Ceraolo: Twitter as Gesture

by Julia Ceraolo | 7/16/15 7:49pm

The cascade of pithy, snarky remarks one often finds on Twitter is unmatched in the social media world. Because the website accommodates and encourages the proliferation of rapid-fire, bite-sized posts, it allows the Twitter community to develop an enormous performative distance between themselves and their tweets. Consider then what accounts for the grossly disproportionate public backlash to poorly-considered tweets that go viral. The importance of the implications surrounding Twitter’s 140-character limit cannot be overstated.

Scholar Brian Rotman, a mathematician and philosopher whose research explores the semiotics of math, says that people regularly, and perhaps not surprisingly, think of math as rigid and structural, removed from the material world. Yet they disregard the materiality and corporeality necessary for such “structures” to exist in the first place. Diagrams are effectively dismissed as “psychological props.” What’s forgotten, and what must be recognized, is that diagrams are “frozen gestures.” The numbered rigidity involved in creating a tweet makes the writing process a mathematical one to the extent that the words are similarly dismissed as props, standing for their respective structures of signification in the public consciousness. Of course, any kind of honest discourse on Twitter is largely an illusion — each time someone tweets, there are entire swaths of details and context which can never fit into the allotted character count. And sometimes the comprehension of that context means the difference between an innocuous, stupid, unfunny tweet and a viral, life-changing one.

Thirty-year-old Justine Sacco, then-senior director of corporate communications at major media and internet company IAC, was traveling in 2013 between South Africa, London and New York. Between flights she fired off tweets like: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The Twitter community exploded. Sacco was quickly fired from her position. Then she was shunned by future employers and faced with violent threats online. She claimed to have been thinking about ways to ironically make fun of white privilege and ignorance. Unfortunately, her sarcasm was not apparent. Instead, she just sounded like a one-dimensional racist, simply quoting other racists before her. The magnitude of this incident in the Twitter community — and Sacco’s own life — is not a matter of Sacco’s writing ability so much as Twitter’s structural flaws that enable such a miscommunication. The website allows us to forget the dangers of over-coding our language. It encourages us to forget that our tweets are gestural by nature. As Rotman writes, gesture is “exterior to anything prior to its own performance.” Those thoughts that generated Sacco’s tweets were exterior the racist connotations of her tweet — when she sent the tweet, she did not believe that it would be such an error. Indeed, afterwards she said she thought no one could possibly think she’d say those things in seriousness. This thought, however, was likely unconscious — it was, rather, something automatic: a gesture. “The gesture is not referential,” Rotman asserts. It is not created as the product of analysis. Sacco clearly didn’t think about the likelihood of failure to communicate. Instead she seemed to rest comfortably under the assumption that she was wading into a warm pool of nodding retweets and favorites. This assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Twitter records thoughts — or half-thoughts — at an overwhelming pace. Its vast volume of posts belies the way it minimizes each one into a soundbite and disconnects human beings from their tweets. It’s often difficult to read irony in a curt little tweet because it’s restricted to one dimension. There’s no instant clarification before biases and emotions get in the way. The reader is as automatically caught up in the process of interpretation as the tweeter is in the process of tweeting.

Even if you are in that rare position of feeling you have enough time to think, often the nature of the touch-screened tweet is too provocative to think clearly outside of it, to conceive of it as an entity, only moments old, in relation to a real person who spent three seconds writing it. You’re aware that a real person did it, but in that moment you forget what it is to be “real” in the first place — which is to say, deeply flawed and sometimes irrational.