Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Twitter is as Twitter Does...

...so, I was out with friends at a fine drinking establishment in Palo Alto last night - and the conversation turned to, as I find it often does these days, social networking in general...and Twitter in particular.

The conversation moved into that bizarre, twilight realm I find myself in when I am talking about twitter, jaiku and pownce.

Me: "...so, you have this group of friends...or, uh...not...and you send out small notes on what you are doing."
Female Friend: "Like IM?"
Me: "...uh, no. No, not exactly. IM is point-to-point, twitter is more of a broadcast."
Male Friend: "To your friends?"
Me: "...well, yes. And to strangers."
MF: "Total strangers?"
Me: "...uh."
FF: "Why would I do that?"
Me: "...uh."
MM: "Oh, so its an engine for stalkers?"
Me: "...uh."
...and so on.

I didn't get frustrated trying to explain twitter, because last night was - for all intents and purposes - the exact same conversation I had when I was first introduced to Twitter. "Why," I asked, "would I volunteer this stuff to the world at large...and more importantly, why would I give a crap what other people are doing?"

Twittter, Jaiku and their ilk are contradictions.... they are, at once, egotistical and voyeuristic. They are both a brand new concept, and a 30 year old concept. (Anyone remember CB radio?) It is simultaneously irritating and fascinating.... and, it can gobble up your monthly text message quota if you aren't careful. They call themselves "mini-blogs," but that is disingenuous to both blogging and twittering. You aren't blogging with these technologies - you are not really offering an informed (or uninformed) opinion about the world, or reporting on a fact necessarily. What you are doing is contributing small observations of your world to the world.

That, in fact, may be why this phenomenon is so engaging and enraging at the same time. You are performing the virtual equivalent of standing on top of a rock and yelling "I am here!" at the top of your lungs - if you are lucky, you will here a voice in the wilderness returned to you -- if you are unlucky, that voice in the wilderness is merely your echo. It is at once engaging and an act of lonely desperation.

Clive Thompson, in an excellent Wired article last month, postulated that Twitter creates a climate of a "social sixth sense." Each message, individually, is just annoying chatter - but taken in aggregate it provides the listener with a touching portrayal of each person in your social circle. After listing to the "tweets" (as each, 140-character-or-less post is called) of your friends for a month, you find yourself suddenly in tune to how they are doing. This gives you a "social leg-up" the next time you meet them in the real world. You know, without ever having discussed it with her, that Susan's mom was in the hospital, so you ask Susan how she is doing. (BTW, I found it amusing that Thompson posted his twitter name in his article and then later complained via a tweet that all these people were trying to friend him because he posted his twitter name in his article.)

I think that Thompson put his finger on an important point - but there's more to it than that. By participating in twitter, you not only get aggregate knowledge of what your friends are up to, but you get aggregate knowledge of what the world is up to...

...that is not as grand and as pompous as it sounds, btw. Consider David Troy's mashup application, TwitterVision. TwitterVision provides you with a world map, and a random sampling of tweets and the source tweet location, as an overlay. Watching TwitterVision is addicting - and provides you with a profound sense of what the world is thinking. Where Thompson points out that twitter gives you an aggregate view into your friends over time, TwitterVision provides you with an snapshot view of the world over an immediate time slice called "Now."

Social networking at its finest? Maybe, maybe not. But it provides us with a powerful glimpse of what is just around the corner.

1 comment:

miketrap said...


I sometimes think social networking is the opiate of a generation too cynical for broadcast media, just as television was the opiate for a generation too cynical for religion.

The vast, vast majority of journal entries and blog postings are trees falling in empty forests, cut by self indulgent lemmings deluded into thinking they have A Voice. Few, in fact, do, as it has always been. The promise of blogs - that those few will arise on the merits of their insight - may be the sole redeeming quality of the medium.

Twitter, on the other hand, is the ultimate tool for lazy self indulgent lemmings, of which the majority are. I have no doubt it will be a smashing success, much doubt that it will add value to the universe in any way.