other learnèd professions?

As a technology, Twitter is remarkable, but as a social phenomenon, doesn't it just amount to a digital facilitation of the sort of gossip that used to be exchanged by housewives over the back fence, or their menfolk at the neighborhood tavern - just as the telephone earlier facilitated the same thing by means of electricity? Are not these mere manifestations of the popular culture, mostly vulgar in all senses of the term, and beneath the concern of real scholarship?

If there is any need for a method of citation for tweets, it is probably in the law, where the evidentiary status of such communications is doubtless still in flux. We may expect the courts, in the course of determining what this is to be, will devise a system suited to their needs.