Twitter’s power & limits Pt 2- think pieces (rap and race)

Last time, I was talking about how Twitter can be a powerful tool when covering concerts even though it also has some limitations there too. One of the problems is that if you wanna get across a complex, nuanced point, it ain’t easy to do it in 140 characters. If you’re looking to have a meaty, intelligent conversation about a complex subject, Twitter makes it tough on you too.

The way I found this out was in a discussion with writer (‘media assassin’) Harry Allen. About a week and a half ago, I responded to a tweet he did about an article that profiled rapper Asher Roth in the New York Times. Allen wrote about the article on his blog, unhappy that Roth was getting preferential coverage as a white rapper. I tweeted back to Allen, wondering “Isn’t it also about the perceived novelty of a white rapper (esp. one that’s broken into mainstream consciousness)?” That led to this conversation:

Allen: “I think the perceived novelty, as you put it, is part of it. But the perceived novelty is solely based on race.”

Me: “Correct but white rappers are hardly a novelty anymore- look at Anticon‘s roster for instance”

Allen: “Thanks for saying that, because it just now led me to a key insight: Most, if not all, of what I say about white rappers stays… …true if you change the word “rappers” to “people,” that being exactly my point. My articles, in this area, aren’t about… …race leaking into hip-hop. They’re about hip-hop leaking into race. I’m using what many people know­hip-hop­to talk about… …what many people cannot, or will not: Racism. So, even the observation that a label’s rap roster is all- or mostly white… …becomes notable in that context. I said this to @angusbatey. Those desiring can search his name with mine and read our notes.”

All of which made for a good, heady conversation about rap and race. I’m glad that he did it, not only because I learned a lot but hopefully some of the Twitter community saw this discussion and absorbed some of the thoughts there. The problem was that Allen’s meaningful answers couldn’t possibly fit into a tweet. Instead, he had to do 5 follow-up tweets in a row to finish his thoughts and his answer. And because on Twitter, you’re usually following a bunch of people, his extended point would get broken up and interrupted by tweets from other people. To get a handle on what he needed to say, Twitter was a little limiting- he could have more easily responded in full in a blog post or an article. The point here again is that Twitter doesn’t make it easy to have deep conversations like this.

To drive home this point, Allen and I had the same problem when I brought in Tiger Woods as an example: “… coverage is slanted racially but it’s also the novelty aspect they crave PLUS popularity, e.g. Tiger Woods as golf champ” Allen right away pointed out “Tiger Woods is a superior athlete, above and beyond his competition in skills. Are you saying Asher Roth is, also?” To give Allen a real answer that covered everything, I had to use three tweets:

“No, Tiger’s skills > Asher’s but media loves Tiger’s story as he dominates a sport with few African-Americans… …which perpetuates the myth that anyone of any race can make it in any field with just hard work & determination… … plus the media loves success stories (Asher, Tiger) combined with novelty factor (ditto)”

As such, I ran into the same problem that Allen did. Even after that, it took about 12 more tweets between the two of us (including some multi-threaded ones) to hash out our positions and eventually find some agreement. Time Out editor Steve Smith also called me out on the Tiger/Asher comparison, saying that it wasn’t a fair match. I definitely agreed with him that in terms of skills, it was no match but that I was focusing on the novelty aspect and the success of each in their field (and how media covers that). Just like with Allen, it took several multi-threaded tweets to properly discuss this with Smith.

Not that I minded it. I learned a lot from it and I think that Allen got something out of it too. At the end, I wondered “… I wish there was more discussion about this” and he agreed that it needed to happen but wasn’t sure how. I’m not either but I know that it should happen more often on Twitter but that it also has to move beyond Twitter to do it right and give this kind of conversation the depth it deserves.

Later, I thanked Allen in an e-mail (on another subject) for a nice conversation. He wasn’t sure ‘nice’ was the right term. I agreed- maybe ‘healthy’ was a better way to describe our exchange. That was something that we could both agree on.

UPDATE: Allen and I are later discussed the finer points of graffiti art and its semantics. We’re already finding that we need multi-thread tweets to get our points across again.