What happens when digital objects are taken out of their natively digital environment and put into the context of everyday life and public space? Can a digital status update migrate into non-digital space and still be meaningful? The fact that Twitter is public by default provides for interesting experimentations with the meaning of tweets and Twitter as a medium. By writing status updates and publishing them online you by default agree that these messages become publicly available. After you click the tweet button you basically loose control over your message as it traverses across and even out of the Web.
The artists Liz Filardi, Aram Bartholl and Jens Wunderling have all experimented with this public aspect of Twitter and the kinds of ruptures taking place at the intersection of online and offline. In various ways they have literally made the tweets public by taking tweets from online space to public space. Liz Filardi has worked with the meaning of status updates by remapping the format to the telephone. Jens Wunderling has taken tweets out of context and put them into public spaces, like shopping windows and cafés. Aram Bartholl’s artwork also examines the intersection between digital and public space by experimenting with Twitter and wearable computing.
In “Status Grabber”, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the artist Liz Filardi calls up various people asking them for a status update, telling them that one of their friends is requesting it. Sometimes she would just take random people from the telephone book, or she would get requests via the webpage she set up for the project where people could file a request for a status update from someone they knew and the artist would call them up. Some of the call logs are online and the results are really interesting and fun to listen to. It’s quite telling that most people were bewildered and confused by the phone call, not knowing how to react or what to say. Liz Filardi wanted to explore the whole concept of status updating, looking at how we may accept certain conditions online but not offline or via another medium, like an unknown/anonymous audience and the notion of privacy. Saying that the person requesting the update preferred to be anonymous most often led to people to hang up the phone. In an interview that I conducted with her she said: “The updates were limited. I find that when it’s verbal people feel on the spot, and they don’t know what to say. They don’t necessarily think of something clever or they’re not doing something that they feel like sharing.”
Although tough status updates are so ubiquitous online, they don’t translate well into another context like the telephone. The following phone call is quite telling: “I’m calling to request a status update”(artist) “Oh, that’s weird…hmmm…okay…everything’s fine” (person being called up). The context collapses. The interesting thing is really beginning to think about what a status update means. Most people don’t do anything worthwhile sharing most of the time. Status updates online are often orchestrated and not really answers to the question “what’s happening”. There is also some interesting stuff going on in terms of privacy. People would feel that the phone calls invaded their privacy. However, the fact that status updates by default traverse around the Web the way they do, seemingly doesn’t provide for the same intuitive feelings around privacy.
Aram Bartholl’s “Tweet Bubble Series” takes individual tweets and puts them on T-shirts. By putting tweets on clothing Bartholl wants to explore the connection between the message and everyday life. To investigate the deeper role of the absence of physical proximity and relative anonymous exchange in the use of Twitter, the central question to the wearable speech bubble prototypes is: What would it be like to not only show you latest message online, but also to publicly display it on your T-shirt? In all Bartholl has made four different versions of the Tweet-shirt. The first version called the Classic Tweets, works with thermochromatic fabric that changes colour or lightens up when you heat it up with only three static Twitter messages on it. The second version, Loud Tweets, uses a LED-bar connected to the Twitter feed resembling the noise of advertising. Pocket Tweet harnesses the screen most of us already carry with us, the mobile phone. By putting the mobile phone, front facing in a cut out pocket on the t-shirt, you can show display you last message easily. The last version, called Paper Tweet is meant for conferences and the like where people would go around with badges and labels. These labels have an RFID-tag embedded. People with RFID readers can then scan the label for new messages.
The third project dealing with status updates gone wild is one of my personal favourites, Jens Wunderling’s “Default to Public”. The art project explores the discrepancy between people’s modes of self-revelation online and their simultaneous desire for privacy in the real world. What’s the difference between communicating on the Internet versus public space? While he doesn’t consider the project as a Twitter project first and foremost, the project evolves around Twitter status updates. One of the sub-projects, called Status Panel, displays tweets on people’s doorbells via a LCD screen. The question being, would you want your neighbours to know what you’re thinking about? Tweetscreen, another sub-project, is a networked projection/installation in public space showing tweets which have been written near it’s own physical location on a large projection screen. The twitter users whose tweets have been chosen receive a reply message along with the photo taken by a webcam, saying that their tweets have been shown in public. Currently the third, and last sub-project called Tweetleek aggregates tweets from nearby and “materializes” them. Online status updates traverse into public space by being printed out on paper strips. These printers are put in public spaces like cafés. Once printed other people are free to take away the status updates on stickers. Thus people can take you’re your moments away with them. Like on the Internet, people can take your content. After a tweet has been printed out the author is notified. It’s really a way to illustrate the loss of control over ones data. A blogger whose tweet was “taken away”, provided the following comment on his blog “I thought it was a cool idea. While I of course realize my tweets are public and open for the world to see, somehow it still gives off an invasive feeling by having your info put on display out in public beyond your control.Really makes you think.”
This I guess is the crucial issue. What does it mean for something to be public by default? How do we engage with such software settings as end-users? Does it make any sense to be outraged about having your public tweets displayed in public space, and if yes how so? Is there a difference between the public timeline as a display in Twitter and an urban screen displaying tweets? In either case we do not have control over who is reading the messages. It is telling that some of the reactions on Twitter after the Tweetscreen projections were : “Oh, I am public”, or “My tweet was displayed in public”. Clearly there are different notions of public. What constitutes public in one context isn’t the same in another. This is not necessarily the same as the private/public distinction or debates about the public sphere. What do default settings to public mean for rethinking not only private/public, but also public/public?