Paritosh Joshi: In praise of Agora Redux

10 Jan,2013

By Paritosh Joshi


If you have not heard of Dick Costolo yet, here is a prediction. You will. Soon.


We will circle back to Mr Costolo soon enough but let me first offer you a vision of utopia. A place where the humble and the mighty are subject to the exact rules and restrictions. Where anyone can enlist anyone else’s help. Where acts of unalloyed altruism are not exceptions but commonplace. Where creative ideas are amplified and mighty causes ignite from small embers of righteous anger. Where the world, and your school/college/office cohort can all be debating clubs, often simultaneously. Where ideas blossom into enterprise and inequities into social upheavals.


Unless you really have been living under a rock, these last few years, you know what I’m talking about.




I am generally an early adopter of major online services. To wit, HoTMaiL as it was originally christened, launched in July 1996 and my account dates back to October 1996. Facebook opened up to anyone with a valid email address on September 26, 2006 and I was there just a day before it became 10 months old, on July 25, 2007. By those standards, I was a real laggard getting to Twitter, only in its 31st month in January 2009. Having got there, it was not apparent to me what good a pretty basic service that just allowed you to post 140 characters at a time, 140 characters, mind, not 140 words, might do.


While a large number of tweeters used their own names, there were plenty of intriguing, unusual ‘handles’ that others sported. Ashton Kutcher, then famously married to Demi Moore (the whole ‘cougar’ thing) was @aplusk. Amitabh and son went by @SrBachchan and @juniorbachchan respectively. Madhu Menon, the writer chef from Bangalore was @madmanweb. If @chetanbhagat used his own name, an anonymous young satirist sent up the celebrity author under @satanbhagat. Other handles referenced puns, double entendre and wicked wordplay. A great candour seemed to be at work here, with handles offering windows into people’s self-perceptions. A wit quipped, “On Facebook you tell white lies to people who are supposedly your friends. On Twitter, you share your innermost thoughts with absolute strangers”. When you have no fear of being judged, you are free from inhibition.


Soon, a second aspect emerged strongly. Everyone wanted to share something. It was a worldwide ‘Show and Tell’. From Christopher Hitchens’s unapologetic, even militant, atheism and Paul Krugman’s disestablishmentarian views on US budget deficits through urban legends about the nature and history of Adam’s Bridge all the way through gambolling kittens and precocious puppies; even a cursory dip into the Twitter ‘timeline’ was guaranteed to yield at least a shiny bauble and often, a genuinely lustrous gem. A global team of prospectors was mining and panning the unfathomable vastness of the Internet, and giving away the nuggets they extracted.


For a world grown fearful of the digital domain as a hotbed of intellectual piracy, Twitter was a telling contrast. Easy as it might be to filch and republish a 140-character tweet – and there were those who did that to be sure, most regulars would acknowledge another’s authorship by ‘retweeting’ (abbreviated to RT’ing) the original post. If compulsions of length or a desire to annotate resulted in an edit, this would be evident in ‘modified retweet’ or MT. RTs and MTs would occasionally yield a whole torrent of responses resulting in Twitter ‘trends’. Some might just be flighty memes enjoying their few volatile moments in the sun, others would presage a zeitgeist that was just rubbing its eyes and waking up. It made me think of tuning forks used in Physics laboratories. A fork tuned to the same note, even if it was in a different octave, would spontaneously begin to ‘sing’ when a sibling was struck. Twitter was a resonance amplifier.


As adoption grew across geographies, age groups, social classes and cultures, unlikely interactions became commonplace. Conversations that began in the virtual world became so stimulating, the interlocutors frequently sought each other out in the physical too and the tweetup was born. This was one heck of a potent seed. Whole Arab Springs were ushered in by an extreme extrapolation of the idea. Twitter was a cohort catalyst.


I often use the analogy of various forms of cutting instruments when talking about the need for a rich vocabulary in whatever language we use for expressing our thoughts. A limited vocabulary can still convey the intent but in only its broad contours. Such a vocabulary is like a woodcutters axe. It can hack, coarsely, at meaning. A wide vocabulary is like a scalpel or a sculptor’s knife. It can make precise surgical incisions or carve intricate Madonnas and Apsaras from marble blocks. The extreme frugality of 140 characters placed in the hands of the uncouth became a bludgeon, even as it turned into a purifying essence for sophisticated tweeters like @stephenfry and @bhogleharsha.


And so back to Dick Costolo and his speech, which if you hadn’t clicked that link at the top of this piece and heard it already is also available here. Mr. Costolo likens Twitter to the Agora, the centre of the community in ancient Greece. It’s a longish oration but if you thought this article made some sense to you, the hour you spend hearing him will be very rewarding. I promise.


Think of this as a really long tweet. Let’s hear it from you now.


Paritosh Joshi has been a marketer, a mediaperson and a key officebearer on industry bodies. He is developing an independent media advisory practice. His column, Media Matrix, appears on MxMIndia on Thursdays


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