Update: The @555μhz account is back up on Twitter.
Twenty-eight springs ago, I sat in a cinema and watched Top Gun. At the time, I thought it was bad. There are films you hate when they come out and learn to love over the years. But after a few decades, Top Gun is still pretty bad. I get that many like it, or even revere it. I’ll just never be in that camp.
What I did come to like about Top Gun was @555μhz, an account on Twitter that had been tweeting, frame by frame, the entire movie. I liked it not just because it was slow-motion piracy. It was also performance art. For the first time since 1986, I felt like I could sit through the whole thing again.
I welcomed 555μhz’s screengrabbed off-key, crowd-lipsynch of the Righteous Brothers in packet-sized morsels, interbred in my Twitter feed with @pmarca’s gadfly thinking on net neutrality (Disclosure: Marc Andreessen — @pmarca — is an investor in Pando) along with @UbuWeb’s subversive telegrams from Sun Ra and Howard Finster and Salvador Dalí (Disclosure: none are Pando investors… yet). The “Maverick user,” as the Hollywood Reporter referred to him, posted two to three still images from the flick every hour, until Paramount Pictures lawyers issued a takedown notice.
That’s a shame. What reverent pranksters had done again and again with high culture – Samuel Pepys’ tweetworthy diaries, Leopold Bloom’s itinerant stream of consciousness – found a perverse, low-culture counterpoint in the Twitter breakdown of Top Gun. How could anyone not love that? The life that happens in the many hours it takes to read Ulysses, or the 110 minutes it takes to watch Top Gun, presents a perspective radically altered when slowed down to line by line, or frame by frame, that demand months of patience to consume.
Ulysses had its day in court, and as odd as it sounds to say it, maybe it’s time for derivatives of Top Gun to be heard as well. What if the whole, horrible movie was tweeted over the course of a year or so? Looking at Fair Use law, it’s not a parody – it’s the opposite, it’s more like fan fiction transported into a form of expression the creators never imagined. It’s a translation of Top Gun into a new medium – named tweets, for now – that could not possibly deprive copyright owners of revenue. In fact it’s likely to inspire fans of the movie, old and new, into buying or renting the movie.
You’ll notice that I’m describing all this from the perspective of a creator. Software should be free to explore what it can do. I believe the same for the applications of that software. Which is why I’m disappointed that Twitter suspended 555μhz’s account. The company has been on the right side of its users’ creativity often enough I didn’t expect it to block a retweeting of a well-known work just because its copyight holders paid a premium for its lawyers.
I wonder if Twitter would have made this kind of patellar reflex if it wasn’t a publicly traded company. It wouldn’t be the first company to brave an IPO then scale back its ideals in the name of market pragmatism. It’s just business, as the saying goes.
If you’re going to examine Twitter from a purely commercial perspective, you might want to ask: Are the things that made it compulsive among its dedicated, if smaller-than-Facebook user base, being sacrificed? Is the platform Twitter has conditioned them to crave now moving to another service? Can we speak freely on Twitter, if we’re engaging in harmless performance art that irks the status quo? It’s clear we can’t witness that art. At least, that has become clear today.
I emailed Twitter to ask about this, but got nothing but dead air back. I want to believe it’s considering options before it does the right thing. But no one can deny that 555μhz’s stream – which began a month ago and, at its chosen pace, would likely take at least a year to compete – is being banned not on principle, but on the amount of attention it’s gaining.
Even that is telling. It means 555μhz was Goose, if you will, to Top Gun’s Maverick: the less obviously charismatic being who depended on the hero for his identity, yet was at once smarter and more attuned to the future. This is exactly what studio execs fear – the ungovernable element of creativity.
On the web, though, Goose may not give up the ghost so easily.