Putting the ‘twit’ in Twitter

17 Jan

Originally posted 16 July 2009 @ Foviance.com

“Creating your own blog is about as easy as creating your own urine, and you’re about as likely to find someone else interested in it.” — Lore Sjöberg.

Andrew Keen recently posed a provocative question on his blog: ‘Is blogging dead?‘. A master of the catchy headline, Keen effectively answers his own quasi-rhetorical question by asserting that blogging is not dead, it is simply transforming itself. But even transformation is a death of sorts; death of the Old brought about by the birth of the New. And in this instance, the New is microblogging…and the poster child for microblogging is undeniably Twitter.

For the cave dwellers, Twitter is social networking and so-called ‘microblogging’ service which allows its users to post text-based messages of up to 140 characters (or ‘tweets’) in real time. Users can ‘follow’ the tweets of other users and read them on the Twitter website, external applications or devices such as web-capable phones. Created in 2006, Twitter is now ranked 16 in the world’s top 500 websites, according to Alexa.

Twitter evangilists often trumpet the immediacy with which messages can be posted as a key feature but rarely do they mention the quality. When you can condense Homer’s Odyssey into 9 stanzas of ~140 characters, does it still qualify as content? How much gets lost in the translation and how deeply are readers engaging with the message? Arecent study by the Brain and Creative Institute at USC suggested that heavy use of so-called ‘rapid fire media’ may not provide adequate time for reflection or, to put it more poetically, for ‘admiration and compassion – the two social emotions that define humanity’, thereby lessening a person’s ability for moral decision-making. Twitter users may well be connecting with the tweet but not with the tweeter…

Which is probably just as well given some of the weird and wonderful ways people have chosen to use it, such as Your plants need watering or I owe you a coffee.

The first time I heard about Twitter I immediately pictured Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining endlessly clacking away at his typewriter: ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy… All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…’. There’s an old Japanese proverb which says ‘the wise man only speaks when he has something worth saying’, and it seemed to me on first glance that the vast majority of what people were saying on Twitter was frightfully inane, but then the same could be said of the early days for any new communication media. This, then, begs the question: Can a tool be considered stupid if the user does something stupid with it? Do we blame the hammer when the carpenter hits her thumb with it? Is this a case of ‘don’t hate the game…hate the playa’?

Keen would have us believe that microblogging is the new blogging, but that simply makes it the latest frontrunner in the race to publish less and less meaningful information more and more frequently. If Twitter’s exponential growth continues along its current trajectory, one could conceivably extrapolate a future in which people will be spending all of their time doing nothing but twittering, and Twitter posts will eventually degenerate in to a collective Torrancian ‘I’m Twittering… I’m Twittering… I’m Twittering…’

I’m prepared to concede that Twitter could be used in productive and sensible ways, but until very recently I struggled to find suitably compelling evidence. All of that changed when the horrific events surrounding the Iranian elections began to emerge, nay explode, and not on state-sponsored media (which was highly censored) or even Western media (which was shut out) but via Twitter. Here at last was a true example of technology giving power to the people, the mouse (and keyboard) that roared. In the face of such outrage and suffering, even a flinty-hearted jerk like me has to admit that Twitter can potentially be a powerful force for change in the world. The only news coming out of Iran was on Twitter, and all of the traditional news networks were scrambling over each other to trawl the legion of tweets for scraps of information. But that doesn’t mean that people were connecting with the events in Iran on an emotional level. Did reading about it as it was happening make it any more real? Did the fact it was brutal and violent and upsetting spark an emotional response in any of us? And if so, how does that differ from traditional news media? Does Twitter stand apart? Is it the future of news?

Interestingly, Andrew Keen posits that very question in his shiny new column for the Telegraph: Twitter vs. CNN: Blood on the streets. He provides an insightful contrast between Twitter and the old guard news media and, while not proclaiming Twitter a winner, he sees it as a contender. The biggest problem facing Twitter is the credibility of its contributors, the difficulty in discerning fact from fiction, rumour from opinion (although the same could be said of traditional media). Twitter is an instantaneous and voluminous source of information, but it’s not a particularly reliable source of news. As Keen says, ‘Its immediacy…compromises its reliability.’ Regrettably, in world news there is little room for idealism or chaos which, without some form of aggregation and validation, are all Twitter has going for it at the moment.

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