No, this blog is not going to be about that wildly popular video game and movie franchise; it’s about Twitter and some very distinct signs of life in the USA that may be found there in some rather unexpected places. So here goes.
Actually, I almost wrote on this very topic last year during the horrendous Woolsey fire outbreak in Southern California, when Sonia and I faced a mandatory evacuation from our home—along with a lengthy power outage—during which we received most of our emergency information from a battery-powered laptop computer. Since I was already aware then that in the digital age the most up-to-date and accurate news in an emergency situation is likely to be found on such social media sites as Twitter, rather than from the traditional mass media news outlets, I stayed tuned-in to Twitter during the entire ordeal, following a string of hashtags as an endless stream of postings flooded the site. But even as I pored through post after post to get the latest information on the fire, I noticed a lot of things that set off a number of semiotic sirens that I planned to write about when the smoke, quite literally, settled.
When it was all over, however, I decided that maybe writing about my observations was premature, and that it would be better to wait and see what further signs I might detect that could be entered into the semiotic system within which they could be interpreted. Frankly, I rather hoped that I wouldn’t experience such an opportunity again and that I could just let the topic go. But now, exactly a year later, with fires breaking out all around me and Twitter, once again, being my best source of information, I find that everything I noticed last year is being repeated, only more so. Hence this blog.
I first want to make it clear that my analysis to follow is not a critique of Twitter. Twitter is just the medium here; the message lies in the human use of that medium—what I referred to in my last blog as the behavior that cultural semiotics interprets. And here’s what that behavior reveals:
First: even in an emergency situation, when lives and property are at stake, people are going to take to social media to promote their own personal agendas. I’ll call the phenomenon “hashtag spamming,” and it runs the gamut from people who have something sell (and this includes sex workers) to people with a political axe to grind (which during the current fire emergency has included someone who could most charitably be described as an Armenian Genocide-denier).
Beyond the hashtag spammers are those who view a natural disaster as a good time to start or get into a fight about Donald Trump, or global climate change, or any other particularly divisive topic. One sees this, of course, everywhere on the web, where America’s ideological divisions are continuously on display in an ever-escalating fashion, but it is striking to find it going on in the midst of a natural disaster.
The way that some people keep retweeting information both from official emergency services sources and conventional news media is something that is also worth noting. In almost every case, such re-tweeters evidently mean well, but what they do is repeat information that can be dangerously misleading because it is completely out of date during a fast-developing fire outbreak. Thus, one finds the same dramatic fire images that commercial news sources feature in order to fan the flames, if you will, of viewer attention, repeated again and again, when those images are no longer accurate representations of the most current conditions—this sort of thing, of course, is exacerbated by television news reporters who use Twitter to promote their stations.
There is also a sentimental set of signifiers to consider. These are the posts from people who also mean well, but who clutter up the page with expressions of their emotional responses to the catastrophe. When one is in a hurry to find out exactly what is happening in a fast-moving situation, such posts are actually counter-productive, and can get in the way of the truly informative posts in which individuals supplement the official information about emergency services (including evacuation center locations and assistance with moving pets and large animals out of the fire zone) with tips and offers of help of their own.
You put all of this together and a very profound signification emerges about the power of interactive media. Quite simply, we find here the enormous desire of ordinary people to have a voice in a world where wealth and power are otherwise being consolidated in ever-shrinking enclaves of geopolitical privilege. Sometimes that voice is used for selfish, and even pernicious, purposes, and sometimes it reflects genuine altruistic, and even heroic, ends. To paraphrase Dickens' famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities, Twitter, like the Internet at large, presents us with the best of times and the worst of times. It is at once of essential utility and plagued with behaviors that—to cite Nietzsche this time—can best be described as "human, all too human."
It is easy to take the new realities of the digital era for granted, but the ability to participate directly in the world of mass media is still a very new thing in human history. The hierarchical, top-down structures of the past have been deconstructed, and people from all over the world are rushing in to fill the spaces that were once denied to them. The effects of this new capability are beginning to appear in the form of an increasing political polarization that can be found worldwide, for the moderating influence of the traditional commercial news media, which skew to the center in order to promote optimal audience share, is being lost. It was once assumed that this change of affairs would most benefit left-of-center politics, but so far the evidence is that politics-by-Twitter has been more effectively employed by the right. The pendulum may swing back as we look to the 2020 election, but either way (and here comes my last literary allusion) it is the center that cannot hold.