This post is the first of two about Twitter and its potential to be an effective and meaningful way of communicating. Today I’ll share some thoughts on objections to the micro-blogging groove, and try to show how Twitter does achieve meaningful communication because of, and not in spite of its format. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how Ma.gnolia is using Twitter to help us keep in touch with our members.
Pretty much anyone who has heard of Twitter has an opinion about it. Not just the casual, evaluative kind where we give a thumbs up/down or numeric rating, but a serious consideration of whether it’s somehow bad for us. The arguments go along one or both of these lines:
Objection 1. Twitter is noisy, and as such adds a high frequency interruption channel to our environment. With so many interruptions, getting focussed and into a productive state becomes more and more elusive, and we end up with something like late-onset ADD. Perfect instance: Kathy Sierra’s pondering if Twitter is the end of attention.
To hear that Twitter is noisy makes me point to the name and raise an eyebrow. It feels like it’s supposed to be a little noisy, and while that can be part of the fun it also has to be managed. Outpacing email and instant messaging, the phone, children, pets and the person who sits next to you, Twitter can be a serious interruption engine. And like all those other interruptions, learning to keep them from running and ruining you is part of working and playing in the Internet.
Objection 2. Twitter is a river of banal narcissism, in that answering the question that drives Twitter, “What are you doing right now?” produces only familiar, ordinary moments. Waiting for the bus. Eating a sandwich. Is your sandwich that important that the world must know? With 140 characters, what can you possibly say of substance? Perfect instance: Nick Carr calls out Twitterers as a navel-gazing chattering class.
Context is Key
The answer, I think, is quite a lot, and it’s not so much about what gets sent out as it is how it is read. Twitter posts (I really can’t call them ‘tweets’, not yet), aren’t consumed like most regular blog posts and web pages, because we usually read those items in the context of a search for information or in a passive, news-reading mode. Twitter is just sort of happening, and as such most Twitter posts can seem pretty trivial when read without some kind of context.
Since Twitter streams grow and intersect by adding ‘friends’, the most natural context is a personal relationship with an individual or group. Common, but important relationships, like friend to friend, organization members, teammates, and so on. In the context of these relationships, the conversation is already flowing in some way or another, opening up shared values, vocabularies and timelines as informers of each Twitter post.
To demonstrate, let’s make a fictional Twitterer. We’ll call him Adam and say he’s in university. When Adam posts to Twitter:
“Talking to Amanda on the phone”
We can imagine that being read in a few different ways:
Adam’s lab partner: Who’s Amanda?
Adam’s best friend: Awesome! He finally got the nerve to call her up!
Adam’s ex-girlfriend: Her?? I can’t believe it. He’s still rebounding.
Adam’s rugby coach: Whatever
Amanda: doesn’t use Twitter, which is probably a good thing at this point
How Adam’s post is read is determined largely by the relationship he has with the readers. There’s a neat trend in that scenario, where the more involved the shared context, the deeper the understanding, and the stronger the resonance. Indeed, Adam has moved the shared timeline between himself, his ex, and his best friend in under 140 characgters. As a relationship builds, Twitter posts can say more with the same number of characters, and I think that’s how Twitter posts can communicate very well with few words. This isn’t to say they always do.
Same Time, Different Space
Dropping into a bunch of Twitter posts might leave you feeling a bit lost if you don’t have any reason to be looking at them. Something has to tie you to the person making the post for the resonance to happen. The campus gossip scenario shows this in theory, but please try with me this comparison of experiences:
First, check out the public timeline from Twitter. You get the idea right away, but it’s just kind of there.
Next try this view, and let it play for a half-minute or so.
Bada-boom! Context! Every post gets a place on the world map, and you’re seeing it barely a moment after it was sent. With our understanding, or lack of, about places in the world we can establish a context for the person behind the post, and a powerful one at that. What does it do to know that someone who just posted “getting ready to go to the market” lives in Baghdad or in Paris? The difference in locality from our own or from what we are familiar with becomes a binding element in reading a given post and knowing where it comes from.
Place raises notions of environment, culture, language, stereotypes and more, and as such adds richness to each Twitter post. By also answering ‘where are you from’, Twittervision adds something engaging and human to what is otherwise can feel like a bulletin board on Red Bull. Twittervision adds the context of geography, an alternate to the context of interpersonal relationship.
Though overlapping Twitter streams with different types of contextual information are novel and interesting, the context of relationship seems to be the one in which Twitter works best. Returning to the scenario with Adam, we can see that the value starts to go down with the degree of interpersonal involvement. That would seem to relegate the best uses of Twitter to existing friends and family circles, but in fact, with the right circumstances and the right approach, Twitter can be a great tool for strengthening ties in communities that gather online around services or initiatives.
Next Time, on TwitterTalk
In the next post, I’ll show how we’re doing that at Ma.gnolia, and talk about some of the unexpected benefits of doing so.