Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twittering about twitter

I have a love/hate relationship with social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs,, etc. On the one hand, they take up endless time, and the information quality and density is generally much less than one gets from traditional media, such as books and journals. On the other hand, just because scholarly journals exist doesn't mean I shouldn't spend time chattering with friends and acquaintances -- in other words, the proper thing to compare Twitter to is, say, an ongoing cafe conversation, not publishing. On the other other hand, Twitter and Facebook are a pale simulacrum of actual face-to-face social interaction. On the other other other hand, so is letter-writing and that technology spawned a great deal of worthwhile instances.

It's a brave new universe and it's still in progress; the rules for formats and genres and etiquette are being explored and seem to change on a daily basis. Worlds are colliding. As a certified Doctor of Media I feel obliged to at least keep track of what's going on and participate a bit, even if it is part of the ruination of intellectual life. I don't really think it is -- or, rather, it is wrecking some parts of the universe of discourse (newspapers, most obviously) and enabling a great many others, and we are a couple of decades away, at least. from seeing how things will ultimately shake out.

One example: I have various services that gate my blog posts onto Twitter and Facebook, and gate Twitter posts onto Facebook. The directionality is significant -- I'd never do it the other way around. Identity is uncomfortable -- the blog is pseudonymous, Facebook is under my real name, Twitter is a bit of both. The mtraven alias was supposed to be decoupled from my real identity so I wouldn't have to worry about professional implications of anything I said here, but eventually I couldn't be bothered to maintain the wall of separation and have been more or less letting it decay or actively undermining it. I can barely be bothered to maintain one persona let alone several.

Aside from the identity discomfort, the flowing-together of these different media also causes other slight irritations -- call it genre discomfor. Something that makes a good blog post doesn't necessarily make a good tweet. For instance, tweets seem more ephemeral than Facebook posts, since the latter have a more explicit mechanism for replying and can become the locus of a conversation. But I undermine the casual nature of Twitter by connecting the two together.

One way to frame thinking about these technologies is to change from thinking of them as a medium to thinking of them as infrastructure. Twitter, for instance, as a medium is kind of stupid -- what possible good can come of a 140-characte limit (on the other hand, haiku). But as an infrastructure -- a utility that supports the controllable multicasting of short messages -- it enables all kinds of unexpected things. My most practical use of Twitter is the Caltrain feed, which allows riders to send reports of train delays, outages, and accidents (which happen with alarming frequency). I have this feed piped to my phone so I typically get better reports of what's going on than the conductors do. I enjoy the mild irony of using this cutting-edge 21st century technology to monitor and improve the utility of the largely broken 19th century technology of railroads.

Google Wave is another new technology that seems really crappy as a medium (if you've used it you know what I mean; if not and you want an invitation let me know), but has great promise as infrastructure. In this case the infrastructure supports the standardization of collaborative applications, ie, it makes it easy to create apps that work like Google Documents do (through the web real-time collaborative editing of documents).

Hm, on further thought there are many subtly different ways to treat these things:
  • medium
  • infrastructure
  • platform
  • ecosystem
  • community
  • standard
For any web technology, these are different and related aspects of the elephant. They all fit together -- standards are useless without a community that is interested in using them; standards once established becomes a platform on which other things are built. Things that start out as new media seem compelled by market forces to become platforms. Etc.

Facebook, for instance, had no appeal for me until some actual people I wanted to communicate with pulled me in (community). Twitter on theo ther hand is more interesting (to me) because of its API. Because it's so trivial, it is developing an interesting ecosystem of clients (like Brizzly and dozens of others), and tools that put different spins on the date such as Twibes and Tweememe. I just learned about a new, interesting, scary part of the Twitter ecosystem a site that lets you add sponsored links: automatically inserts one tweet from an advertiser that you approve into your feed every other day.
Here's my own (pretty trivial) contribution to the Twitter ecosystem -- Twitlines, a client that uses a scrollable timeline. The idea is to create an ambient view This was done mostly as an experiment to test out how quickly I could deploy a web app in the new universe of platform services (answer -- very quickly, but tweaking it into shape was starting taking too much time so I am forcing myself to release it to the wild). More interesting variations to come, I hope.

The profusion of multiple standards and platforms is a symptom of the youthful stage of the Internet. It's pretty healthy, if annoying, to have so many different growth points.

Oh well, this post has turned into the opposite of a tweet, which is necessarily pithy and pointed. If I have a point, it's that these media are going to be the nervous system of the planetary collective mind, like it or not, and radically shape whatever civilization we might have in the future, just as the printing press shaped the Enlightenment. So it won't do to dismiss them as trivial, even though 99% of the contents may be just that.

1 comment:

andy said...

Personally, I use Showdocument for online teaching and web conferencing. I'm not saying these programs aren't good,
But I think a web-based application is always better, since there's nothing to download or install.
try it at . -andy