The Poetics of Continuous Partial Attention

The drift of flesh in those cloud-tides floating – An Affinity For Flying Things

I’ve been vainly trying to keep up with Craig Hickman at dark ecologies. My failure to do so has now become part of the experience. Hickman writes in tremendous bursts of volume, bursts I’m not currently willing to let surge up and overwhelm my other reading.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling to us today, indeed people are forever whining about the stress of too much information, which in another time would sound like complaining about the stress of too much ice cream falling from the sky. If God is dead someone sure has forgetten to cancel the interplanar unlimited manna subscription.

It is unusual to get so much volume of fair quality from one person though, and seeing such a stream of material being published feels a bit like trying to follow Alexander Hamilton as he’s live tweeting the Federalist Papers. The writing tends to be broad rather than deep, and it is a breadth crossing traditions in a way that often triggers the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye. The poetry is not difficult language-wise; it’s not a high modernist riddle that has to be head butted into submission, and the vocabulary is not obscure. The essays and criticism range widely and impressionistically, blog like, they are lecture notes or philosophical travel diaries rather than arguments for an idea. Most posts are accompanied by the convention of a well chosen image.

I usually read blogs on my phone, and over the last few years that tactile experience of swiping through to a new Feedly article has intertwined with reading the internet, the same way seeking the edge and then turning the page of a book is intertwined with the muscle memory of novels. Swiping, glancing, being caught by a phrase, seeing an image and jumping past. Hickman has written that he is trying to invent a poetry of the twenty-first century. I’m not sure if the volume of posts is part of it deliberately or accidentally, but this is a very twenty-first century feeling. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it is not meant that way. This is a poetic intensification of our motorbike ride through everyone else’s signal, trying not to make it into white noise by the act of reading. It is terzanelle roadsigns on the information superhighway, it is a mandatory, subjective, editorialism as survival strategy, it is swimming in a world-wide slush pile when more than ever there is too much good stuff to read.

Link From Twitter

Twitter have damaged their phone app by adding a feature. This is a problem software is particularly prone to, so let’s sift through it.

I was surprised to find Twitter useful. It had originally seemed a concentration of the least interesting ingredients of online culture: celebrities wittering moments from their shadow lives in a medium where smalltalk was enforced by a strict character limit. That’s not wrong, but it is incomplete. Twitter can be rendered functional, for me, by following interesting people, who link in depth, and by dropping anyone who emits more than two dozen undirected tweets in a week. 

Despite my faddish embrace of the medium du jour, two of the best discussion groups I am a part of are still closed mailing lists of mutual friends. It is also easy, with mail, to copy other random people that might care. This electronic mail thing really seems to have a future. Someone should look into that.

With this use pattern, and the primacy of the smartphone in a busy life, a fair proportion of the times I find something cool on twitter involves mailing a link.

Until recently, the email composed by twitter consisted of a link, my default signature, and an empty subject. This wasn’t great. Typing a subject, like typing anything on the phone, is a bit of a pain. Blankness is lousy microcontent, a terrible breach of information etiquette for a platform focused on short semantic bursts. Feedly – heck even Safari, dog that it is – at least has the sense to use the title of the web page in question.

Twitter fixed this bug. The latest version of the app sets email subjects to “Link from Twitter” and, as well as the link, adds a note to “Download the official Twitter app here. The fix of course is worse than the bug. Not having a subject just looks careless, like leaving your fly undone. “Link from Twitter” looks like somebody paid you €5 to tattoo an advertisement on your arse and then moon out car windows.

The time spent to delete that guff and replace it with something more meaningful is time wasted. Pretty much anything would be more meaningful to most recipients, who care about what was sent, not how it was sent. The empty subject is better. The subject “lol” would even be better, as at least it tells the audience about the content instead of whether it was sent by carrier pigeon or whichever. This is true even if you drink from the twitter firehouse; then you waste even more time.

If Twitter really thought it was important to squeeze some self-promotion into my email, they would find a way that added to my user experience. Why are people using the tool in the first place? It’s for snippets of content in a social network context. I don’t care that something came from Twitter, but I might care that it came from a particular user on Twitter. Maybe quote the tweet the link originated from, or mention the @user. Maybe link back to that tweet. Maybe I followed a few onward links, and am mailing that, so provide a breadcrumb trail of that history with a chain of vias. Do neat things that bring people into your conversation. Don’t make my email look like a spam. And don’t waste my time.