Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Hierarchy of Meaning?

This from the BBC the other day: a study showing that 40% of 'tweets' are 'pointless babble'.

Aside from the fact that I have major issues about how a 'study' of this sort could possibly yield results that include statistics claiming insight into the 'pointlessness' of any attempt at communication (I'm not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination but that sounds suspiciously like nonsense/made up science to me), I want to focus on one part of the study quoted by the BBC:

'those dubbed "pointless babble" were of the "I'm eating a sandwich" type'

Good of them to at least define 'pointless babble', but I want to look at that a bit more, because I've been an English teacher and I think I can speak with some authority about 'pointless babble' (my own included).

I want to consider something which is very important to communication in general. Something called 'context'. Furthermore I want to introduce a brand new concept: 'subtext'. What's that? 'Subtext' has been around for ages? Oh well, I guess there is really nothing new in the world. Henceforth, you may regard this entire post as 'pointless babble' since it has undoubtedly all been said before.


'I am eating a sandwich'. Devoid of meaning, of course. Let's put it in a number of 'contexts' and you can work out the 'subtext' for yourself:

1. I have eaten only junk food and cakes for the past year. I am worried about my health. Today I went to fruit and veg shop and bought a tomato and a lettuce. And now: I am eating a sandwich.

2. I am struggling with anorexia and have hardly eaten anything since Tuesday. Today (on twitter) I made a friend who has similar struggles and we decided to try and help each other. And now: I am eating a sandwich.

3. I have struggled my whole life with issues around my body image and eating. In public I pretend I hardly eat at all but in secret I gorge myself which is why I am overweight. Today, for the first time, I will admit that I eat food. I will come out as an eater. I will notice people's non-reaction as I tell them: I am eating a sandwich (I hope they are fooled into thinking it is just 'pointless babble').

If you 'do' twitter (and if you don't possibly none of this makes any sense to you, apologies. To you the 'PB' label might be applied to this post perhaps) you will know that some tweets that you read mean more to you than others. You will realise that what you yourself tweet is sometimes more meaningful to you than other tweets. What you can. not. possibly. gauge, is how your tweets are received by everyone reading them in their own personal 'context'. What you find banal could very be right at the top of the 'meaning hierarchy' for someone else. Only writing in wingdings could really ensure an all round 'pointless babble' score.

I think what this report comes down to is a lack of understanding married with a dose of snobbery. Who gets to decide how people communicate? I guess I feel defensive about twitter because I use it, but also because I can see how good it can be for people. How people can support each other through it. How easy it becomes to see that there is no hierarchy: that everyone only gets 140 characters, that sometimes I find Stephen Fry boring (gosh, I guess that means he's a real person), that having a bunch of messages saying 'have a good holiday' when I'm about to leave the house really feels good because no one had to say that.

If this is pointless then count me in with the babblers. I like words, so sue me.