My colleague Shelby Wright (not her real name) just unloaded this email on me in response to Time magazine putting twitter on its front page.
My first line of defence for being openly cynical of Twitter is to hide behind William Blake
" The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook "
The point here is
I have NO interest in knowing if someone is picking their nose with their left or right hand and what they had for breakfast
I have some very fundamental concerns if the sum total of peoples relationship with the world around them is solely governed by 140 characters or less - whether it be twitter or text messaging
And Shelby is not alone in decrying the triviality and mind-numbing insignificance of a lot of Twitter content. I wont even argue that the people I follow such as Tim O'Reilly or Euan Semple or OCR Report etc are useful, informative and mercifully brief in their pointers to good material. Its irrelevant because its the wrong question.
What we need to be asking is "what about Twitter and txt is so very attractive to us about these tools?" They fail entirely in the multimedia, all singing all dancing broadband world of opportunity yet they take off like rockets.
I have a theory about why this is so, my wife Linda who is a speech/language pathology lecturer and linguistics specialist has a theory about why so many people like us (excessively verbal opinionated extroverts with huge vocabularies and masses of information to backup those opinions) are so inclined to get pissed off by trivial stuff like txt and Twitter.
These tools match perfectly the way we acquire and share information.
Outside the prolixity of bloggers there is a universe of human utterance that is short, inconsequential and completely essential to maintianing relationships and sharing crucial information about status, leadership, consensus etc. I'd give good odds that the average length of these utterances is 140 characters.
But this is nothing new. For a generation we have been listening to news headline bulletins that are effectively Tweets to us from the world. The BC does its World News in a minute bulletin many times a day. Here's one
- The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
has said he will not walk away from his job, he responded to mounting
pressure on him by bringing forward a reshuffle of his top team. 174
- At the same time there have been more high profile resignations from Mr Brown's government, among them was the transport secretary Geoff Hoon. Five cabinet ministers have quit this week with one publicly calling for he prime minister to step down. 247 characters
- President Obama has visited the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald during his visit to Germany. The US president described the camp as the ultimate rebuke to the people who would deny the holocaust. He said such views were baseless ignorant and hateful. 260 characters
- At least 35 people have been killed in a suicide attack on a packed mosque in the north west of Pakistan. Many others were injured. It happened in a remote village in the upper Dir district 190 characters
Take out the necessary glosses like "The British Prime Minister " and "The US president" and you see what I mean.
Then there are elevator pitches, comedian's one-liners, wisecracks, repartee, gossip (OK, maybe not that one) rumours, an endless supply of short, pithy material slipped off the tongue and into the brain with speed economy and great effect.
These information tokens are vitally important to us and when we find new ways to exchange them we dive in boots and all. Hence the usually unexpected success of Twitter, txt, even email. We can object all we like but when something works we are fools to reject it.
Now Linda's theory about why some people get so seriously uppity about this stuff.
Its about status and communication modes. We have been taught, especially the oldies, that there is a palpable difference between spoken and written communication.
There's a formal and structural difference, a difference of context, intent, the whole shebang. And for those of us who are good at both, the ability to switch is a matter of pride but its also a shibboleth; a matter of distinction and pride. And its entirely artificial.
We are now using, in a very public sphere, language forms that have been much more intimate and others are responding in kind. That is feeding acceptance and attracting more users and so we go exponential; because it satisfies important emotional and communication needs that are encoded into the dna.
What this technolgy is doing is breaking down the distinctions which can also be sources of power, and those of us who benefited from the previous status quo get antsy about it.
Perfect example. Linda talks about how she is a descriptive linguist, interested only in the evolution of language and how it manages relationships, conveys meaning, yadda yadda. Right up till something someone says gets right up her grammatical or semantic nose, at which time she becomes a prescriptive linguist and is due for a serve from the husband about hypocrisy, inconsistency, more yadda yadda. To which the reply is usually along the lines of "tough, get used to it"
On the seriously plus side, I think tools like txt and twitter are possibly enabling us to use the same kinds of communication that have helped bind us into couples, families and communities over very short ranges, ie intimate voice distances, to apply those capabilities over much wider ranges. The ability to bind over great swathes of the world may very well undermine hyperlocal tribalism just as Chelsea fans have to cope with "their" team being made up of 22 players from 18 countries speaking 4 languages and cheering them on anyway.
This post will be automatically Twittered. Because its a good idea.