Radical Interdependence and Online Telepathy: How Twitter Helps Us Find One Another
It’s springtime in New Orleans after 2 and a half years of winter. A rebirth has begun -- new flowers are blooming along the sides of streets that were once underwater. I was there for a sunshine-filled week in April during French Quarter fest. Musicians played out on the streets in their fedoras and shades and none of the clubs charged a cover. I’d never been to the city before and felt welcomed by its chilled out vibe and music at every corner -- but also by its open, at times jarring displays of pain and lonesomeness -- some somber, some festive, and some that were both at once. This lack of pretense sets the stage for a very liberated yet melancholic scene: the blues that made the city famous have themselves been beaten a deep, steel drum azure to match the nighttime skies over the levees. All that’s left is to play it -- to bang on the stars and let the world know that this mythical place is rising again.
I went to check it out and saw firsthand the NEW New Orleans that I’d been reading about in colorful dispatches NOT found in the national news -- which has long since moved on from chronicling the city’s grim struggle -- but in the form of the triumphantly poetical “tweets” of a woman named Evelyn Rodriguez, or “eve11” as she calls herself on Twitter, the micro-blogging social network where I hang out online. A Twitter user publishes “tweets,” or tiny posts of 140 characters about whatever it is they’re doing -- however banal or inadvertently poetical -- “everything from what they had for lunch, or what airport they're stuck in...to profound declarations of revolutionary activism and links to emerging tech tools” -- for a group of followers who have added them to the list of people from whom they want to receive tweets. These can be people they already know in real life or online, or they can be total strangers that they find through Twitter itself or a Twitter search engine such as Summize.
Eve11’s tweets heralded a Southern hipster/zydeco punk peer-to-peer renaissance that was a citywide version of the kind of awakening that I was experiencing on a personal level. Her messages of hope and resiliency came at just the right time, in just the right way, and were the tickertape proof that the profound change that I felt in my own life was happening all around the world and that I didn’t want to keep quiet about it anymore.
This isn’t really the right way to put it -- as Evelyn would surely agree; it’s hard to make sense out of enlightenment with words, but here goes:
I’ve realized that we’re in the midst of a speeding up of the rate of exchange between our thoughts and desires on the so-called “inside” and that which actually happens on the so-called “outside”…a speeding up which will eventually prove such distinctions between inside and outside to be arbitrary in the first place…
(but more on that later)
Twitter is perhaps the most fluid of all the major social networks. When I’m on Twitter I’m tuning into “collective life streams” as opposed to interacting as a member of a criteria-based group. The fact that Twitter is mobile and able to be used by text messaging via cell phones provides new possibilities for making the most out of “between” moments. Many people find the time to tweet as they travel between the places where groups meet -- in other words, when they are outside of the group and defined only by their individuality. This in turn opens them up to the possibility of finding new groups from far flung places on the social graph. Tweets take place in taxi cabs and in airports, while waiting for trams and waiting for a concert to start. A group could be formed around people who are fans of a movie -- or around passengers stranded together at an airport who use Twitter to craft a “real time” letter of complaint to an airline CEO. Twitter is about being untethered from the world of heavy buildings and offices and computers, but at the same time being aware and informed. The more people you follow, the wider net you cast with which to gather information. I follow fewer people than many and I still hear about most breaking international, national and citywide news from someone on Twitter first.
Twitter is a great tool for DIY, self-organizing “un-groups” such as the stranded airline passengers mentioned above. As the name would imply, an un-group doesn’t have a membership policy or an explicitly agreed upon set of rules and hierarchies. Un-groups aren’t meant to be solemn brother or sisterhoods that one swears an oath to uphold. They are the practical, quick and easy collaborative attempts to solve any number of problems. What’s more, the specificity of the un-groups makes it such that belonging to one doesn’t define you as a person -- perhaps you work as an executive for Phillip Morris trying to figure out how to sell more cigarettes but also coordinate your neighborhood’s recycling efforts in a city or a town where the municipality refuses to do it.
We live in a society that has learned to accommodate such contradictions. For most people it’s not (yet?) about giving up their former lives -- they’re still trying to fit the change that’s underway within their lives as they currently exist, instead of allowing the change to dismantle the old framework entirely. The good news is that the revolution/evolution only needs the exact amount of time and the exact amount of resources that you’re able to give to it. Not everyone is ready to leave behind every single vestige of the old way of being behind--nor is that necessarily what is required. Enlightenment isn’t about becoming someone else, but becoming more uniquely YOU:
"There's a myth that awakening and the ever-unfolding enlightening is only for saints, Buddhists, someone holier than thou, someone special, someone-anyone-else. (Ha! I'm totally busting the saint archetype - my imperfections have never been more glaringly obvious and wholly okay.) We think we'd become something Other, maybe we'll morph into Mother Teresa or Jesus or Buddha or Joan of Arc or god knows. That's not it -- we become more nakedly ourselves, without the burden of maintaining an awkward and cumbersome image of ourselves (we most certainly do not become anyone else)."--Evelyn
The old, outdated structures are cracking and tumbling down under the weight of their own overhead. We’re entering an entirely new paradigm, not just a change of power in the old. Obama becoming President, as great as he seems to be, is not what’s going to make this huge change happen. Things will change forever when people all across the globe realize that they can effectively organize without big corporations, the church or the government and that a new level of power to the people is FREE for the taking. The effects of the proliferation of these new kinds of un-groups (which is to say, new, non traditional groups) is the focus of Internet Analyst Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody:
"The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owing a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of 'consumer' is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity."—(Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 107-108)
This is the cultural equivalent of a multi-million person flash mob -- since there isn’t an official group to raid, censor or arrest, the revolution of the un-group can’t be stopped or adequately contained -- at best it can be temporarily aggregated in community nooks and crannies. It turns out that we don’t need to spend the time and energy to be a part of highly structured groups with large overhead costs and time-sucking bureaucracies. Acting as non-managed, highly motivated un-groups of individuals tends to be a more effective and efficient way of doing things. An example of this is the tremendous growth of Wikipedia, the online, user-generated encyclopedia. This unmanaged, unpaid, ungroup effort is the result of over 100 million hours of work. The cost of managing a project of this scale would have been astronomical -- but in the case of Wikipedia, the un-group worked collaboratively and the product came together organically.
Evelyn’s tweets made me realize that the crossover was happening -- that this new way of self-organizing had spread offline.
Sure there are kids who are wide AWAKE in every city in every country but in order for a really new way of being to truly take hold, the old way of doing things to be called into question and/or done away with altogether. As everyone knows, most of New Orleans was left to drown after Katrina -- a botched and tardy response by all responsible governmental agencies went largely unpunished even after “You’re doin a heck of a job, Brownie,” and similar media bites were broadcast endlessly around the world. Many poorer residents who survived were given one-way tickets out of the city, in some cases as far away as Utah, and not offered a viable way to return home. Some are scared to come back, upon hearing reports of increased crime and levees that still aren’t fully repaired. “Why should I let them finish me off?” is the reasoning of some.
If there was ever a place in which a brand new way of living could take root in America, this was it. Based on eve11’s tweets, a new America is exactly what is being dreamed into being:
eve11: OH, an hour ago: "This is so New Orleans, I love it." Ref'ing Casey's Cozmic Drum Cage Interplanetary Rhythm" installation.
eve11: Couldn't describe half these hacked diginstruments at NoizeFest. Music may not be entirely my scene, but I love backyard roadshows anyhow.
eve11: Chaz Fest is quintessentially New Orleans. DIY, hand-drawn signs, live local bands, homecooked (yum crawfish dumplings) in funky backyard.
eve11:Musing aloud of a New Orleans neo-renaissance BarCamp-style unconference for grassroots folks to dream, ignite, share.Maybe at XO Studios.
I quickly became addicted to these “verbal snapshots” about a renaissance that she likened to a start-up at a city/neighborhood level. Healers, activists and social entrepreneurs were moving into the frontierland of the still decimated flood ravaged neighborhoods and turning garbage into gold. She told of barter galleries and the organization “Food Not Bombs” offering weekly free meals made from food rescued from grocery store dumpsters. She reported upon the politicized messages and murals that the city’s graffiti artists put up as well as their ongoing war against the “Gray Ghost”, an angry ex-marine waging his one man war against graffiti. He covers it up wherever he finds it (including historical buildings or street signs) with a coat of gray paint that is in many cases more unwanted than the original graffiti. Despite this ex-marine’s vigilante efforts, the artists persist, tagging walls with slogans such as “Disobedience is progress” and “We have a lot of ♥ work to do”.
There were art shows on front lawns and inside old multi-family “shotgun” houses (named so because of their long, barrel like design) and abandoned homes that had themselves been turned into pieces of art—like the one filled with dirt that’s literally blooming with flowers from its windows, nooks and crevices with flowers. One friend of hers owned two houses -- one was destroyed by Katrina, another by a fire. She tweeted about how he rebuilt one and cleared out the lot of the second—his plan being to turn it into a communal shamanic garden space.
Twitter’s “rushing river of brevities”-- as described by the web usability analyst and social media specialist (as well as noise musician and anarchist) Vaspers the Grate -- is well suited for brainstorming new possibilities. The juxtapositions have a Beat-like quality to them of being startling enough to suggest new ideas and connections. The way in which the immediacy of the cut-up effect takes precedence over the actual content of the tweets resembles Burroughs’ recipe for finding what he referred to as “intersection points” in his essay, “In Present Time”:
"Now try this take a walk a bus a taxi do a few errands sit down somewhere drink a coffee watch tv look through the papers now return to your place and write what you have just seen heard felt thought with particular attention to precise intersection points." –William Burroughs, “In Present Time”
His instructions sound a lot like the transcript from a typical afternoon’s worth of tweets except with Twitter you get even more chances for intersection points as the technology allows you to have other peoples’ “present time” interwoven with yours. Part of what I connect with Evelyn on is her ability to see the potential of social networks as artistic mediums for creating real time analogues of human consciousness. Several years ago (“in another lifetime”, as she puts it) she was a social media consultant living in the Bay Area. A series of dramatic events, including her experience as an injured survivor of the 2004 Tsunami--as well as her return visit to the beach where it happened in Thailand a year later —led her to put aside and eventually give up her career and focus instead on collaborating in the global awakening that she realized was going on. She made art herself and helped others to make it. She “rolled into action” to help the needy not out of obligation but simply because it felt right.
The essential spontaneity of life -- of the naturally winding path that our imaginations like to take when left free to wander -- is something that Evelyn feels is captured well on Twitter, and why she encourages other free-spirits to use it as a tool of expression. Recently, she began Twitter Twainings on Thursdays in New Orleans in order to help teach local residents how to use the service:
"Summer, for me, is a time of live meals. Of lightness. I think that's why I'm smitten with Twitter. Simple. Spontaneous. Flirtatious. No craft, no technique, no scripting, no editing, no hemming and hawing, no trying to achieve the perfect post. Now, and now, before you blink - just blurt your heart out." --Evelyn
Since deciding to follow her heart, Evelyn has still had hard times, but it was through these times that she was inspired to help create new ways of being. On her blog she writes about being broke and hungry in San Francisco and feeling like an outcast from the world of restaurants and people feasting happily on food that would be thrown away if not finished. During her darkest moment she went for a walk and discovered a row of fruit trees on a street in her neighborhood that she’d never noticed before -- branch after branch laden with ripe, succulent fruit. These fruit trees became her main source of sustenance in the weeks ahead. It was this experience that inspired her to formulate her Pan Mesa vision of a future in which fresh and whole locally grown foods are available free for everyone:
"Divide, and conquer. A very, very ancient tactic to breed war and conflict -- and maintain the illusion of control and power over others. So, if we want to reclaim our power, sometimes the simplest of things to do start by meeting me at the table. We'll see where things go from there. Stretch me, why don't you?
"I believe that everyone brings something to the table. That we as human beings have more common interests than separate. If only we would sit down together, share some bread and tea, and converse." --Evelyn
The Pan Mesa vision is one of eating to celebrate the fact that you have food by sharing it with as many others as possible. It’s a philosophy for offline living based in part upon the new world of the internets, where open source software makes having your own website and the ability to share with others cheap, easy and fun. In most cases, the idea is to get as many people as possible to come over and share in whatever you have posted.
There are pessimists who declare that the rise of the internet is detrimental to having a tight circle of friends, as it makes people spend less time outside with others and more time alone in front of their computers. Evelyn and others (such as Stowe Boyd -- in his essay on web friendship, which Evelyn links to in her own post on the subject--argue that it’s having the opposite effect and fostering a new version of friendship—one that is more open, more fluid, more diverse, and less determined by the hard facts of the groupings you belong to (where you work, where you go to school, where you live) and more by your interests. A Pan Mesa vision of friendship is one that is about a feeling of connectedness created by giving gifts and making things for one another -- like blog posts or mixtapes or being available for long IM conversations in the middle of the night when no one else is answering your calls or texts in your time zone.
Even if you don’t know their real name -- or what they look like.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place or need for neighbors and best friends who stick by you over the years through thick and thin -- but this is about creating MORE opportunities for a deeper kind of hanging out that isn’t confined to going shopping together or eating at fancy restaurants or “partying”. It’s bringing something from the oldest parts of human civilization -- the communal meal--together with the newer notion of the quick, flexible and easy to form un-group:
"September 7, 2007
9/11 and home is where the hearth is
A Twitter friend muses:
What would happen if everyone except health and emerg services took next Thursday 'off'? No business, no driving. Just self-reflection.
And then: Maybe even cook a meal at home? From scratch?
What if we invited our neighbors over too?
Not Just Another Day in the Neighborhood, Let’s Gather the Neighborhood to Cultivate Peace
…is the subtitle for the Make Tea, Not War Communi-teas I’m kicking off Sunday and Tuesday.
I think my Twitter buddy meant next Tuesday, September 11th too.
But heck, why not next Thursday, or the following Wednesday? And then picking up steam, every spur of the moment thereafter? Rotate homes. Use twitter and SMS to broadcast to your friends and neighbors spontaneous get-togethers like:
Paul brought home tons of heirlooms, twitter or text back if you’d like to come over at 6.
Or: Masala chai brewing. With goat cheese and figs from Saratoga farmer’s market. Ready in hour. Come over to Bev’s." --Evelyn
As I said somewhat cryptically at the beginning of this post -- Twitter quickens the rate of return between ourselves and the universe -- what we put out through Twitter often comes back to us in a new and unexpected way that’s beholden to an exact moment in time. I don’t know how it works exactly, but I think it’s similar to how a DJ at a club reads the vibe of the crowd and responds with a track that somehow manages to hit each individual like a deliciously distorted echo of their own voice telling them everything they needed to hear. “How could the DJ KNOW that’s what I was feeling?” one is left to exclaim. Twitter telepathy is based on the same complicated invisible connections between members of various un-groups which makes it also seem like magic.
In the case of @eve11 the “telepathy” happens at an uncanny frequency. There are times when I’m sitting around, thinking hard about something when a buzz will come through on my phone and it will be Eve11 tweeting my exact thoughts. I began to wonder if there might be some mind reading involved after all. When I met her in person at Flora’s café in NOLA, she was relaxed, smiling, yet also very serious and steady. I didn’t feel any sensation of her trying to push her way into my thoughts or read me too closely. Instead her presence was like the rest of Flora’s—deeply welcoming yet slightly sad at the same time, and after a few minutes I realized that I’d never have a single answer as to why I’d felt compelled to come. Something to do with Twitter and the major transformations happening in the world and in my life, and how I was having a harder and harder time keeping it hidden.
We talked about writing and Twitter and not drinking and her former life as a consultant as neighborhood locals and national guardsmen stopped in for coffees to go.
As we finished our iced teas and got ready to leave she told me about how she’d read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time the week before in one sitting. She’d then gone on to read one of the sequels -- A Swiftly Tilting Planet. She told me she liked the part in A Wrinkle in Time when Calvin feels compelled to walk out to the haunted house in the woods, where he runs into Meg and her younger brother, Charles. They ask him what he’s doing there and he can’t tell them. There was no other reason -- no deeper explanation -- just a compulsion to be at certain place.
“I really like that,” Evelyn said, and smiled as the barista walked around behind her, snapping off the café lights one by one.
“I like that too,” I said, my heart pounding in my ears. A Wrinkle in Time had been my favorite book when I was a little girl. Out of the blue a month or so prior I’d ordered a used first edition copy off of Amazon. Oddly enough, I’d never read the subsequent books in the series.
“You should,” Evelyn said, her eyes sparkling. In A Swiftly Tilting Planet she writes about kything, a wordless one-to-one kind of telepathy and a way of being present with one another across time and space.”
“Really? Well, I’ll definitely have to read it,” I said. I reached over and pulled out my copy of A Wrinkle in Time from my bag. Evelyn smiled and looked only slightly surprised to see it.
“I think I’d like to find out more about kything.” I said.
The barista switched off the last set of lights and we were cast as statues by the amber streetlights outside—themselves reflected in Evelyn’s sparkling eyes:
Our world in stupor lies
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.
–W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”
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http://twitter.com/true--JP (me) on Twitter.
http://twitter.com/realitysandwich --Tweets from and inspired by Reality Sandwich
http://twitter.com/dpinchbeck --Daniel Pinchbeck on Twitter