Saturday, 16 May 2009

Of Tweets (and Clucks)

Back to blogging my opinions after a few weeks muted by the demands of the physical world (as opposed to the intangible world that exists somewhere in the interface between my mind, fingertips, laptop and the internet). And I realise that what I have at the moment is not so much opinions – but a whole swathe of unanswered questions.

Top on the list is Why is Twitter talked about as part of the “social" media revolution? So far it looks to me that whilst it can be used to communicate the minutiae of one’s social life – that is just about its least interesting and in many cases its least frequent use. In the case of Twitter surely "Semi-Professional Media", "Self Branding Media", "Maven Media", "Free Advertising Media", "Fan Club Media", or even "Get a Life Media" could all be more descriptively accurate labels. To date by far the most interesting Twitterers I have followed are those actively engaged in working out what social and digital media are and how people engage with them now and in the future

Watching the different ways in which people tweet, I am coming to view the 140 character microblog as a mini blank canvas that’s moving at top speed while you are trying to paint the right characters onto it, and that accelerates away once the send button is hit. Tweets are something like a blank postcards on which one can both sketch a picture and write a message. But the card isn’t addressed or posted to one person – it’s cast out to sea like a message in a bottle. Except it isn’t a sea – it’s a torrent, a flowing river, chock full of other bottles and messages all shooting down the rapids.

I suspect that for some the challenge of being clever / witty/ interesting in the prescribed space adds an addictive frisson to Twitter (something like the challenge inherent in the NYRB personal ads). It’s clearly a wonderful medium for maven personality types, a global platform from which to broadcast their hints, tips, leads & ideas. I’m less certain of its worth or contribution to celebrity culture – although humans have an obvious and ancient urge to connect in some way with their idols, heroes and heroines no matter how remote. Perhaps following on Twitter provides an illusion of direct contact that speaks to this need.

I’m mystified by the ongoing discussion about whether Twitter will be a flash in the pan and the angst over Nielsen’s figures showing that more people drop out of Twitter than Facebook. Firstly, we know that fashions come and go in this space. So what if not everyone sticks with Twitter or it is not the flavour of 2010 or beyond. The point is that it is here now, and even in the small way I’ve been using it, its an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with people outside of one’s physical ambit and – crucially – for accessing and sharing ideas. If you want a highly reasoned and fascinating specialist disquisition on this try John Borthwick’s fascinating post The Rise of Social Distribution Networks on the Silicon Valley Insider. I particularly like his quote of Dave Winer’s metaphor of a “rope of information”. Except that in a rope the fibres are homogeneous and systematically intertwined. Twitter’s inherent structure is much more random – a sort of chaos theory applied to disembodied fragments of conversation. But that chaos is part of its attraction and its value. I certainly don’t care whether more people use Facebook or Linked In than Twitter – so why does it matter to others? I wonder if the answer to that question lies with those responsible for monetizing Silicon Valley.

I’m also bemused by the debate about the potential for passing around misinformation. Since when did any of us expect information put about by others – even if we know them (or in this virtual space “know” them) – to be consistently and entirely accurate? Has free information ever been considered to be inherently more reliable than paid-for information? Any of us who are specialists in a particular field know that the in traditional mainstream media what passes as information is often based on biased press releases that time-poor journalists working to deadlines have not had time to interrogate or even re-hash. It is axiomatic that much of what is tweeted and retweeted is second-hand information, gleaned quickly from others and re-broadcast to a follow group for a variety of purposes ranging from altruism to naked self-interest and every shade on the spectrum of motives in between and therefore is potentially inaccurate. If any of us wants to take what we find there seriously and act on its contents it remains our own responsibility to make reliable judgements about the original source and the potential for accuracy

This all links – tangentially – to the other big question that’s been bugging me. Why does it matter how many people I follow or am followed by? The culture of maximising followers strikes me as being an old-media ambition. What’s wrong with a small and self-selecting audience? Since when was biggest best? And we all know that democracies can get it spectacularly wrong. I’m not unhappy that so far I have just over 50 followers and am following about 80. Yes I plan to follow more, but slowly because I’d rather follow the most interesting few than the uninteresting many. So far Twitter is by far the most powerful Internet application I have encountered for access to diverse, relevant information which is pre-filtered for potential relevance to me by those I have chosen to follow. It's a bonus than in the process I'm also able to identify others with common interests and concerns and reach out to them.

All I have to do now is learn to fish the best bottles out of the river whilst avoiding drowning in it in the process.

Meanwhile back here in real, physical Caxland, the chickens arrived long before the ebook reader, as predicted. (I’m still hanging out for Kindle on iphone so it’s a case of waiting until the UK becomes part of Amazon’s e-universe). The girls: Elsie Hepzibah, Alchy and Gaia Artemis (names that divulge much about the individual characters of the resident teens and proto-teen who named them) are finding their voices and becoming daily funnier, bigger, bolder, cheekier and more beguiling. At the same time they are invading and threatening ever more of the garden. (Much as ebooks and digital information are growing up, becoming more sophisticated and penetrating ever more areas of the traditional publishing world). I’m going to have to reconfigure my tiny estate and build some discreet fences so the girls and my flowers and food crops can co-exist in harmony. It remains to be seen whether any legal, free market compliant, effective fences can be constructed that will allow books and ebooks to co-exist in a way that works for publishers, authors and readers.

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