Excerpt: 'A Mechanism Dedicated Only To The Maintenance Of Itself', by James Douglas

Illustration by Grace Helmer.

A memorable early instance of Twitter’s entanglement into news reporting was the attention given Sohaib Athar, a Pakistani man who was said to have unwittingly ‘live-tweeted’ the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. This was an over-estimation of what Athar had observed. Tweeting from the account @ReallyVirtual, Athar had noted a helicopter hovering over his neighbourhood at 1.00am, joked about using a giant fly swatter to brush it away, and then, for a time, relayed local rumours surrounding the subsequent helicopter crash. He only learned that he had played part witness to bin Laden’s assassination later in the afternoon.

At the time it was interesting to see news organisations, such as the Washington Post and The Telegraph, incorporate Athar’s Twitter narrative into their reporting. Although the informative value of his tweets (in relation to the larger story of bin Laden’s death) approached nil, there was a kind of human-interest aspect to his presence there. A UK-educated IT consultant (his tweets were written in English), Athar had moved his young family to Abbottabad from Lahore, in part because of the suicide bombings and violence in that city. In speech, education, and occupation, he was comfortably familiar to Western readers.

The day that bin Laden’s death was announced, Athar sat down with Mosharraf Zaidi, a writer for Foreign Policy, but in Zaidi’s subsequent article, ‘The Lies They Tell Us’, the conversation seems to have yielded meagre results. The only new Athar quote Zaidi provides is that he ‘never imagined it would be bin Laden.’ Fine person though he may be, it’s unlikely that Athar had much light to shed on the situation, beyond his convenience as a stand-in for the Pakistani population.

Spend enough time on Twitter and the essential unreality of the tweet as a medium of communication becomes apparent. The possibilities of the 140-character form seem both limitless in variety and narrowly circumscribed. Mundane status updates jostle for place among cultural analyses, jokes, moral screeds, and eyewitness reportage. Many tweets are densely layered with information, but the layers are primarily referential to the medium itself. Twitter generates a short-hand that cannot be easily unpacked in other forms. Like a punchline, tweets lose their lustre under analysis.

When the mechanisms of news media turn their attention to Twitter, it’s like shining a direct light source on a shadow. Observation or, worse, dissemination of Twitter discourse outside the original boundaries of the Twittersphere exerts distortion upon it. Suddenly it becomes realer than it ought to be, but still not quite real enough.


This is an excerpt from The Lifted Brow #22, which is hot off the presses this very week. Get your copy now.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow.