I don’t know diarist William Bunn personally but I know that on February 6 he was “Reading Sunshine and Snow” and that he had “read it nearly through”. You may wonder why someone would care what Bunn had on his bookshelves at the start of February, but Bunn felt it important enough to record this literary fact of his life and, as I will argue below, there can be a set of circumstances, not particular to everyone but nevertheless to some, where it is useful to digest such innocuous short bits of information.
One environment where this can occur is Twitter which enables the public reading and writing of messages (or “Tweets”) that are no greater than 140 characters in length. Twitter, of course, is popularly recognised not for what it enables but – so its detractors frequently imply – what it disables: that is, deeper forms of thinking. Yet if you’ve ever kept a diary, it’s not uncommon to pen things like “Ran out of milk. Going to the neighbours to borrow some”.
As readers, we rarely question the presence of such commentary in a diary because interested parties don’t often get to review a diary’s contents until long after the writer has passed away. The privacy aspect is a lot deeper to penetrate with hard copy than it is with digital technologies which can make things immediate and public. But we’d consider a reader poking fun at the pages of a physical diary perhaps bad taste.
I think in most cases that the basic human need to record a life applies to Twitter as a contemporary method for keeping a diary. We’re perhaps not the intended audience of most tweets, just like we’re probably not the imagined audience of Bunn’s “Reading Sunshine and Snow”, but through Twitter the writer has given their consent that we might be if we so choose.
In modern parlance, we might refer to this use of Twitter as a branch of life-writing or autobiography. Certainly, it is this routine registering of a stranger’s everyday life that the detractors of Twitter seize upon as being representative of a general banality characterizing users on both sides of a Tweet. But such criticisms are crudely positioned, prematurely closing down discussions of what Twitter can and does enable.
Search Twitter a little deeper and some collaborative, participatory communities begin to emerge. These communities, composed of individuals who share collective interests and whose contributions are not tied to any instant reward other than to augment the conversation, suggest another use for social media. One project which I manage, AustLiterature, is an attempt to join in on the conversations occurring in Twitter about Australian writing, publishing, reading and bookselling. Overlapping with my own tertiary interests in Australian literature, AustLiterature is also an experiment to co-opt social media within an educational context and deliberately resist the kind of fatuous criticisms which dog Twitter. To date, it has been a highly gratifying endeavour.
Created with the goal of “collating news and views exploring themes, concepts, political and theoretical approaches underpinning contemporary Australian writing”, AustLiterature’s first Tweet was posted at 1pm on 12 June 2009. Nearly 4,000 messages later, AustLiterature has over 1,300 followers and posts on average fifty to a hundred items per week on Australia’s literary estate. Each Tweet is archived on a fully searchable Diigo which enables a quick history of the kinds of material that AustLiterature covers and which in turn provides a transparency to the management or current direction of AustLiterature. A quick overview of the Diigo’s dominant tags reveals that AustLiterature is – not surprisingly – concerned with authors, books, fiction, poetry, publishing, etc, as they relate to Australia.
Operating a Twitter account that is invested in a subject area rather than a business, individual or department provides both an opportunity and a responsibility. On the one hand, Twitter creates a space for networking over a common area of interest that to me seems unparalleled in other digital environments. On a professional level, I have learnt more about – and have come to appreciate – the Australian literary field in new ways through directly interacting with writers, publishers and readers than is usually possible via conventional methods. This has led to innovative projects in collaboration with other important stakeholders in the area. For example, Tweet An Aussie Author, though in its early days, is an open-planned initiative to enable readers from all over the world to connect with the Aussie author of the day via Twitter, to chat and answer questions and field discussion on Australian writing.
On the other hand, there is an ethical component to building a Twitter identity centred around a subject area, to ensure it is not abused to further the ambitions of any particular individual (including myself). Whether I have been successful in promoting a range of themes in Australian literature rather than privileging the traditional Anglo-white male view of it is open to evaluation but this ethical component remains critical to AustLiterature’s daily postings. What AustLiterature’s future holds is uncertain but I see a future for Twitter in education. While the charge of it being a one-man news outlet occupies me in terms of how it could be further expanded in the period ahead, AustLiterature will remain committed to exploring the literature of Australia.
Thus, the tweet’s that are posted through AustLiterature are unlikely to ever imitate the ruminations made by William Bunn over his reading habits (which opened this article), though such things have a valid place in Twitter. However, this kind of dialogue with both self and unknown audience which characterizes Bunn’s writing will no doubt make an appearance in a Tweet, referencing a set of circumstances where Bunn’s comments might even contribute to a better understanding of ourselves. That is, in less than 140 characters: “The Australian Common Reader project researches reading patterns, beginning with the diary of William Bunn 1830-1901 http://bit.ly/wHbY0”.
This article is published online under a Creative Commons License (Attribution – No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported). Details of the works cited within the article are available on request.