Twitter vs. Film: A Modern Exploration of Medium Specificity

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The unveiling of film in the early 20th century challenged the strongly established art form of theater because of the two forms’ several similarities—the use of actors, the use of sets, the use of music to set the tone of a scene, and so on. Theorists and critics alike scrambled to either defend film’s right to be considered its own art form or tear the notion down before it could really catch on. This initial argument is what tends to give medium specificity the negative connotation it holds today: theorists get too caught up in comparing art mediums to each other that they do not take the time to consider the unique elements each medium may have. Therefore, through exploring two separate and modern, media art forms, Twitter and film, this paper will aim to stay true to the nature of medium specificity and prove why it is crucial to treat all mediums as unique and individual.

Noël Carroll is a prime example of a philosopher who completely misses the point of medium specificity . One of his main arguments focuses on tackling medium specificity’s notion of the differentiation and excellence requirements, claiming that “the assumption is that what a medium does best will coincide with what differentiates it.” 1 Carroll then compares a film’s ability to narrate with a novel’s ability to narrate, declaring that neither can fulfill medium specificity’s excellence requirement because it would be “simply absurd” to name either one of them the best at narration. He concludes this point by admitting that he is “assuming that excellence is more important to us than differentiation.” 2 One of the reasons why Carroll is missing the point of medium specificity is because he is clearly basing his arguments off mere assumptions, claiming that the essence of medium specificity lies solely in the comparison between mediums. His second mistake is the surface level at which he chooses to examine. Instead of taking each medium form and analyzing them one at a time beneath the microscope, he is lumping two forms together and playing ‘Spot-the-Difference’, to which he believes there are few . It is not a question of whether or not film is the best out of all medium forms at narration but which, out of film’s arsenal of abilities, does it do the best or excel at. For example, the question should be whether film’s ability to narrate is more successful than its ability to visually stimulate a viewer. The comparisons drawn should always be within the medium itself.

This theory can easily be applied using the starkly different media forms, Twitter and film, as examples. If this were Carroll writing, this essay would go straight to comparing the two media forms, and admittedly , that’s oftentimes beneficial to analysis and critical thinking. Butif that were the case, this paper would never take the next crucial step toward what should be the main focus: that while Twitter and film have many similarities—such as the ability to narrate a story and the essence of duration—it is the ‘how’ that sets them apart from each other. It is the ‘how’ that medium specificity is most interested in, and the most efficient way to demonstrate ‘how’ two art forms differ from each other is to take the time to examine each one separately.

Twitter is a form that combines common media elements such as writing, narration, storytelling, and exposure to pop-culture. However, what sets it apart from other mediums is its extremely limited duration. A single tweet forces the writer to get his or her point across in a span of 140 characters or less, which can be either limiting or liberating. For argument’s sake, the following sample tweet will be used and referenced to for the remainder of this essay:

As a famous villain once declared, ‘ Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!’ How right he was. #Vertigo #spiral

The tweet above is clearly meant to be a reflection and comment on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The tweet’s third-person narration is established within the first few words, “ As a famous villain once declared,” and its pop-culture value is shown through said declaration by means of a quote from Christopher Nolan’s notorious character, The Joker, in The Dark Knight (2008). These allusions are one of Twitter’s strongest suits in storytelling because tweets rely on the relaying of experiences common to everyday people. An opinion of and comment on the words that are serving as a reflection of something entirely different directly follows the quote: “How right he was.” The tweet then concludes by revealing its true purpose through means of hashtags, which attempt to tie the several different ideas of the tweet together. This sample tweet is evidence that Twitter has the unique ability to combine several different elements of writing to generate powerful statements made powerful solely for the reason that the statement is forced to be direct and concise. On the downside, though it has the ability of storytelling, this is something that is rarely done successfully . Some writers—formally known as tweeters—fail at the 140 character limit and write two or more tweets in order to get their stories across; but when used expertly , a tweet can tell a relatable story and convey a specific feeling in a very short amount of time and space.

Though film also employs the common media elements of narration, duration, storytelling, and exposure to pop-culture, it is colored with both visual and aural aesthetics. However, since film as an art form is incredibly expansive in its range of talents, the focus here will be a discussion of film critic Béla Balász’s essay on the close-up. Balász describes the close-up technique as revealing “the very instant in which the general is transformed into the particular. The close-up has not only widened our vision of life, it has also deepened it.” 3 A close-up, therefore, acts as a narrator who can shift the perspective of an object or person to something else entirely , proving film’sability to be a storyteller. Balász then compares the close-up’s visual aesthetic to orchestra, an aural aesthetic commonly used in film: “… a good film with its close-ups reveals the most hidden parts in our polyphonous life, and teaches us to see the intricate visual details of life as one reads an orchestral score.” 4 Sometimes the content of the close-up can be a pop-culture reference, otherwise known as an allusion—for example, a quick shot of an old Batman comic book—but it doesn’t have to be. The point is, film is not unique because it can accomplish things better or different than other mediums can; it is unique because of how these things are accomplished.

Medium specificity has been largely misunderstood throughout the realm of film theories and criticisms. This paper tackled two different mediums, T witter and film, in order to exemplify exactly how a medium should be examined in regards to medium specificity . Though the two were noted to have some similarities and differences, the main focus stayed within the medium itself and did not further attempt to compare the two. For example, though both media forms frequently use allusions in their stories, this does not mean one form’s usage could be analyzed as better than the other’s; the focus should be whether or not an allusion, out of the medium’s wide range of abilities, is the element that it uses the best. If medium specificity pushes toward the question of how things are accomplished and not what makes them better, there can be hope of truly honoring each media form as it should be: an individual.

Marguerite Wasinski is a third-year student studying English and Cinema Studies at Oakland University. She has held several different leadership positions on campus including the student organization Filmmakers Guild, where students collaborate creatively in order to produce several short films. Marguerite plans to move to California after graduation to pursue her dream of working on film sets for a living. This essay is partly based off her attempt to further hone her essay-writing and critical thinking skills. She lives in small-town Fraser, Michigan just a half hour outside Detroit.

Notes:

  1. Noël Carroll, The Specificity Thesis (Philosophical Review: Duke University Press, 1991)
  2. Noël Carroll, The Specificity Thesis (Philosophical Review: Duke University Press, 1991)
  3. Béla Balász, The Close-Up (Great Britain: Bristol Typesetting Company, 1949)
  4. Béla Balász, The Close-Up (Great Britain: Bristol Typesetting Company, 1949)
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Marguerite Wasinski is a third-year student studying English and Cinema Studies at Oakland University. She has held several different leadership positions on campus including the student organization Filmmakers Guild, where students collaborate creatively in order to produce several short films. Marguerite plans to move to California after graduation to pursue her dream of working on film sets for a living. This essay is partly based off her attempt to further hone her essay-writing and critical thinking skills. She lives in small-town Fraser, Michigan just a half hour outside Detroit.