I've been experimenting with twitter for about two months now (@interdome, or follow the link on the left) because, well, it just seemed like the thing to do. There's some crazy format sweeping the net, so I better check it out.
I'm not going to speculate on its future right now, because I think it's still up in the air. There probably has not been enough exploration with the API to see its total use potential, and not enough wide-spread adoption yet to see whether the wave will crest. Maybe it's the new email/SMS, or maybe it will just be a half-mySpace belch. I've gotten spammed on it ("false friend" followers who only post about get rich quick shit) so that probably says that its getting popular, but still isn't perfect. Most of these false friends have their profiles deleted in a day or two, so that's a good sign. But if it's going to be a catch-up game the whole time, that's not good. But again, it wasn't making my usage inconvinient (just making me disappointed upon finding out that no, I didn't gain three followers on one day).
Anyway, the most interesting thing about it to me is how the format is defining the usage. Any technology, whether it is the pen or the typewriter, the telegraph or the camera phone, begins to dictate its abilities and limitation from the minute people start to use it. It can be designed with any purpose you like, but every carpenter knows that you can very easily use a drill as a hammer. Consumption forces a feedback on production in the case of most products, but especially with new technologies that may have a certain vision attached to them. And when it comes to information technology, the creative powers of the mind are the limit, with a huge amount of differential and latitude. Like some sort of scary SF concept (or the words of Dr. Seuss in The Butter Battle Book) "we don't even know all the things it can do", or in other words, how it will actually be used in the field. Twitter is a very interesting toy--very simple, but with a very constraining principle to guide its usage. You only have one-hundred forty characters, which is a fun game rule. Every web tool has some constrictions, but this is one that is very specific, and really plays upon its role and use. The reason is that the service started as an SMS service, and though it seems most people now access it through the web, you can still post and get feeds through SMS (which on most carriers is limited to 140 characters).
The content, therefore, is limited to either one sentence quips, hyperlink referrals (most often through TinyUrl, which is a site that will shorten any url to about fifteen characters by relinking through www.tinyurl.com), or a combination of SMS and IM abbreviations. Of course, each of these is really part of the same function: the ability to send a 140 character message to an opt-in network. However, I distinguish these as seperate because they seem to represent a much different mind-set towards the user and the receiver, based upon the functional use of the 140 character networked message. Like any new tech tool, design sets the foundation, but then use really determines the function of the tool. I see these three uses as the primary functions of Twitter, and at least in the present define the potential that it has as a form of networked informational distribution (which is what all of the internet is, after all). I'm going to discuss each of these in reverse order, from least to most interesting in my mind.
The SMS-like capacity is interesting. First, if you do not have a web-active phone, you can get a modicum of connection to the world of the networked internet. I believe there are linking apps between Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, which is another bit of access for those people. The network ability is the key here; sending one SMS can potential reach an unlimited number of people who opt-in to your personality.
But SMS is also the limitation; you still can't do anything through SMS that you couldn't do before (i.e. follow links, manage friends and profiles, etc.). As such, these sorts of Twitters read like SMS: @teen23- were @ da mall whr r u? Not so great. you can send these little updates to your network, and receive them from your network, but the message stays the same. What really makes this not so great is that anyone subscribing to your network now gets to decipher your SMS speak, and is rewarded with the enlighting knowledge that you: a) can't spell; b) are hvng a rly rly book time @ nad bar DRUNK hrhrhrhr; and c) that you not only need me to know all these things, but your whole network as well.
If you a sensible person, you might realize that these sorts of messages would alienate your network, frustrating them and potentially disconnecting you. You might then keep drunk-texting back in SMS where it belongs, rendering Twitter through SMS not so great. This is the same for any other SMS type message--if someone's list of updates is solely their location and current action (coincidentally, the original intended use for Twitter) then I am not likely to respond. If this information is not directed at me personally, then why would I be interested? If you want to meet at the bar, text or call; I'm probably not going to show up at your friend's film screening in Brooklyn when I'm living on the West Coast. But, this is also the reason I don't use MySpace or Facebook anymore--my network is just not that networkable. So others might disagree about this use for Twitter.
The second major use of Twitter--broadcasting links to your network--is a bit more interesting. Many blogs boil down to this: hey man, check this out [hyperlink]. This is a great thing, because without direction it would be impossible to search through the stew of material out there. Even a specific search now generates thousands of hits, so if you are not searching for something specific, someone's gotta tell you about it otherwise you would never know.
This is also the greatest potential for Twitter-spam I've seen (I've heard phishing is also prevalent, but I'm going to ignore this, because as long as communication exists, there have always been people dumb enough to give away information to those who should not have it). The TinyUrl actually feeds the spam potential, because in shortening the url it also hides the real home site, and you can't figure out what it is without navigating to the link. This is avoidable by only following links posted by folks in your network whom you trust. Simple enough (for some, anyway).
As a form of content, this also has its negatives to go with the positives. You can't get much commentary in along with the link in only 140 characters, only a short description if you are lucky. I love the commentary--its why I read blogs that are only a edited synthesis of the web like BoingBoing or Slashdot. The links I could find elsewhere, and by the time they've reached these clearinghouses, I most likely already have seen it somewhere else. But as long as there is witty/silly/insightful commentary about the link, I'll check it out again. This is stripped out in Twitter due to space constraints. However, sometimes this is a blessing. Some sites are clogged with some many link re-postings, I can't read them all. By filtering off the links that don't require commentary to a Twitter feed, I can get pure links, and I can get pure text. Sometimes this works best. Also, there are some folks that do not blog and only Twitter, because the mixed use of Twitter and its easy, short format appeal to them. Now I get their own personal links too, which are sometimes of more interest than the common denominator of a web clearinghouse. And, naturally, sometimes not.
What this has done is taken a particular aspect of blogging, the networked re-direction, and given it a cubby-hole exactly the right size. This is the most index-like quality of the internet, the hyperlink, combined with the most communitive, the network. It is a giant web of index fingers, pointing from one spot on the net to another. If you consider each Twitter user a "tag", the tag being their own interests and personality, what this does is essentially tag the entire internet. By subscribing to a friend's feed, you know you are going to get links tagged "Adam", culled from all over the web. It is a pretty amazing function, that seems to have grown completely without intentional design. The service provides 140 characters and a network infrastructure, and what individuals have done is to knit this service into a remarkable, personalized indexing service the likes of which hasn't been invented yet.
There is Digg, and Delicious (I'm not going to figure out where the dots go right now) which are similar, compiling the interests of various people across the internet. The difference is two-fold. These sites still work with subject tags and overall hit-counts. While you can personalize your network, the site works on general interest. In other words, you might "Digg" a site, but your motivation is general "Diggability" i.e. the potential popularity and the accessibilty of the topic, not targeted redirection. With Twitter you are broadcasting your link with your audience in mind, which greatly changes the links. It is not a general archive of good stuff, it is stuff worthy of indication, hence that internet index finger. It is not necessarily funny, insightful, important, or on a particular topic (though it may be). It is just worth posting. Some might quibble on this difference, but I think it is real and important.
The second difference is the network. Digg (and other sites) primary usage is the posting of links, so networks grow along those functions, including the general feed of all users. Twitter grows more haphazardly, because re-linking is not the only function of the network. You get links from people you know, but who are not necessarily interested in "Digging" the web. It is casual and less conscious. I return to the example of the index finger with reason. Pointing is a universal way of indicating attention. It is not a word, and though some may argue, it verges on not even being a symbol. It is a somatic motion linked in some strange inter-personal way to the eye. I point, and your eyes follow. Naturally a hyperlink is a symbol, but it is so locked into the technology of the internet (dare I call it part of our somatic-cyborg structure?) that anyone familiar with the internet will know what to do with a link: you click on it. The fact that TinyUrl takes any indication of where you may be heading out of the equation only strengthens the case. It is as if we are riding together in a car--I grunt, and point my finger at the passing scenery, and you look. Maybe I pointed for reason: because it is our destination, or an example of what we were talking about, or my favorite restaurant. Or maybe I just wanted you do see it, for some reason I can't fully cognize. Hey, look at that! And you look. Twitter is not just this, but it is a very interesting sort of hive-mind or flock-consciousness. I post a link, and I bet at least one other person will look, regardless of what my reasons for posting were. Just think about that for a minute.
Thirdly, and even more interesting than internet-index fingers, is the one sentence quip, or the 140 character phrase. What would you say to all of your network right now, given only 140 characters?
The Twitter haiku is clearly a first destination for many, and Twitter poetry is out there in force (and I'll let you be the judge of that). But when it comes to prose, Twitter poses an interesting twist on the idea of the Internet index finger.
If you ever listen to the way that folks talk--and by this I mean listen to the words that they say rather than what they are trying to mean--you might discover than most people waste an incredible amount of words. Spoken sentences are full of awkward pauses, misspeaks, and doubled up words, both superfluous and contradictory. If you take a look at parochial writing, you will see the opposite. Read every day business email, sent quickly without review, and you will find missing words and punctuation, truncated thoughts to the point where they are unclear or confusing, and spoken words translated into writing so quickly that we miss homonyms, to say nothing of ideas.
Writing for free purposes is different, I imagine because the tendency to read back over the text is greater, facilitating the writing process from words into prose. But when we through the ol' 140 character limit into the mix, we get a whole new ball game. When a user decides to write something for Twitter publication, the limit is immediately a constraint and a force upon the writing process, even before the first revision. There are different ways that the limit functions.
a) Is my thought brief enough to fit into a Twitter message? If it is too involved, it gets bumped to blog or to email.
b) Then there is the crafting of a message creative enough to interest the network--the network may be your friends, but there is a competition inherent in all social networking, whether it is taken serious or not. Not just for Top 5 or any definite rank, but the link and the click count is everpresent on the internet. How to be creative in 140 characters or less is a bit of a challenge.
c) After you have your message, there is the edit. If it goes over 140, it must be trimmed: no exceptions. This occurs in writing, and afterward. This is where it gets interesting.
Obviously, abbreviation is a big factor. The web has birthed thousands of abbreviations for common words and new, shortened slang. There are also the symbols, whether they be emoticons, the crazy Japanese symbols the name of which I forget, or other representation that is not abbreviation like, @, <3, 420, and so forth.
Then there is the more linguistic forms of shortening. What words and symbols are not crucial? Punctuation is often the first to get the axe. With every character being of equal value, eliminating three commas and a period can equal a whole word's worth of text. Same goes for apostrophes and quotes. Spacing can even be removed, with no content lost.
Word choice also tends to the simplistic. Adjectives, nouns, and verbs often lose they appropriate tense, or are discarded in favor of more efficient choices. Critics may say that this ruins language, but I disagree. Twitter is a word game, not a replacement for actual writing. It doesn't mess with language rules any more than Mad Libs, it simply seeks to pervert them for a purpose.
One of the more interesting aspects of this warping of language I have experienced is in my prepositions. I love punctuation: for me it is the life-blood of writing, giving it the proper meter and establishing a rhythm that carries one through the sentence. You might be able to tell this from reading my blog; I love using em dashes, semi-colons, and parentheses. So I try not to sacrafice these unless completely necessary. I might let a apostrophe slip, but would take a word out before losing a necessary comma. Where I find ample room to trim the fat is in prepositions. It is very easy to swing a sentence around so that "in" or "of" can fulfill the place of a "through" or "with". Sometimes they can be eliminated entirely. "When I'm through with work" can become "When I'm out of work" or "When work is done". "Throughout the day" becomes "in my day" or "of the day". "Without" can be "not in", saving one character, or "talking about" can be "talking of", saving a whole three. Perhaps it is because my prose tends to be a bit word-rich that I find it an challenge to prune it, but it really makes me think about the way that syntax works as I try to twist it into a smaller string.
Of course, you could just ditch proper grammar all together, but still you are tied to the rules of meaning. Function c) is tied to b), and they both sum to a). Twitter's format tied function to content by making communication not simply an open pipe, but a negotiation with meaning that is skipped in other sorts of communication. I find that messages in Twitter, compared to most other networked forms of communication, are more succinct and interesting, simply because they are written under technological duress. Naturally, the individual opinion on this will vary--but I still find myself intrigued by Twitter, whereas the nightmare of the MySpace page and the Facebook Wall have chased me away forever.
Twitter is interesting not only as a new technological tool, but as a linguistic tool. I feel that part of the reason that it seems to be latching on is not because it is filling a communications gap. There are many other tools available that duplicate various functions of the app. However, none of the competitors of Twitter combine such a unique lingustic rule set--the 140 character limit and the blind hyperlink--with such a flexible opt-in network. This, combined with the portability of the hardware that now is capable of accessing this network, has allowed a critical mass to develop that is shifting the way that online communication occurs, but not just by inventing and popularizing the "micro-blog". This is wholly new: the limited space of Twitter gives our communication networks a new communicative form in the "hyper-index" and the "network-exclaim." These are the new gestures of the digital realm--not just new symbols, but new modes of expression defined by the techno-somatic capacities that are their substance. It is from our digits that we gained our base 10 number system, and from our two hands that we first understood the principles of binaries. Now, in the latest extension of our mind's grasp, our fingers fly over keyboard and keypad in short, new gestures that are translated in terms of our fingers most complicated machinations yet. What will these new fingers and grunts be able to grasp and attract? Will it be long before there are scripts that we command with Twitter messages? Those who experiment with Arduino boards are already heading in this direction. What sort of programming languages will find their expressional dimensions in terms of 140? Will unique Twitter messages themselves come to be symbolic, each a rune inscribed into a ongoing semiotic, networked in real-time into an opt-in Internet consciousness?
My calculator sent back error when I tried to figure out the permutational number of possible Twitters with the twenty-six letters of the English language alone, meaning it is a number that exceeds 100 decimal places; that's an awful lot of fingers for us to send poking through the Internet.
Predictions for 2012
5 years ago