Mark Antony, the ancient Roman politician and not Jennifer Lopez’s husband, is most famous for his speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral. Or at least he is famous for the version of his speech as presented by William Shakespeare in the play Julius Caesar.
It is a wonderful, oft-quoted speech that many children are forced to memorize in school. Presumably so that when they grow older, and perchance a dictator is murdered in their vicinity, they are not left fumbling for the appropriate words.
Now there is an interesting thing about Mark Antony’s speech. If you have ever heard or read the speech in its entirety, you know that Antony has some serious stuff going on there. He is simultaneously praising Caesar, certifying Caesar’s moral virtue and eventually demonizing and then outing Caesar’s killers. Mark Antony goes all WikiLeaks on Brutus’ behind.
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But how does he start his speech? Does he start with a fruity, floral introduction? Does he start with a prayer song? Does he light a ceremonial lamp?
He starts by summoning an audience. He invites, to listen to his speech, friends, Romans and countrymen. Lend me your ears, Mark Antony requests them, please stay a while and listen to my magnum opus.
Without listeners, his eulogy and whistle-blowing is pointless. If Mark Antony had said all those words without an audience present, it would have been utterly futile, and, frankly, a little disturbing for Antony’s family.
That is why for true freedom of speech, an audience is essential. What is the point in being able to say anything you want to if you don’t have people around to listen to your 2 cents?
And Twitter is currently the best place in the world to find a ready audience for anything you want to say. No matter how substantial, trivial, true or laughably false, chances are on Twitter.com you will find someone who agrees, disagrees or at least plagiarizes your tweet.
But why is this so? What makes Twitter in particular such an able vehicle for freedom of speech?
Now I am not going to make a case for Twitter based on the fact that it is free, delivered online and accessible anywhere a mobile phone or an Internet connection is accessible. You know that already.
In fact I can already sense many questions on the minds of some readers.
What does Twitter do that blogs don’t? Don’t blogs also allow you to type your tripe and publish at no cost? Aren’t blogs also as accessible as Twitter? Weren’t blogs supposed to bypass mainstream media and become the unbiased news source for the masses?
Yes, all that is correct. But things didn’t really pan out that way.
See, there are a couple of problems with blogs.
First of all, to be really taken seriously on a blog you need to write a lot. You need to use complete sentences and paragraphs and use punctuation. While some bloggers are able to deal with these unjustified constraints, many find that the typing, spellchecking, uploading and publishing simply get in the way of free speaking.
Why, if I want to call Suresh Kalmadi, Himesh Reshammiya, Ram Gopal Varma or Uday Chopra names, do I have to write 200- or 300-word-long blog posts to do this? Why can’t I just compare Paula Abdul to a leafy vegetable and be done with it! The inherent verbosity of blog posts ends up becoming a speed breaker on the intellectual highway on which my free speech is speeding.
Many people just don’t want to use paragraphs or semi-colons. They just want to speak and be done with it. Twitter limits, nay demands, that your communication take place in 140 characters or less.
Whatever you have to say you have to say within that word limit. You could, of course, use more than one tweet per thought. But that is bad form and most tweeple frown upon it.
Second, it takes a lot of effort to make a blog popular. According to some reports there are over a bajillion blogs on the Web. It can be well nigh impossible to get people to frequent yours. To paraphrase a Zen koan, if I update my blog in the forest that is the Internet, and no one sees me do it, does anyone give a !@#?
Twitter is refreshingly immune to such crowding out issues. I concede that it can take new tweeple a few weeks to develop a few hundred followers. But once you begin to tweet your free speech with regularity, you are bound to develop a solid following (also the human race is made up of all types. This helps).
However, the real boost that Twitter gives to free speech is rapid word of mouth propagation. Because it is so easy to pass on someone’s opinion—you just need to press a button to rebroadcast a loony right-wing conspiracy theorist’s tweet—Twitter makes your opinions reach thousands of people within a few seconds.
And all this without even using proper English. Or any language for that matter. Truly the Internet and Twitter are great for free speech.
All this analysis was from a personal perspective. From the perspective of a free speech deliverer.
What if you are a free speech consumer?
This is also why Twitter is where the real battle for freedom of expression is being fought today.
For instance, take the case of celebrities, politicians, journalists and other famous people. Before Twitter, if they had to say something in public, they would do this through some form of intermediary. Perhaps through a spokesperson, a press release or a sanitized, carefully worded newspaper column.
In all three cases, the end product is often vastly different from the initial raw idea.
But if the same celebrity has an iPhone with a Twitter app on it, he can instantly express raw emotion and feeling to thousands and millions of followers.
Look ma, no intermediaries.
Without Twitter, it is highly possible that Shashi Tharoor may still have been a minister and Lalit Modi still the owner of cricket. They might even have been good friends, inviting each other for weddings and other family functions.
But with Twitter, and copious free speech, both their careers have been ruined.
Twitter also allows you to transcend time zones and consume speech. It doesn’t matter if you are asleep when Ashton Kutcher says something or Oprah Winfrey posts a picture of herself. As soon as you wake up in the morning, you can pick up your phone or laptop and sit back and enjoy these critical developments with full freedom.
Truly, for these reasons and many more, Twitter is the greatest gift for free speech in this era. It is doing to unhindered expression in the 21st century what the invention of dynamite did to killing people in the 19th.
Let us hope that people all over the world adopt this new medium wholeheartedly. I have much more to say about free speech and the role of zero-control communication in our society. But I have reached my word limit.