The first documentary on Twitter shows its reach - and limitations
South China Morning Post
Mar 26, 2010
It's a short step from being a social media star to becoming a real-life celebrity. Just ask Stefanie Michaels: before she opened a Twitter account in early 2009, she was a humble travel journalist in Los Angeles. Now, Michaels is followed on Twitter by almost 1.5 million people, has been profiled in Vanity Fair and gets invited to Hollywood premieres.
Her rise to "Twilebrity" status is just one of the stories chronicled in Twittamentary, the first film to examine the social phenomenon Twitter has become by exploring its impact on its users' lives. For some, the micro-blogging website where people can post anything from what they had for lunch to breaking news is no more than an exercise in self-promoting pointlessness. But to others like Michaels, it is a life-changing tool. "I'm obsessed with it. I thank the founders of Twitter each day for creating this magical place where we can connect and share ideas," says Michaels.
The extreme reactions Twitter provokes are what inspired Tan Siok Siok, a Singapore-raised, US-educated, Beijing-based filmmaker, to make Twittamentary.
"I know a lot of people who, to put it mildly, don't get Twitter," says Tan, who has been a Tweeter since late 2007. "It's somehow ineffable. When someone who gets Twitter tries to explain to someone else why it is so great, they always get tied up in knots. I thought the film could capture that sense of something you can't put into words."
But 38-year-old Tan struggled to do that until she hit on the idea of getting Twitter users themselves to provide the storyline for the film. So in conjunction with Hong Kong webpage designer Michael Slatoff, she established a website in August last year calling for contributions.
"I believe that any film about Twitter has to resonate with the milieu itself. Crowd-sourcing the film made a lot of sense to people who are into Twitter; the idea that the film is an open platform too; that everyone can participate and have a voice," says Tan. "It meant that people who went to the website realised I understood Twitter which was important for my credibility."
As tweets bounced across the "Twitterverse" talking about the project, she found herself invited to speak at a Twitter conference in Los Angeles in November 2009. With that as the logical end to the film, she decided to base it around a road trip from New York to California.
Diane Saucier, a business development manager for an IT company in Chicago, was one of those who responded to the call for ideas. "I loved the idea that the film was crowd-inclusive, that while the film was conceived by Siok Siok, it would really be created by the users. It gave me an opportunity to share some stories that highlighted a few of the things I loved about Twitter," says Saucier.
For Tan, however, relying on other people for content was a nerve-racking experience. "It did mean ceding control of the film. Traditional filmmaking is a lot more secretive and much more linear. This was a lot more chaotic. When I went on the shoot, I didn't know what stories I'd be able to film. Often, I was meeting people for the first time when I was filming them and people I'd never met were helping me set up interviews and co-ordinate things via the website and Twitter," she says.
What Twittamentary reveals most is the sheer diversity of Twitter fans, and their reasons for using it.
Travelling across the US by Greyhound bus, she interviews a supremely narcissistic man who posts his daily diet on Twitter, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in LA and exchanges tweets with a sex worker based at the notorious Bunny Ranch Brothel in Nevada.
However, she also visits the pit at the Chicago Board of Trade to meet a futures trader who uses Twitter to monitor breaking news and hears from others who regard it as a serious platform to exchange ideas and information. But perhaps the most poignant encounter is with a homeless woman with two estranged children who lives at the Union Railway Station in Chicago, and who Tan ended up taking with her to speak at the Twitter conference in LA.
"She goes to the local library to tweet," says Tan. "The stereotype of Twitter is that people post mundane stuff about what they're doing, that people are always talking about themselves. I think self-absorption can be quite negative. But in her case, Twitter gives her an instant connection to people who are listening to her, even if she is just venting."
Tan's experience making the documenatry has confirmed her belief that Twitter is just as revolutionary as the contributors to the film claim it is. "The real-time Web is the new steam train, the new highway, which connects people," she says. "It changes the way people communicate and work together. You can work across borders instantaneously."
Yet, the one place that isn't happening is the mainland, where Twitter has so far made little impact. It has been blocked, along with other Western social networking sites, by Beijing's great firewall for the past nine months, a reflection of how Twitter's role in publicising the riots that gripped the Iranian capital Tehran last June demonstrated its ability to spread news faster than any other media.
Although Twitter is still accessible on the mainland via virtual private networks, it mostly remains the preserve of tech-savvy urbanites and high-profile figures such as the artist and activist Ai Weiwei.
Ai's 26,000-odd followers are dwarfed by the millions who follow the tweets of celebrities such as Demi Moore and Stephen Fry.
"People who gravitate towards Twitter on the mainland are those who are globalised in some way, they've studied or worked abroad, or who like the whiff of dissidence that comes with it," says Kaiser Kuo, an internet commentator and consultant in Beijing. "Twitter as a company doesn't have a significant future in China because as long as the narrative about Twitter focuses on its subversive nature, it'll always be seen as threatening."
Just as mainland social networking sites such as renren have taken the model established by Facebook, so local companies such as Sina have established their own micro-blogging services, leaving little space for Twitter.
"Most of my classmates don't know what Twitter is. They use sites like QQ and Kaixin," says Li Huiqing, a 22-year-old student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou who has been tweeting since 2008.
Yet, while local websites will always be more dominant on the mainland, there is a market for Twitter among the evangelists for the real-time Web.
"I use Chinese sites, too, but I think that if you're passionate about social media, then Western sites are your first option. They're the most innovative, the Chinese ones are simply clones," says Li.
Nevertheless, the fact that Twitter is blocked doesn't mean the authorities have given up monitoring it, and the culture of censorship on the mainland means its content will always be constrained compared to elsewhere.
"A lot of the things have happened on Twitter because of its openness and sociability. But that doesn't happen in China because society is less open," says Tan. "The stories are much more varied in the US, where you have people doing non-profit projects and reinventing journalism."
Having previously produced documentaries for the Discovery Channel in Taiwan, Tan went to the mainland in 2007 to teach a course at the Beijing Film Academy. While doing that, she directed Boomtown Beijing, a documentary which chronicled the capital's preparation for the 2008 Olympics and was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival.
Over the next few months, she plans to take Twittamentary to film festivals in the US and Asia, before making it available over the Web. Judging by the passions Twitter arouses, the film is sure to inspire many thousands of tweets.