The question arises again and again: how permanent are digital media? Internet pioneer Steward Brand addresses it "Written on the Wind," in which he observes that "digital artifacts are increasingly complex to revive" and "quickly outnumbering all possible human users."
Brand wants permanence, and however younger digital media users may deny it, we all long for it. Note the outcry that accompanies Facebook's every subtle interface change. Some of us are even collecting vinyl, knitting, gardening...going to church. Quitting Facebook. We want something more dependable than whatever's "trending now."
And yet digital media are no less permanent than their analog predecessors. Books are lost, celluloid deteriorates, papyrus scrolls are burned and buried in sand. For the most part, as Brand also points out, durability has less to do with medium than with use: "Exercise is the best preserver." A friend of mine recently told me that his friend had resigned her job as archivist at a motion picture company; her job was to go through old films and decide which ones weren't worth keeping. "Too painful," he said.
Which brings us to the idea of a canon--which, however older multiculturalist professors may deny it, we all long for: some sense of what's best in human literature, music, culture.
Twitter, one of the most apparently ephemeral forms of online social media, is now being canonized, or at least archived, by the Library of Congress ("How Tweet It Is!"; the L.O.C., by the way, the publishing agency behind Civilization magazine, in which Stewart Brand's essay first appeared). So the U.S. Government has identified something of enduring value in those flashing rectangles of information, the daily volume of which has tripled from 50 to 155 million during the past year alone.
Some may scorn the notion; I understand it. The Library knows about Karl Welzein, a.k.a. @DadBoner, who is either a real person or a profound literary construction, the despondent American post-marriage male persona nonpareil, Homer Simpson's Kafkaesque better. He's from Grand Blanc, Michigan, loves beer and pizza, and watches sports with roommate Dave while ex-wife Ann lives with the kids somewhere nearby. "Really lookin' forward to the weekend, you guys," he tweets approximately once a week.
The beauty of the Karl Welzein character study lies in its subtlety and patience, values not generally prized on Twitter. The tweets are not comic in a strict sense, except within the context of the persona, but as they progress they get funnier and funnier, eclipsing more intentional comic-tweeters. They often begin as merely pathetic: "Super pumped for St. Paddy's Day, you guys! It's gonna be such a blast." Then, "Picked up four 6-packs of Guinness for St. Paddy's pre-gamers. Couldn't resist, me and Dave went through half of 'em already. So smooth."
Karl and Dave are celebrating early. Karl muses "Time to start 'feeling sick' at work so it won't be obvious when I take tomorrow off for St. Paddy's." Later that day, after he informs his estranged wife Ann about "Wing Wednesday," she responds by inviting him over for a dinner of baked chicken. Karl's tweet: "BAKED chicken wings just aren't the same, you guys. Barely choked down a few to be polite, then stopped off for real ones after."
Karl is a fast food junky on a diet who thinks of himself as a chef, frequently referring to the "flavor train." He's a nonstop drinker who loves "Crown and Diets" and heads out to "Cold One City" when he's frustrated. He casually abbreviates just about everything. Margaritas become "margs," pizza is "'za," leftovers are "lefties," and hamburgers are "hamburgs": "Cheetos are good on just about anything. Hotdogs, hamburgs, bratwurst. Anything really. They just lend such a great texture to every dish."
The great thing about Karl is just how wrong he is, yet how much we as readers sympathize with and root for him. Here's one of my favorite sequences from a Memorial Day party (chronologically from top to bottom):
Got pretty messed up at Ann's yesterday. Went pretty heavy on the margs & she was all out of the eats. Ate potato salad on a hot dog bun.
A potato salad dog isn't actually too bad when you're bombed if you kick up the flavors with some spicy mustard and my secret seasonings.
Guess I took my shirt off to show Tina my beach bod. She started laughing. I may have a stomach, but it's firm, not like Tina's sloppers!
Tina's husband Doug, who's a real load, got all P.O.d that I was burning Tina, so I challenged him to a pose down, like a real man.
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So, again, how permanent are digital media? Just about as permanent as we want their contents to be. Whole dynasties may be lost, as Shelley's "Ozymandius" illustrates, but @Dadboner is an example of a literary artifact worth preserving--perhaps worth canonizing when it's fully realized. Deeper than "Family Guy" or "King of the Hill," @DadBoner is a Beckett in progress. Poor Ann!
Follow Aaron Belz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aaronbelz