Friday, March 06, 2009

Facebook Status as Poetry

Students of psychology and language are currently engaged in a debate regarding the impact of social network media on linguistic changes. One camp holds that the ever increasing use of texting is having a deleterious effect on syntax and spelling. This, according to the denizens of this camp, is diminishing the written expression of our youth. On the other side are those that see the constant engagement with messaging as a positive development that is expanding the writing experience in ways that lead to creative usage and enriched self-expression.

All aspects of living languages have always evolved in accordance with other changes taking place in society at large. In fact it is exactly this flexibility and adaptive power that makes a language thrive. Language cannot help but reflect cultural changes. In fact technology-induced changes in language have a long history that can be traced as far back as the introduction of the written word. The use of stones, leaves, parchments, scrolls, paper, printing press, and broadcast media have all engendered changes in language. Each of these new technologies brought about a level of standardization of language that was unprecedented. And standardization of language inevitably alters the range of linguistic expression embodied in dialects spoken previously by a smaller number of people. The universality of standard language devours the local expression. It can be argued that it is an impulse against this destruction which gives rise to various forms of slang. And thus the tension between standardization and independent expression keeps the language rich and fertile.

Technological changes affect not only the language of common use but can also give rise to new literary forms. It is impossible, for example, to imagine the rise of the novel in an era that preceded the mass reproduction made possible by the printing press. The time may be ripe now for the latest technologies of social networking to open up new possibilities in the written expression.

It is plausible to think of the Facebook Status as a new genre of poetry. All literary forms operate under certain constraints. It is precisely these constraints that define the form and make it worth paying attention to. The writing of a Status requires a haiku-like economy of words. The poem has to begin with the words, “(poet’s first name) is” (as Tim reminded me). This format offers restrictions that can be used in creative ways for a unique way of expressing oneself.

The poem is consumed by its audience within seconds of its completion. This adds a sense of immediacy to its tone. The temporal closeness between the writer and the reader that the Status affords presents exceptional interpretive insights.

Features that are unique to using a keyboard or keypad can be exploited for adding depth to a work. For instance, the transposing of letters when spelling a word, whether intentional or not, adds a certain sense of urgency and even desperation to the poem. The word “the” written as “teh” takes on new meanings that do not exist in the original spelling. It is thus possible to develop literary devices that characterize this electronic literary form.

The Facebook Status is up for a week after which it is automatically archived on the page as simply a glimpse of the past. The poem is thereby decentered on the page and becomes a part of Facebook memory. This is reminiscent of Buddhist monks who spend days creating a work of art, often on the ground with colored powders, and then proceed to demolish it. The act is meant to draw attention to the ephemeral nature of beauty or in fact anything that one values. The Facebook Status is short-lived and yet can be accessed at any time as a past. It lives on the brink of destruction and yet is engraved forever in the memory of the machine.

The space occupied by the Status in the memory appears as layers of biographic glimpses when one scrolls down a Facebook. Scrolling down is akin to an archaeological dig in which what came before and after helps understand the object of study. The structure of the Facebook then provides an array of events, thoughts and encounters in which the poem can be read for contextual meaning.

A Facebook Status as poetry then has unique possibilities for creating, circulating, reading and interpreting. Let me end by citing my own work as an example of Facebook poetry. This was my Status on the day of Obama’s presidential inauguration which was also the day of first snow of the season in Charlotte.

(Facebook) Status
January 20, 2009; 8:15 AM

Rajive is watching the sun rise/ after eight/ years, centuries/ as the first/ snow finds its way/ gently/ a black son/ sprouts over/ the white horizon/ let there be light

1 comment:

Tim said...


I am disappointed that facebook now allows people to begin their statuses with anything other than "Name is..."

Every status update was a wonderful redefinition of who we were at that point in time.