How Twitter Is Like African Tribal Drums

Question: What do you make of the need to perform one’s life on Twitter and Facebook?

Margaret Atwood: Well it is just an extension of the diary.  And there is a wonderful book called, "The Assassin’s Cloak," which takes diary entries from all centuries and arranges them according to day of the year.  So you can turn to January the 1st and there will be an entry from Lord Byron, and there will be one from somebody during World War II, and there will be one from Brian Eno.  And then on January 2, there will be somebody else.  

People used to perform their lives this way to themselves in their diaries, and also through letters to other people.  So for me, anything that happens in social media is an extension of stuff we were already doing in some other way.  So, it’s all human communication.  And the form that most closely resembles the “tweet” is the telegram of old, which also was limited because you paid by the letter.  And so short communications very rapidly sent.  

So all of these things, the postal service, et cetera, they’re all improvements, if you like, or modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form.  Even African tribal drums, for instance, could send very complex messages over great distances.  They were very rapid, they were very well-worked out and communications could just go like wildfire using that medium of communications.  

So all of this stuff is what we do now, but it’s not different in nature from what we have always done, which is communicate with one another, send messages to one another, and perform our lives.  We’ve been doing that for a long time.

Question:
But it’s no longer just about sending a message; it’s about being seen sending a message, right?

Margaret Atwood: It’s very interesting.  Once upon a time in social lives, say before the 19th century, people coded themselves or were coded by the authorities according to their clothing.  Unless they differentiated themselves that way or they were differentiated, people were forbidden to wear this or that or the other things and they had to wear this or that or the other thing.  And therefore, it was a visual performance for the benefit of anybody looking at them.  

And we have reduced clothing, I think, to a much more horizon... it’s much more horizontal.  You can’t tell by looking at somebody what level of society they come from unless it’s really at the bottom or really at the top.  The kind of jeans and... the jeans outfit is pretty ubiquitous.  

So maybe we feel the need to perform ourselves in some other way. And if you think that what goes up on people’s blogs is really the full content of their lives, of course, you’re quite wrong.  It’s what they’re doing in the spotlight.  It’s their turn.  And this spotlight they can shine it on themselves and they can go in there and sort of dance about and create a persona for themselves.  Of course it’s not the whole story.

Recorded 10/21/2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

New forms of communication are just modernizations of things that already existed earlier in some other form, says the author.

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