Reading a Twitter stream as a text or as a social act of self-expression
Lisa Boncheck Adams (@AdamsLisa) is a mother of three who has tweets and blogs about her life with cancer. Adams is currently undergoing radiation treatment and has been writing about the pain of side effects, with fairly detailed descriptions of the mechanics of undergoing this kind of treatment:
Pain today is worst in days. Cannot get on top of it. I have 1)constant drip plus ability to do 2)on-demand drip, 3)emergency. All in use.
— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 8, 2014
Often her posts are humorous, as her December 16 tweet: “In the Cancer Olympics there would be a medal for contrast chugging #contender”, which is accompanied by a photo of a jug of red contrast liquid. And each morning she posts an inspirational call to focus on what is beatiful: “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”
In an opinion piece in The Guardian last week, Emma Keller wrote about Adams in a way that elicited a lot of criticism, leading to the piece being removed from The Guardian’s website, as Chris Elliott explained today. A few days after Emma Kelley’s piece, her husband Bill Keller wrote another opinion piece about Adams for The New York Times.
Emma and Bill Keller explicitly place themselves in the role of traditional audience to Adams’ tweets. Instead of participating in the conversation and seeing themselves as Adams’ peers or friends, they are readers of a text, members of a large audience watching a performance: “Her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it,” Bill Keller writes, and his use of the term “onstage” is revealing.
He sees Adams primarily as a performer, not as a peer. “Look how swiftly the logic sweeps from ‘her decision’ to ‘our debates,’” Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic. In this way Keller goes from considering Adams as a living person to seeing her as a text to be analysed and criticized from outside just as any other text or performance. Similarly, Emma Keller’s now retracted piece in The Guardian asked questions from the point of view of an audience: “Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?”
What this approach forgets is that the texts we read in real time in social media represent actual, living people. This is not like writing about a movie or a novel and its fictional characters. It is not even like writing about a movie star or politician, although they of course are also actual, living people. Perhaps Adams could be called a micro-celebrity, especially after the attention from international news media which led to a rapid increase in followers and readers. But as Alice Marwick writes in Status Update, “the idea of using the tools of celebrity culture to analyze the lives of regular people is problematic because the protections available to mainstream celebrities do not exist for micro-celebrities”. Micro-celebrities do not have agents and PR consultants to protect them from the press and the public.
Adams herself insists on being read differently. 1305 of the 2402 tweets she posted between December 15, 2013 and January 15, 2014 were @replies: messages directly addressed to other users. That means that over half of her tweets are conversational. Even if you follow Adams on Twitter, you will not see these @replies unless you also follow the user addressed, or if you visit her profile page and look at all her public messages. Adams’ @replies are addressed to 457 unique users, so she participates in a very broad conversation. This is not just Adams talking with a small network of friends. Adams sees the conversational and social as important, and objects to the Kellers’ presenting her as too loquacious because of the high number of tweets she writes:
My tweet count is not high because I only churn out tweets.It’s conversation.Talking.Asking people how they are… And listening for answer.
— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 14, 2014
Looking at her Twitter stream it is clear that Adams is right: she places a lot of emphasis on answering tweets from other people and on participating in a conversation. She uses Twitter as a social space for conversation and as a diary, although she certainly also has many followers who don’t participate in the conversation.
But of course there is a difference between reading posts from a person we know and love and reading those of a stranger. And it is natural that Emma and Bill Keller read Adams’ tweets with their own response and feelings about the tweets foremost in their minds. We are all at the centre of our own world. If we don’t participate in conversations on Twitter then to us they look only like texts to be seen from without.