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Why Twitter?

July 18, 2009

A librarian colleague of mine recently asked me (via Twitter) what the advantages of using Twitter are. Rather than try to reply to him in 140 characters or less, I thought I would write it out more fully using this now dated technology called blogging.

It took me a long time and several attempts to grasp the utility and potential of Twitter. At first I found it difficult to remember to use, and didn’t see the point in reading tidbits about random people. A lot of people are having a grand time making fun of Twitter, and there is certainly a lot of inanity inside any of the social networking ecospheres. As with any technology of this nature, however, there is also a positive, useful side, or at least there will be until Twitter is overwhelmed with spammers who will ruin it for everyone.

Who in this day and age has the time they would need to communicate with everyone with whom they want/need to communicate? Our physical and cognitive abilities have changed little since, say, the 16th century, but the demands placed on us have, and profoundly. In the 16th century, one likely lived and died within an incredibly small geographical area, where personal contact via the human voice was inevitable and was the means of transmission for all information. Eventually, literacy began to become more universal, and printed forms of information began to spread, which added a new dimension and expanded the horizon, at least for some. In the 19th century, we saw the rise of commercial postal systems, which allowed one to send information long distances.

Much later, along comes the telephone, and with it the ability to speak across long distances. Of course, it is still one to one communication and predicated upon the concept that our social and professional spheres can be managed using a synchronous technology that requires (more or less) our full and undivided attention.

In the last 20 years, technology has literally exploded this tidy universe and nearly overwhelmed us. Cell phones are ubiquitous and obnoxious, and yet we cannot live without it seems. Email has become a necessity, and at least begins to move us in the direction of asynchronous communication (a la the postal systems, which have all but disappeared except as a means to send bills, three-dimensional non-textual objects, and unwanted advertisements). You can write to me whenever you want, and I choose when and if to respond. Around the same time, instant messaging came on the scene. It has the advantage of allowing us to have syncopated synchronous conversations, i.e.- we can likely chat with someone while doing something else, dropping in and out of the exchange in a way that would be rude on the phone.

Add to this already volatile mix things like the blogosphere (fed to us incessantly via RSS) and now microblogging services such as Twitter, and things get a bit out of hand, perhaps. There have been studies, and surely there will be many more, about how much time and energy we modern tech-savvy humans spend on creating and consuming information using these various channels. It is a lot, and the question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I would argue they do.

The “problem” with the telephone is that it requires my full attention. If you call me to ask a question that is important to you, but trivial to me, I will likely be annoyed by the call. I would have preferred an email that I could answer at my convenience. But email is also not perfect. How many of us have stacks of messages in our inbox (usually of the more social sort) that we need to answer but never seem to find the time to do so? Chat? My heavens, it is time intensive, and I do it only with close friends and colleagues for the most part.

Basically, what it comes down to is that in my complex modern life, where I have worked for numerous employers, lived in many cities on two continents, and engaged in generally social behavior wherever I have been, I have long since lost the ability to communicate with everyone I know in a reasonable fashion using the more time-intensive technologies such as the phone and email. I try, valiantly, but alas go off the rails all the time. Hence I choose to blog, not to be an exhibitionist for all, but to share with friends and acquaintances some bits out of my life that might interest them. If not,  I will never know, and they need not worry about insulting me if they skip something or ignore it entirely.

Twitter fits into this mix, and allows me to keep tabs on a wide range of people, both personal and professional contacts, with whom I otherwise might not be able to maintain a more time-intensive exchange. I learn about articles and conferences from colleagues (like a large, low-time-cost reading circle), learn about major life events (hey, we had a kid, for example), and trade snippets about current events (such as the Tour de France) without having to invest in cohesive narrative threads via email or some other technology. I spend, at most, ten to fifteen minutes a day on Twitter, and can easily see the advantages it brings. I feel caught up, as if I have feelers out there in various circles and can pick up the interesting and important tidbits.

It’s not a perfect technology, and I can see it easily evolving into something else, but there is something about one to many communication that has caught the fancy of our modern society, and I doubt that that is going to go away anytime soon.

  1. Jamene permalink
    July 20, 2009 15:41

    I agree that Twitter is useful for friendly asynchronous exchanges; some would argue that Facebook is better at performing that function. Not being a Facebook user, I can’t say. What I’m discovering, though, is one of the more interesting uses for Twitter. Search Twitter for almost any recent conference and you’ll find both the conference’s hivemind and its counterculture. The masses converge on a city and spend two or more intense days stewing in a topic and each other’s company. If you were there, you’d instantly have a read on the conference’s flavor – that is, the tenor of the conversation; the golden threads of ideas that speakers pick up and drop as their sessions and papers weave the conference. This flavor is usually the most valuable benefit of attending a meeting – the subject of conference dinner debate; the fire you take home and resolve to act on; the most elusive element to capture.
    You can get a glimpse of the mental energy produced by a conference when you read blog posts written by attendees. But even when the posts are written in real time, it’s difficult to get a sense of the mood and think of attendees as a group. Reading a blog is tuning in to one person’s channel. Reading conference “posts” on Twitter is tuning in to the hive’s channel.
    The last conference from which I tweeted anything was #eluna09 (Ex Libris Users of North America). I don’t claim any transcendent tweets, but it was fun to see the roll of comments from so many people in the room as we attended the conference keynote. Granted, most of the tweets were 140-character summaries of the speaker’s most recent slide. Yawn. But there were some thoughtful, surprising takes on the talk, as well as the Twitter equivalent of passing notes in class – “where meet u 4 dinner? greek plc 2mi walk.”
    Reading the hivemind is all well and good, but reading the conference’s counterculture is amusingly subversive and strangely addicting. It’s instant access to the cool crowd sitting in the back of the auditorium. Two examples of this, from the most recent ALA (American Library Association) conference, which – full disclosure – I did not attend. #totebag is the snark channel; #ALASecrets2009 (NSFW) is the – umm – extracurricular channel. Both are hilarious, and both give a completely different sense of the conference than even the “official” conference channel, #ala2009.
    I don’t know of any other technology that makes possible this kind of record of a conference, especially from so many kinds of devices.

  2. Dale permalink*
    July 20, 2009 16:47

    Thanks for the great comment, Jamene! This is one of those cases where a comment is way more informative and interesting than the original post. I agree that it has great power as a hivemind recorder.

    Picking up on your FB comment, I would argue that Twitter has an edge on FB when it comes to “professional” tab-keeping. FB is so cluttered with silliness that it encourages people to be silly, e.g.- all of the silly tests, apps, and whatnot that busy things up. It tends to be more of a social space, with a lot more distractions–photos, games, walls, etc.–than Twitter, which is really Spartan.

    I use both, but treat FB strictly as a social space in terms of what I share and what I consume. I have noticed in my friend circle (granted, a small subset of that mega-universe) that 99% of them use it in similar fashion, with only one or two exceptions. In one of those cases, I have observed that no one ever picks up on his “business” posts, since they seem so out of place there.

    • Kenning permalink
      July 26, 2009 18:43


      Thanks for your thoughtful, and thought-provoking response to my question, which, for the record, was a response to your statement that you had found Twitter quite useful, now that you had figured out how to best use it. My question was simply to ask you to explain what you meant. Your response released a flood of thoughts and memories for me, which is partly why it’s taken me a week to respond. (The other part is that I’m just becoming a lazy-ass). There is a thesis to be written somewhere in all this.

      When I was in library school in the early 1990’s I read two books that influenced my thinking, then and now. The first was “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, by Neil Postman, and the second was “The Closing of the American Mind” by Allan Bloom. Both authors were well-published and well-respected academics: Postman at New York University; Bloom at the University of Chicago. Both are long dead.

      At the risk of greatly simplifying their theses, I’ll make two points that have stuck with me.

      Postman wrote about the decline of communication because of technological advances, and how, contrary to the Orwellian fears that my generation grew up with, it was really the “Brave New World” described by Aldous Huxley that had become our reality.

      “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”[from Wikipedia]

      Bloom, a classical philosopher, wrote about the decline of liberal education, the rise of relativism, and the fact that there is no longer a canon of “great books” that we all have read and can discuss with one another. He argued that (even in the mid 1980’s) our intellectual relationships were becoming fractured and disjointed.

      Whether you agree with Bloom and Postman is irrelevant. What is relevant is that technological advances have costs to the way we relate to each other. Maybe “costs” is the wrong word – “effects” is better. I long ago gave up the notion that technological advances could, or should, be controlled. But there are those who reject every technological advance, whether it’s the ballpoint pen, the typewriter, the personal computer, cell phones, social networking, etc. When I lived in Cyprus in the late 1990’s I met a group of French archaeologists who thought it was absolute sacrilege to send a personal letter to a friend via email. I’m sure that sentiment has changed in ten years, even among the French. Eventually the tides of technological evolution wash over us all and we move on in the newly formed world, inattentive to what we’ve left behind.

      Your point about struggling to keep in touch with many far-flung friends is well taken. But there is also a school of thought that argues that there are mental limits, to which you allude, to the number of people we can have a relationship with in any meaningful way. The effect of more communication across greater distances with more people is, almost inevitably, more shallow.

      When I signed on to Twitter recently I became a “follower” of a well-known thinker in the IT (library) world. The flood that issued forth from his fingertips was not only overwhelming, but inane. I found that I could not keep up with the tweets, and even if I could, I didn’t want to because I couldn’t synthesize the random thoughts into anything coherent. Postman would have argued that the technology is at fault. He described the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, where the format had one candidate speak for 60 minutes, then the response for 90 minutes, followed by a rejoinder from the first candidate for another 30 minutes. They did this in seven different debates in different Congressional districts, and drew huge crowds and media attention. Our modern equivalent political debates are roughly one fiftieth in length. It’s not just the length, though. Following debates like that requires attention, linear progression, analysis of arguments. What is the development of technology like Twitter doing to our ability to think? I know I’ve developed the attention span of a gnat, which is why it’s taken me a week to tackle this discussion.

      If everyone’s talking, who’s listening? Who are we writing for? If we expend our energies as Huxley worried we would, who’s capturing a coherent sense of our current culture? And, for those of us in the library world, who already know that most of what’s being thought, written, or spoken in a variety of electronic media is not being captured and indexed at all, what record of our civilization is being created?

      I know I sound like a real technological naysayer in this post, and I don’t like that. I’ve adopted almost every technological advancement that has come along over the past 15 years, and I see an awful lot of good in it. But there are effects. I may be wrong about Twitter, and it may yet become a very useful tool to me, but Twitter is most certainly not the end of the social networking evolution. How many more steps can we adopt, and what will we leave behind?


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