In days gone by, people who liked to tell jokes would find a readymade and largely forgiving audience in close friends and members of their family. With the growth of social networks, the private joke has thrown off its shackles.
Earlier this year I was invited to attend a rather high-powered literary festival in Chennai. The invitee list was studded with authors, chefs, editors, actors, TV anchors, politicians, fashion designers and other such luminaries that currently form India’s public intellectual milieu.
I was utterly flattered by this invitation, of course. I’d written a few, reasonably well-received novels over the years. But I am, to put it mildly, no Jeet Thayil. And no Wendell Rodricks. And the differences between Shriya Saran and me are too numerous to count.
So I went with great enthusiasm. Literary festivals are one of society’s chief ways of rewarding its authors. Given that most of us make so little money, the occasional junket in a five star hotel with the odd open bar and the rare autograph-hunting fan is most gratifying. A little royalty to make up for very little royalty, if you will.
Once there, I kept running into attendees who introduced themselves and then said the same thing over and over again: “I love your tweets!” Not my books. Not my blog posts. Not my office culture work. Not even my cricket columns. But my tweets. This, it increasingly became obvious to me, was the art form that I was being identified with the most.
This – the briefest, most insubstantial of all the things that I write. This tweeting had become my literary raison d’être.
I was both amused and petrified at the same time.
Petrified because I had no intention of becoming “that guy who tweets funny things”. I was, on the contrary, hoping to become “that guy who tweets funny things and won the Booker”.
I’ve been tweeting – mostly jokes – since May 2007. To date I’ve posted approximately 63,000 tweets. Which means that I tweet nearly 30 times each day, or around twice every waking hour. At the time of writing this piece, each of my tweets had been read by 54,988 followers.
And despite all my protestations to the contrary with friends, family and colleagues, I do take my tweeting very seriously. I check my timeline every morning and glean most of my news from this social network. Almost all the new friends I’ve made in the last three years, I’ve made via Twitter. Am I an addict? Almost. (I use a piece of software called Anti-Social to suppress all social networks on my computer if I am working on writing projects.)
However, the single biggest impact Twitter has had in my daily life is in the way I process my tendency to make jokes.
I make a lot of jokes. I don’t say this to boast, but simply to state a fact. I don’t make jokes consciously, obsessively, or with particularly consistent results. But I do it all the time. It is as if one part of my mind is constantly processing the humorous implications of every single firing neuron in my brain.
A few years ago my first impulse on creating a joke of any merit was to email it to my wife and a very close circle of friends. Most of them would ignore it, and rightly so.
Blogging changed this somewhat; Twitter, later, changed this completely.
My blog was the first place where I began to sacrifice the privacy of many of my jokes. I didn’t hesitate to post jokes and anecdotes about my inability to drive, my problem with hair on my back, or having relatives who pride themselves on being able to pilfer any object that is not bolted down in an Air India flight.
These were not the kinds of jokes I’d be sharing with strangers in a cafe or even at a party. These were, in the general scheme of things, private jokes I’d usually only share with my closest friends.
Yet there is something about the digital remoteness and anonymity of a blog that makes these jokes ‘alright’. Since the blog distanced you from the audience who read them and from their reactions – judgemental or otherwise – you somehow didn’t feel awkward discussing your hairy back at all.
Twitter took the comforting, insulating distance of the blog and raised it to an entirely new level. And it made sharing all the more easier.
These days, whenever I tell my wife a joke, she always seems to know what I am going to do next: “You’re going to tweet it, aren’t you?” Sometimes, I don’t even have to enunciate my mirthful masterpiece; she can tell from that look in my eyes that I’ve thought of something private that must go public. Why is this so? What has made the private joke so public?
I suspect it has something to do with the odd sense of personal boundaries that the internet bestows, nay forces, upon its users. Thanks to a multitude of communication platforms we converse without meeting, meet without talking, talk without listening, and listen without even meaning to.
This takes the traditional, dual-mode nature of communication – as something that is either private or public – and makes it much more complicated. Is a tweet public? Or *wink nudge wink-RTs are not endorsements* private? Is a Facebook update public? Or private?
Who knows? What does privacy even mean anywhere? Or is something private as long as the communication doesn’t happen face to face?
Unfortunately jokes, unlike electrons, don’t exist in quantum states. The private joke is private only the first time you tell it. After that somebody – you, your wife, your friend – is going to post it on some social network somewhere. The public then takes over.