Early Thesis Thoughts

the high points of my thesis

for anyone curious, i’m currently preparing a master’s thesis in a program called ‘francophone literatures and media resonance’. in my case what this means, in layman’s terms, is that i study twitter. specifically, i’m out to investigate the theory that social media reflects and interprets the social discourse in a similar way as did literature over the last 150 years. let’s define some terms.

‘social media’ refers to the ensemble of online communications where readers are also writers. when you read a book, you can’t write content into it. when you listen to the radio, you have no control over what the station is playing. you can’t control what is shown on tv, and if you try, you’ll get edited out. however, on twitter, facebook, reddit, or wikipedia, for example, reader contribution is absolutely fundamental, and previous similar networks have fallen apart when contributions ceased. in traditional media, there is a production company, publishing house, or broadcast network that frames and directs (you could say ‘narrates’) the message. this framer/director/narrator is the simple architecture of the site- it governs the form, but not the content, of the message.

‘social discourse’ refers to the whole ensemble of everything said and/or written down in a society. it includes political discourse, economic, literary, judiciary, artistic, poetic, linguistic, gender, and all other discourses. this discourse can be conceived of, but not perceived, by any individual reader/writer (who is anchored to her own social-economic-political-cultural circumstances). All readers/writers contribute to it, and their contributions are informed by it, by ‘that thick is communicable’. thus the social discourse informs, and is informed by, the entirety of a society’s information output.

finally, when i say ‘literature’ i really mean the comic novel, which, in a french context, we can trace back to about as far as the railway paperback in the mid 19th century. one critical interest of the novel is that many multiple characters speak different opinions, in different ways, leading the ‘hero’, the subject of the story, to or from his goal. in the case of the novel though, these characters are all created and narrated by one singular author (or a group of authors not comprising all readers), edited by a singular editor (or group of editors, again not comprising all readers). the novel, like social media, can be described as ‘radically permeable’ to social discourse.

so why study such a thing? it’s interesting because we know a lot about the ways in which traditional media influence the way we speak, act, and think, but we have very little idea about how social media do. part of this is because they are so new- few predate the 21st century. however, if we can identify structural differences between examples of social media and equivalent examples of traditional media (eg. wikipedia v. encyclopaedia, craiglist v. classified ads, reddit v. messenger boards, and most controversially fb and twitter v. realist comic novels), we might come up with, if not answers, some more pertinent questions.

because let’s be clear- social media is revolutionary, and its just as well, because we live in revolutionary times. there are big changes that need to happen in our relationships: foremost with the environment, and then with other human beings throughout the world. the last four years have shown us a social and economic system encountering its natural limits, resulting in persistent injustice. if our social discourse is read by traditional media, we are lost- repeating the same talking points, remaking the same stories, and being directed by fewer and fewer conglomerates. things will continue as they are until their inevitable collapse.

in the social media, however, there is new talk. when the structures erected by the publisher, the network, or the editor are removed, each person is free to engage on equal ground with others. there is bleedthrough from the social discourse: Barack Obama is going to be a celebrity on twitter whether his tweets are good or not. The signs and signals erected by traditional media are not evacuated from the social. They are, however, reinterpreted and repurposed.

I put together a couple of papers this fall (in French) concerning specific examples of funny things on Twitter, as well as outlining its basic format, functionality, and grammar. I reference the works of Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtine, Collot, and Genette, among others, as well as the tweets of Donald Trump, Hurricane Sandy, the rock on Mars what Curiosity blowed up, and many more besides. I establish a) that twitter is a linguistic, if not entirely literary, system, b) that twitter is radically permeable to the surrounding social discourse, and c) that some discursive properties of Twitter are user-generated, while others emerge from the interactions of content generated by different users.

from these conclusions, we can ask some interesting questions. what happens semantically when a profile representing a real person interacts with one representing a fictional/dead one, considering their respective places in the social discourse (when i pray to God on Twitter, does he reply?)? How can one discern the significance of a given tweet considering the multitude of ways its author could intend it (U fucking kidding me Pope?)? how do hypertext and hashtags influence the way a tweet is composed (Why do people use hashtags on Facebook?)? In short, what can social media tell us about social discourse that we could not know otherwise?

Hopefully, some answers, or at least some more pertinent questions, will follow.

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