This is a guest post by Michael Goldstein, follow him on twitter at MickeyG77
In the 8th Century BC Homer’s Iliad was communicated to the public via Bardic tunes; organized so that they were particularly easy to remember and pass on. Interestingly this communication form is not dissimilar to how information is disseminated today. The only difference is that instead of rhythmic passages, today’s information is condensed into simply recalled tweets. In this post I am going to examine the advantages and disadvantages of compressing information into more palatable forms.
In Plato’s ‘Republic’, the author viciously attacks the rhythmic communication form, asserting instead that facts and information are lost through the oral tradition, whereby poetic expression becomes a fractured product of various sub-collective psyches and mores. Put simply; one orator would deliver a poem to a crowd, that crowd would then internalize that particular poet’s version of the poem and proceed to spread it, ultimately resulting in many versions of the same story travelling throughout the Greek empire. This, incidentally, is remarkably similar to the re-tweet system: one influential twitter account will be re-tweeted by many, going on to form disparate echo chambers as certain groups within the twitter community are exposed to a selection of ‘truths’ on any particular issue.
Such poetic delivery is known as mimetic form, a technique that exploits rhythm, meter and other techniques to achieve a desired affect (read: influence) from the listener. Similarly, today’s difficulty lies in the ability (or inability) to negate a tweet, the twitter form simply isn’t conducive to thorough debate and the only way to effectively argue against a tweet is to find a theoretically opposing blog post or other source and tweet that, however this will only be received by your followers not the followers of the initial tweeter. Hence a fracturing within and amongst online communities occurs.
Today we witness a return to the mimetic form. Not unlike the way in which ancient poetry was altered and modified from listener to listener due to the lack of concrete, written texts, today’s internet texts are revised from person to person as a result of remix and meme culture. Interestingly then, despite living in what has been generally dubbed the most advanced era for information intercourse to date, we find ourselves returning to archaic modes of communication!
Ironically, this seems to be the only way to rationalize the overwhelming and ever changing nature of information availability on the internet. Here is a small, simple example: two of the facebook pages that I manage have completely different ‘rules’ of engagement. For instance, one forum is appropriate to an older audience, which means that the most effective time to post is often completely different to that of the other page, which garners an audience of mainly under 18 year olds. This is because one page has socially active fans, meaning that all our engagement feedback is usually seen within an hour of posting, whereas on the less socially active page the likes and comments keep rolling in for up to 12 hours after posting. This can be attributed to the fact that the fewer friends one page has, the longer our post remains prominent on their newsfeed. So in this case it is clear that there is not one correct rule for receiving feedback, but rather two equally valid ‘truths’. Hence, differing versions of the facebook poem are equally valid and must be heard accordingly.
In the digital landscape we still work very much in cowboy territory - there are no rules. This is why mimetic forms of communication are occurring on a more frequent basis; no one is privy to any concrete, universally applicable data, and if they say they are, chances are that they are probably getting ahead of themselves due to the fact that everything is changing so quickly, and numerous digital horses run on numerous digital courses. Mimetic communication, whilst recognised in ancient times as inferior, is possibly the only way to effectively communicate digital and social media knowledge today, as there is no single objective truth, but rather many, ever changing, competing and subjective ‘truths’, that will drastically shift between user experiences. The nature of history is such that it exists in constant repetition of itself, and the role of the Homeric Bard has risen once again - so instead of searching for a single definitive answer, take everything on board, and celebrate the return of the mimetic tradition.