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.