A trying experience

Franschhoek Literary Festival, 17-19 May 2013, Franschhoek. ‘Trial by Twitter’: Fiona Snyckers in conversation with Julian Rademeyer, Sam Wilson and Ann Crotty.


Nothing of any value was said over the course of this seminar. The full import of its intellectual contributions to the world can be summed up by an offhand remark Julian Rademeyer makes towards its end: “I think we should be circumspect about how we use Twitter”. The rest of its duration was simply torture, and all euphemism is best dispensed with in capturing the real texture of how bad this whole thing was. At the vexing centre is participant Sam Wilson – “media strategist” at Woolworths. It is worth arresting attentions on her comments, tangential though this may seem, as it yields a greater critical awareness than anything else that was said during the talk.

To discharge the more predictable of my “reporterly” duties first: “Trial by Twitter” was a panel discussion on Twitter and its rapid ascension as a social medium. Fiona Snyckers chaired the discussion and was joined by Rademeyer, Wilson and senior journalist Ann Crotty. We are drawn immediately into the theatre of performance offered by our two oppositional contenders. Crotty is a maternal figure, who is meant to represent the “con” of the medium, but her entire gambit centrifuges around the fact that she doesn’t use Twitter, doesn’t know how to use Twitter, and goes as far as to say “I can’t tweet and I’m too old to change”. This effectively nullifies any input that she might provide, qualifying her as deeply as any audience member plucked at random from this church hall.

Wilson, at the other end, is as close to being a Twitter ideologue as can be imagined: she bursts into every statement by Rademeyer and Crotty – both who politely acquiesce to her tirades – with some or other drab remark about how great Twitter is. Wilson proclaims at some point in the middle of the talk, “my political alignment is anarchism”, and mentions on more than one occasion that she is a feminist. Let’s see: she works as a PR manager for a multinational corporation (at least insofar as Woolworths approximates the composition of an MNC). Corporate consumerist ambition entails managing the social representation of the company, so that customers can interact with their simulacral identity with incessant commodity fetishism. She even freights in corporate language like “personal brand[s]…which used to be called personalities,” the point at which corporations attempt to colonise the most intimate aspects of human identity and subordinate them to the logic of marketability.

Wilson also, as per her remarks, spends the day thinking of promotional gimmicks for unsatisfied customers (like sending them flowers or, should the store run out, “mangoes”). This amounts to a gratuitous misappropriation of radical politics, and it’s worth getting infuriated at the capacity of the middle-class to invoke radicalism while at the same time continuing in the service of the status quo. Veganism, Marxist cultural critique, anti-institutional rioting – these things might be considered anarchic, but certainly not doling out mangoes for a living to Constantia housewives. Wilson facilitates a smooth consumerist fantasy in which customers can purge themselves of the implications of buying product, and she caters to a middle-class demographic, mastering their semiotic universe to make a profit-centric corporation seem human and caring.

When the issue of Twitter and privacy is broached – an issue into which, finally, the question of ethics might emerge, Wilson says: “If there’s something you aren’t comfortable sharing, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” ostensibly aiming to conjoin the unethical and the private sphere in one flattening gesture. I am saying by all this, that the agenda-less and unstructured discussion generated by this fateful pairing of individuals amounted to an analytic zero: the audience is left essentially unchanged by the absence of any insight. Even the row of schoolgirls behind me drowned out my own sighs with their bored whispering. Every suspicion of public discourse dropping to new lows of mediocrity and lack of insight is confirmed by this seminar.

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