Thursday, May 21, 2009

Twittering away...

I've got a good, substantive blog post in the works (read: it's all in my head, and it strikes me as completely brilliant in that formless state, but it may never see the light of laptop), but this semi-vacation period seems like a good time to reflect on the Twitter experience. I suppose I could begin with this disturbing stat: I posted 24 Twitter updates yesterday! (Honestly, I thought that number would be closer to 12 until I just checked. Yikes.)

The day was a bit exceptional, for reasons I'll explain, and I'm in that school vacation mode, even though I haven't finished all my grading and even though the house/yard/children/etc could desperately use my attention. Although I'm sure I've never before had 24 "tweets" in one day, I have racked up a total of 346 in less than two months. So, here's an attempt to figure out why and to ramble on about the Twittersphere.

As has been well-documented here, the "Twitter an Opera Plot" contest is what got me to sign on, and it's also what has really defined my Twitter world so far. Alas, I was not a winner of the Big Round 2 version of the contest, but it was a remarkable experience to be a part of such a large-scale creative activity. Think of how much time, knowledge, and invention went into creating these hundreds of little distillations. I admire the winning entries, but I hope it doesn't sound like sour grapes to suggest that it's the total sum of entries that's the real prize here. Read through that big list and you're sure to learn something new, but also to be struck by opera's wonderful combination of simple, emotional directness and convoluted, excessive absurdity.

Most importantly, the best entries are a reminder of how much creative energy can be sparked by tight constraints. As it happens, the contest also sparked some wonderful generosity on the part of one of the winners; he donated his grand prize of tickets to Washington National Opera's Turandot and grand ball to a Washington D.C. public school music teacher. (Got to admit I had my eye on that prize; the grand ball is on my wedding anniversary, and we have relatives [housing & free babysitters] in the D.C. area. Oh well.) Now, there's absolutely nothing not to love about this story, so forgive the following comments, which might seem petty. However, it's sad to me that after a contest that produced such a unique and multi-faceted body of work, the big story (from the media perspective) is that a deserving teacher gets to go to a ball.

Again, the teacher story is fantastic, but this is hardly the most efficient way to have made that happen. The Washington National Opera could just as easily have donated that prize package to a teacher to begin with. As at least one Twitterer has remarked, the WNO has actually done some very slick P.R. work here (helped out by a very generous operaplotter). The point is, people do nice and generous things for other people every day, some more nicely packaged for the news than others. I understand that Anne Midgette almost certainly doesn't even write that Washington Post article if she doesn't have the Cinderella story as the lead, but it's sad to me that: 1) she didn't provide a link to the online archive of operaplot entries, and 2) she didn't bother to credit the author (Nicole Brockmann) of three plots that she cited in the article. (By the way, Brockmann's entries were jaw-droppingly good, such that I'd pretty much given up hope of winning before the prizes were announced, although shockingly, she wasn't chosen as a winner.) Midgette could have done both with minimal effort, and without really changing anything about the article.

The fact is, the mainstream media still hasn't learned how to think in the new hyperlinked way that makes the Internet so revolutionary. Traditional media types want to reduce everything to tidy, single-focus stories with catchy headlines, when it's the multi-layered richness of online collaboration, community, and connections that's the real story. For example, just about every news story I've heard about Twitter completely misses the point about what makes it unique and valuable; it's easier and catchier just to say that it's a bunch of people writing about what they had for dinner. And yet, I can't imagine how something like this enormous collection of clever opera summaries would have come into existence so quickly without something like Twitter. (The Omniscient Mussel deserves a lot of credit as well.)

To be fair, it's quite difficult to describe the Twitter experience, just because it is so multi-dimensional, and yes, it's easy enough to find inane twitter samples. I actually think Twitter still has major kinks, especially related to that charming and genre-defining rule about posts containing only 140 characters. It's a good rule - until conversations start to get more complicated and richly layered. Although users have tried to develop etiquette for quoting and citing other tweets, it gets messy fast when you're faced with that limit on characters. I've seen many example where threads have been broken and ideas have been untethered from their original authors. But I don't want to get into a technical discussion here about how that problem might be fixed. (Curiously, one possible advantage of this limit is that I don't see a lot of arguing on Twitter, at least not in the very small 'corner' where I hang out. I think this is partly because people recognize how dangerous it would be to argue within that character limit. At least for me, I can't imagine trying to state an argumentative case clearly while worrying about keeping it so short; misunderstandings would be inevitable.)

Instead, I'll try to suggest what's good about Twitter. For me, what sets it apart from other online experiences I've had is the way it inspires and facilitates conversation. (Facebook can do this as well, but it tends to be based more on existing personal relationships than on the common interests that cause Twitterers to follow each other.) I've commented on many blogs over the years, and sometimes that works well, but more often than not, there's enough lag between the various comments that's the conversation lacks spontaneity. Assuming one checks in on Twitter fairly often, there's the possibility of virtually real-time communication. Here's an example of how that can play out.

Yesterday, one user commented to another that she'd just realized his unusual Twitter username is an anagram. Since I was still suffering from operaplot withdrawal, this almost immediately led me to think of creating operaplot anagrams. Not much later, I was posting the following operagrams:
Soon thereafter, another user chimed in with "I don't even want to think about operaplotpalindrome." Neither did I, but the seed was planted. Remarkably, it wasn't much longer before I'd churned out the following, legitimate palindromes all:
[Each of the "plots" above is linked to its opera. By the way, I'm particularly proud of the Semele one. It may read oddly, but it's historical fact that Handel produced this opera-like work as an oratorio, so that it could be performed during the Lenten season when opera performances were banned. However, audiences didn't take too kindly to a rather erotic Greek story where something noble and biblical was expected, so he definitely failed to make a Messiah out of the story.]

I was actually surprised to learn that creating palindromes is not as impossible a task as I'd always assumed, although it is a serious constraint. I got all excited thinking that the following would be my best yet: "Hey, rise, Mimi! Misery, eh?" until I realized the "ise" goes the same direction both times - and this tiny problem is essentially unfixable within the constraint. Still, I hadn't had so much retrograde fun since creating an ambigram last Spring. And it all happened in one Twitter-torrent of inspiration.

But, more importantly, Twitter turns out to be a good way to get linked to interesting articles, videos, and ideas from all over the Internet - and to be reminded again and again of common interests. Of course, blogs have served that purpose for some time, but this system pushes information to the user much more conveniently. Obviously, the biggest trick is avoiding the temptation to spend too much time there - a battle I've lost in the few days since the semester ended, but I'll be busy enough with other projects soon enough.

I'm not convinced that Twitter itself will hold onto the market for this kind of online community, but it's certain that something like it will be around for awhile. If you've never Twittered and want to try to get some sense of it, you can view an archive of my first 300 tweets here. Because many of these posts are replies to other people, it can be a bit tricky to follow at first. And, by the way, Twitter does a horrible job of teaching its users how the system works. It took me weeks, for example, to figure out that by clicking on the words "in reply to" I could jump to the previous message in a thread. It also turns out to be almost essential to use a free program like TweetDeck to manage one's twittering, although you'd never know that just by signing up. But oh well, it is what it is, and what it is is pretty cool.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that today I decided to try my hand at opera acrostics. Here's how that turned out:
  • Doer of no good invites offed visitor. Apparition needs no introduction.
  • Fidelio is deceptive eponym. ("Leonore" in overtures.)
  • Florestan's in danger. Enter Leonore, ingenious operative.
  • Lovable artists bring operagoers heartfelt emotion: Mimi expires.
Since they're acrostics, you should be able to figure them out easily enough!
NOTE: I'm pretty certain the Lulu palindrome above is my first ever use of the "LOL" formulation. I hope it's the last as well. I do enjoy the irony of applying it to that ridiculously sordid tale, for which laughter may indeed be the most appropriate response. Also not too crazy about the emerging Twitter vocabulary. I can handle tweets, I suppose, but tweeps? twibes? etc. Ugh.


S.Llewellyn said...

It was I who won and donated the prize, MMmusing. I agree with a good deal of what you say and disagree with other parts but that is not why I am commenting here. When I made this gift it was not for the purpose of doing one kindly act for another person not known to me. My intention all along - and I have received the unwavering support of WNO, the Washington Post et this - has been to try to draw attention to the importance of the work done by teachers of the arts, often at great personal sacrifice. I am still hoping that may happen. Had the WNO just made such a gift it would not have been the 'story' that the 'random act of kindness to a perfect stranger' is. And had WNO done this and then sought to publicise it then it would surely have been castigated as a cynical self-serving exercise in emotional manipulation rather than a demonstration of philanthropy. Yes, Miss Mussel is to be congratulated on a wonderfully whimsical idea executed beautifully. And she got lots of laudatory ink for her trouble. I don't believe she feels her own efforts have been short-changed or undermined by subsequent events.


Thanks Stephen,

I tried to be clear that I liked everything about the article, and I think it's a wonderful story - I just would've liked to have seen slightly more attention paid to the collection of entries as a unique collaborative effort (especially because the Twitter medium encouraged a sort of 'conversation' among the entries), and that could have been handled with nothing more than a link, and perhaps an extra sentence recommending that readers browse the archive. Part of my point, which may not have been well-expressed, is that newspapers often don't get that an article like this could serve as a gateway to lots more information - and all it would have taken is a link.

Here's another way of putting it. What happened with the WNO prize was wonderful, brought much-deserved attention to a deserving teacher, and made an important statement about the value of music educators. All good. However, I think if none of that had happened, the contest still stands on its own as a newsworthy story about how Twitter can bring people together in a uniquely creative way. I think there's a tendency to look at something like this as just a bunch of silly people wasting their time online. (I'm not suggesting you've said that. I'm suggesting that's a general attitude about Twitter and many other online communities.) No, the final results aren't Shakespeare, but there's real artistry and educational value in the collection. That, to me, is the really unique part of the story. By the way, I don't agree that the WNO would be castigated for honoring a local teacher on their own initiative, and I hope that your act will inspire them to consider continuing the practice.

Anyway, congratulations both on your victory and on your generous spirit. I'm glad it has inspired a lot of people; it certainly inspired me. I teach many future music educators, and although "music ed" majors were sometimes looked down on in my college years, I've come to appreciate more and more what a wonderful and (as you say) sacrificial thing it is to choose that path.(But, to invoke the confessional spirit of Harry the Horse, "when the competition was going on, I hoped I'd win the WNO prize. And now that's it's over...I still wish it!")


Oh, and one follow-up. I didn't mean to suggest that Miss Mussel's idea has been "short-changed or undermined by subsequent events." As I mentioned, I'm sure the WaPo article wouldn't even have been written without the teacher story, so it certainly couldn't be accused of undermining; and Miss Mussel has been consistently gracious and self-effacing about her role in all of this, and I know she was thrilled by your story. She also kindly and clearly requested that media outlets cite the operaplot authors when their entries are printed, something Midgette didn't do. But, look, none of this is a big deal; I was honestly more interested in making a larger point about how the media tends to perceive Twitter. I'm honestly sorry it came across otherwise.