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March 6, 2007

thoughts on twitter

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Posted by Liz Lawley

I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

If you haven’t tried it yet, Twitter is a site that allows you to post one-line messages about what you’re currently doing—via the web interface, IM, or SMS. You can limit who sees the messages to people you’ve explicitly added to your friends list, or you can make the messages public. (My Twitter posts are private, but my friend Joi’s are public.)

What Twitter does, in a simple and brilliant way, is to merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage—personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages—into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.

The big “P” word in technology these days is “participatory.” But I’m increasingly convinced that a more important “P” word is “presence.” In a world where we’re seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you’re doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.

I’ve experimented a bit with a visual form of this lightweight presence indication, through cameraphone photos taken while traveling. A photo of a boarding gate sign, or of a hotel entrance, conveys where I am and what I’m doing quickly and easily. But that only works if people are near a computer and are watching my Flickr photo feed, and that’s a lot to ask.

I also use IM status messages to broadcast what I’m doing. My iChat has a stack of custom messages that I’ve saved for re-use, from “packing” and “at the airpot” to “breaking up sibling squabbles” and “grading…the horror! the horror!” But status messages have no permanence to them, and require some degree of synchronicity—people have to be logged into IM, and looking at status messages, while I’m there. Because Twitter archives your messages on the web (and can send them as SMS that you can check at any time), that requirement for synchronous connections goes away.

Blogs allow this kind of archived update, of course—but they’re not lightweight. Where one might easily post a Twitter message along the lines of “on my way to work”, a blog post like that wouldn’t be worth the effort and overhead.

I’ve heard two kinds of criticisms of Twitter already.

The first criticizes the triviality of the content. But asking “who really cares about that kind of mindless trivia about your day” misses the whole point of presence. This isn’t about conveying complex theory—it’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. And we crave this, I think. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is “what are you doing?” Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they’re working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days. No, most people don’t care that I’m sitting in the airport at DCA, or watching a TV show with my husband. But the people who miss being able to share in day-to-day activity with me—family and close friends—do care.

The second type of criticism is that the last thing we need is more interruptions in our already discontinuous and partially attentive connected worlds. What’s interesting to me about Twitter, though, is that it actually reduces my craving to surf the web, ping people via IM, and cruise Facebook. I can keep a Twitter IM window open in the background, and check it occasionally just to see what people are up to. There’s no obligation to respond, which I typically feel when updates come from individuals via IM or email. Or I can just check my text messages or the web site when I feel like getting a big picture of what my friends are up to.

Which then leads to one of the aspects of Twitter that I find most fascinating—exploring clusters of loosely related people by looking at the updates from their friends. There are stories told in between updates. Who’s at a conference, and do they know each other? Who’s on the road, and who’s at home. Narratives that wind around and between the updates and the people, that show connections. Updates that echo each other, or even directly respond to another Twitter post.

There’s more to it than that, but I’m still sorting it all out in my head. Just wanted to post an early-warning signal that I see something important happening here, something worth paying (more than partial) attention to.

(cross-posted from mamamusings; since comments have been unreliable here, any comments can be posted there)

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. krakowski on March 7, 2007 6:58 AM writes...

"When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone"

madam, don't you feel that you phone the kids and ask them these insignificant questions primarily because you feel like talking to them when abroad? Will it feel as fun to have them twitter away to your twitter?
In Central Europe, where texting is huge, especially among young people, they've been twittering to each other for ages. But this has often been perceived as hypersocial behavior that shows a slightly pathological inability to be alone or feel safe about stability of your contacts without having it reconfirmed every couple hours.

What's fascinating for me is that it's not just adolescents jumping on the band wagon.

I feel that once adults discover and 'get' twitter, children will become forced to twitter regularly their positions and activities to their parents. the streets (and kitchens, and living rooms where the adults dwell) finds its uses...

Permalink to Comment

2. Liz Lawley on March 7, 2007 10:53 AM writes...

Yes, of course, I phone them because I want to talk to them and hear their voices. But the point was that I ask about the trivialities of their day.

I can't call them when I'm in a conference room, or when our time zones aren't properly aligned, or when I'm on an airplane--so the asynchronicity that Twitter offers helps in that regard.

And I can't (and don't want to) spend the whole day on the phone talking to all of the people, near and far, about whom I care.

This is different, I think, from prior uses of texting in two fundamental ways. One is the centralized archiving of messages, which creates a fascinating narrative. The other is one-to-many performative nature of the posts, which are broadcast to anyone who chooses to "follow" you in Twitter, rather than pushed to the people you think should be seeing them.

Permalink to Comment

3. John the Statistician on March 7, 2007 4:02 PM writes...

I dub this an instance of "Continuous Partial Social Attention" software.

http://openthefuture.com/2006/08/continuous_partial_social_atte.html

Permalink to Comment

4. William Couch on March 8, 2007 12:05 AM writes...

Liz,

I've stumbled onto your blog/this post via the trackback from the Twitter blog. I couldn't agree more with your post. In addition to what you've said, I also find Twitter to be a great tool to observe how one utilizes his or her time. If only for that purpose, you can actually recollect what you've spent time doing, and not what you planned on doing (provided your honest in your updates). Moreover, you could look back in your timeline to a week ago or a year ago to see what you were doing at that instant in time, and strictly in an archival manner does this bring a level of immediate transparency to our lives that we've never seen before. Some might note that the notion of nostalgia is then lost, but at the very least, one could use this sort of archiving to watch his/her progression and growth as he/she ages.

OK, looks like I need to get to my post on the service... :) In any case though, loved yours.

Permalink to Comment

5. kevin on March 9, 2007 3:12 AM writes...

Thanks for - and to - your thoughts, I checked out Twitter and saw the BBC quite active, so I set up The WELL there, too. Can't get the Twitter badge to work on our MySpace page, however. Curious to see what comes of this...

Permalink to Comment

6. Tracy on March 9, 2007 12:19 PM writes...

I've been using Twitter.

After a bit over a week, I don't have any interest at all any more of going to the trouble of smsing or logging updates about what I am doing. I hate typing with my thumbs. The day-to-day log of what I am doing aspect doesn't hold much luster for me, personally. I also turned off the notifications from my friends on Twitter. Maybe if my son was old enough to be into it, I would follow him. But generally, I'm not interested in the donuts my friends eat or whether they are at work or at the park.

Where Twitter was very useful was as a way to let people know where they can find you, if you want to be found. I was just in SF for a weekend, where I have a lot of friends who don't even know each other. I was twittering in what I was doing and where so that friends could find me if they wanted to. There were even a couple people who (gasp) don't have cell phones, so it allowed me to message a lot of people all at once. I think of Twitter as sort of the most bare bones version of Dodgeball possible. I loved dodgeball, but couldn't get my friends on board, and so never really used it. To follow me on Twitter you don't need a phone, you don't need to sign up. The simplicity is wonderful.

Permalink to Comment

7. Keith Fletcher on March 20, 2007 10:38 PM writes...

It is interesting to see the many uses for twitter. I have found a site www.celebritytwitter.com that follows the life of hollywood celebrities online. Is this a sign that twitter is going mainstream? I have also noticed that you can't hardly register with anything with twitter in the name. I give it 2 months before it gets bought by yahoo or google.

Permalink to Comment

8. Keith Fletcher on March 20, 2007 10:38 PM writes...

It is interesting to see the many uses for twitter. I have found a site www.celebritytwitter.com that follows the life of hollywood celebrities online. Is this a sign that twitter is going mainstream? I have also noticed that you can't hardly register with anything with twitter in the name. I give it 2 months before it gets bought by yahoo or google.

Permalink to Comment

9. Sam on April 25, 2007 6:20 AM writes...

"it’s about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you’re doing. And we crave this, I think."

"What’s interesting to me about Twitter, though, is that it actually reduces my craving to surf the web, ping people via IM, and cruise Facebook."

As someone in their mid-30s, I cannot even comprehend these statements. I find myself ever more unplugging from the online world to actually spend time and energy on things that really matter (like my young children and books and exercise). Perhaps I have finally hit the generation gap with the next bunch, but this just seems bizzare to me.

I think that the young generation, raised by hovering narcissistic boomer parents, have become used to the constant monitoring and interference by others in their lives. I am determined to NOT be that kind of parent and so are many of my friends. I wonder if this type of software realy has long term legs or if it just meets the temporary neurosis of this generation.

Permalink to Comment

10. Shaitan on May 2, 2007 6:11 PM writes...

Twitter? Yes, it's an interesting way to keep potential kidnappers informed of what you are doing, indeed...

Permalink to Comment

11. Vicki on September 18, 2007 10:42 PM writes...

Sam: "This generation"?

I shudder at the ageism of the statement. I'm enjoying Twitter. I love my weblog. I'm a techie. Spouse and I keep in touch all day by IM. I find plenty of time for the "things that really matter" (typing this with a cat on my arm!). One of things that matter to _me_ is social software and how it brings people together.

Oh... I'm 47.

Permalink to Comment

12. Phil Barrett on October 2, 2007 10:15 PM writes...

My question is...why would you tweet if you've already invested your social equity in another platform that does the same thing - like updates in facebook?

i've blogged about it on my site - http://www.burningthebacon.com

i welcome comments!

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