Twitter in the News

I like Twitter for its slice-of-life sensibility, its capacity for suggesting ‘ambient awareness’.

Lately, in part because of the role Twitter is playing in the after-election uprising in Iran, people are musing about the many aspects, pros and cons, of Twitter. A brief round-up:

** NEW: “Conspicuous but not Consuming” at GOOD, 20 June 2009:  The article explores the likelihood that

“houses, cars, clothes, and other traditional means of distinguishing oneself are no longer the best tools for the job. … Facebook, Twitter, and blogging have revolutionized social networking and connectivity. But just as importantly, these channels for self-expression represent a new way to be conspicuous without the consumption.”

(Well, except for the laptop, web cam, speakers, DSL/cable lines, Internet infrastructure cables and servers, electricity, etc.)

“One hundred years on, both here and in the developing world, the ‘conspicuous’ portion of [Thorstein] Veblen’s theory [which he introduced in The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899] is as strong as ever. But ‘conspicuous consumption’ is being replaced by ‘conspicuous expression’ as the driver of identity. This new paradigm emphasizes the conspicuousness of ideas, interests, and opinions rather than accumulating more stuff than your neighbor. This is not insignificant. How billions choose to distinguish themselves from one another will be just as important to global sustainability as how they power their homes, what they eat, and how they commute to work, making online social networking a critical “leapfrog” technology in the developing world and a surprisingly powerful source of behavioral change in the developed world.”

** “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live,” by Steven Johnson in Time magazine, 5 June 2009:

“Twitter turns out to have unsuspected depth. In part this is because hearing about what your friends had for breakfast is actually more interesting than it sounds. The technology writer Clive Thompson calls this ‘ambient awareness’: by following these quick, abbreviated status reports from members of your extended social network, you get a strangely satisfying glimpse of their daily routines.”

As I’ve said before, hearing mundane details like what people have for breakfast has always been interesting to me.  I like the ‘en masse’ factor, too, of hearing the details of lots of people’s lives, whether I know them face-to-face or not.

For Johnson, though, “the most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it’s doing to us. It’s what we’re doing to it,” by tweeting live commentary from conferences using hashmarks (#), to which people who aren’t even at the conference can respond, leading to increased  real-time exchange of information about and analysis of the conference topics:

“Injecting Twitter into [the] conversation fundamentally changed the rules of engagement. It added a second layer of discussion and brought a wider audience into what would have been a private exchange. And it gave the event an afterlife on the Web” (because of ‘transcript’ of the commentary can continue to be read online by searching the particular hashmark associated with that conference).

** “Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform,” by Mark Drapeau at O’Reilly Radar, 9 June 2009: Drapeau argues that “the underlying mechanics of Twitter more closely resemble the knowledge co-creation seen in wikis than the dynamics seen with conversational tools like instant messaging.”

His argument is based on the fact that,

“according to a Harvard Business School study, about 10% of Twitter users contribute roughly 90% of its content. Anecdotally, these 10% are subject-matter experts, passionates, mavens, and thought leaders who break news, write strong opinions, and tell jokes. Like on Wikipedia, most users merely read this information, and a modest number of people in the long tail use the information in the form of re-tweets, comments, corrections, and alternative opinions or links.”

Actually, it completely depends on the people you ‘follow’ (those whose tweets you see) whether Twitter acts more as a broadcast/wiki medium or a conversational one. For me right now, it’s about 50-50.

One of the article’s commenters says, “I think Twitter is voyeuristic instant messaging.” Yes, that’s true, except that unlike voyeurism in the real world, those being overheard or watched through the virtual shrubs are aware of it and have pulled the drapes aside.

** “Social Networks Spread Defiance Online,” by Brad Stone and Noam Cohen  in the NYT, 15 June 2009:

“Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. … Austin Heap, a 25-year-old information technology consultant in San Francisco [said] ‘I think that cyber activism can be a way to empower people living under less than democratic governments around the world.'”

“Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School who is an expert on the Internet, said that Twitter was particularly resilient to censorship because it had so many ways for its posts to originate — from a phone, a Web browser or specialized applications — and so many outlets for those posts to appear.”

On the other hand, The Revolution Will Be Fetishized (22 June 2009, at DimBulb).

** Library of Congress to Archive All Sotomayor Confirmation Tweets:

“The Library of Congress intends to compile all tweets about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor during the confirmation process.  The LOC announcement was made—where else?—in a tweet today on Twitter, reports the Hill’s Twitter Room.”

** Jack and Suzy Welch explain “Why We Tweet” in BusinessWeek magazine, 2 June 2009.

** “The Psychology of Twitter: Doubly Addictive,” by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, 19 June 2009: Pollard describes how Twitter works and raises doubts about its sustainability, mainly because “What you end up with, mostly, is a lot of cryptic messages you don’t understand” and it’s probably not an effective way to make friends.

The cryptic part can be true, but only to the extent that you ‘follow’ people without following the key people they follow.  If I’m interested in someone, I’m generally interested in the people s/he is following, too.

Pollard estimates that scanning the tweets of the 100 people he’s following, and reading the @ messages (those directed to him) from the 700 who are following him, he would spend 240 hours’ time annually involved with Twitter, yielding “200 interesting or memorable thoughts or ideas, …  perhaps 20 useful follow-up one-on-one conversations” and two new friends. He asks: “If I spent that 240 hours in other social activities, would the yield be higher or lower?”

For me, while Twitter might be useful — and I am using it, along with city-data forum and other online sources to try to learn about the area we’re relocating to — it’s more that it’s enjoyable. I don’t try to determine the usefulness or effectiveness of hanging out with friends at the local coffee shop (social media), or of reading the newspaper or a book (knowledge media). These are things I do because I enjoy the activity itself, and any usefulness I derive, while welcome, is secondary.

For me, a vague ‘ambient awareness’ of what my friends and acquaintances are doing, in one moment, and what’s happening in the rest of the world, in one moment, and what lots of people are thinking about, in one moment, is an end in itself. I’m not looking to make friends, have scintillating conversation, or find ideas on Twitter.

Pollard says that on Twitter,

“we can delude ourselves into believing we’re appreciated, we’re connected, we’re engaging in meaningful conversation, we’re expanding our networks, we’re recognized, and people are paying attention to us.”

Maybe so, and also the contrary. Part of the beauty of Twitter is the very meaningless of it, the cryptic nature of replies that Pollard deplores, the momentary glimpse it gives us into what could be an elephant or an abattoir. We have only the most minimal of clues. Being online generally, whether on Twitter, Facebook or blogging, is more likely to give one the distinct feeling that pretty much no one cares what’s written or experienced. It’s a little exercise, for most (all but a few), in spitting into the wind.

Or, in Twitter terms: “Spit in2 wind again 2day, more at . Orange rolls + scrambled egg 4 breakfast. 60F, rain threatening. #happyfathersday”


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