Don’t Mention It

In the four years I’ve used Twitter (User #14,519,536) its form and function has transformed from an oddball novelty to a useful daily tool. In 2008, I may have had one or two friends on Twitter. None of them posted—their accounts were impulse sign-ups based on novelty. I felt the same way. I posted random musings of questionable comedic value (that at least hasn’t changed). Nothing personal and no expectation of reply.

In 2012, I follow an even balance of people I know personally and those I know professionally. The latter category is mostly scholars, some of whom I’ve met in person at conferences and some of whom have no idea who I am. I find Twitter to be a tremendous means of following scholarship, more so than any subscription to an academic journal might offer. Those scholars who publish their work online get read and I have a direct means to praise, question, or otherwise engage with them.

Twitter provides a curious mechanism for engagement: the mention. Throw an ampersand in front of a user name and that user’s account will be flagged. Your tweet will route into their mention stream where they will see it (assuming they check such things). In common usage, the mention functions as a direct address: ‘Hey @Nathan, I like your shoes.’ ‘Thanks for noticing, @HypotheticalInternetPerson.’ And so on. We can imagine an analogous face-to-face interaction or its electronic equivalent (email, for instance).

But the mention has other features that make it strange. First, it is a form of public address. When I drop a mention into my tweet, it is viewable by my followers and, if my privacy settings are public, to anyone else curious enough to look. Imagine this interaction in a real-world situation: I, among a group of friends, spot another friend across the room and address them publicly. Both the addressee and the friends in my immediate vicinity are now part of the conversation.

Of course, the friendship qualifier is not mandatory. I can mention anyone on Twitter and thus issue a public address that is not requested by that user. This is certainly the allure of the celebrity Twitter account—the hope that one’s fan tweet will be read and (fingers crossed!) replied to. But again, this is no mere fan letter, nor private correspondence, but an open letter that anyone in my vicinity may read. What’s the real-world scenario? I, amidst a flock of friends, colleagues, and strangers, shout across the room at Shaq, amidst a flock of known and anonymous millions. But I am assured that he hears my shout. And if luck would have it that he both hears and responds, a communication loop is formed. When he issues a mention in reply, I am suddenly the focus of his surrounding millions—they all turn their heads to stare. I am suddenly drawn into his circuit of conversation.

The word mention has a superfluous connotation. It circulates in the periphery of communication: ‘Yes, I mentioned Diane during dinner, but she wasn’t the topic of conversation.’ ‘Did Albert mention me when he brought up his list of potential clients?’ ‘Don’t mention it,’ i.e., don’t even give it the slightest attention. And Twitter facilitates this peripheral engagement. You can cast off mentions to Bank of America, Ke$ha, or Delta with little friction. You can treat it with incidental acknowledgement, but there is always some measure of hope in reserve, the knowledge that this tiny bit of text will fall into their conversation stream regardless of its source or intent.