People had a lot of interesting ideas about how productively to use twitter the last time I blogged about it. And I’m quite sure that, as a bit of technology, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with twitter. But whatever range of good ways to use it there might be, I can’t imagine that this is among them: Collect an unfiltered, live twitter stream from the audience members at a public talk or lecture and project it onto the screen behind the speaker as she is giving her talk. Here’s what might well happen:
Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn’t even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn’t know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone’s attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.
This seems to me an absolutely eloquent account of what a public speech can be at its worst.
Speaking to an audience is one of the greatest, riskiest, and perhaps most important things one can do with language. At its best it can bring together a group of people to experience themselves as experiencing together a shared public meaning in an event, and can thereby focus their sense of what they are up to as a people. When Pericles delivered his funeral oration to the city of Athens, over the remains of the dead Athenian heroes returned from the first year of the Peloponnesian War, one imagines that his audience was stirred to a shared and moving sense of belonging together to a city whose sense of itself was worth cultivating and preserving. Pericles’ connection with his audience, one imagines, is seamless and unified; he loves his audience, cares for them, and in caring for them opens up for them a sense of their own worth and a sense of what they can aspire to be that they hadn’t realized they already shared. And their care for him must be evident as well. In reading them following his speech, he is inspired to rise up and speak better. But he can only do this by seeing his audience and responding in his speech by recognizing what they need now. He can only do this by seeing, as Thucydides says, what is “called for in the situation”. Think how different this experience is than the one that twitter set up for danah boyd.
When I give a talk or a classroom lecture, my aim is to engage everyone in the audience. That means that I follow the expressions on everyone’s faces and sometimes look directly at one individual for a few sentences if I notice that the person seems to be having trouble following. There’s no way to do that when people are reading a backchannel. The speaker simply has no idea what their facial expressions refer to.
(Hat tip, by the way, to “Cautionary Tale”, whose link at Richard Bradley’s blog brought me to danah boyd’s account, and to which Judith is responding here.)
Heidegger claims somewhere that the most important things Aristotle said about language were said in the Rhetoric, not in the various logical works that fall under the general heading of the Categories. Obviously the Categories are important, and it is probably needlessly provocative to go with Heidegger all the way on this. But still, one can see his point. For the Rhetoric shows the possibility of using language to create a shared mood that focuses for a group their sense of what they could be aspiring to at their best. The Categories, by contrast, encourages us to think of language as in principle and in essence separable from the situation in which it is spoken. Somehow, by encouraging the audience to comment on the speech instead of to be drawn in by it, the twitter back channel takes us out of what public speech can be at its best.