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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Lessons From the (Secret) Twitter Experiment

[Note: I cleaned up the post for coherence and grammar. Why I wait until the day after I post something to clean it up rather than, you know, beforehand, remains a mystery.]

I am a dinosaur, roaming the sauna-warm mesozoic era of technology where html code is cutting edge and blogs are revolutionary media in communications. I note with some concern, however, that my extremities are growing cold as the chilly winds of change blow. New-fangled, warm-blooded creatures with hair and feathers now roam cyberspace; they have names like "Facebook" and "Twitter." Unwilling to go the way of the diplodocus, I have tried to adapt, building a Facebook page while simultaneously beginning to tweet ("tweet" is the act of communicating via Twitter). I may not be attractive, but like the sturgeon, I hope to survive the ice age. In service of this modest goal, I've been running an experiment, the process of which has enlightened me a great deal about the technology. For those other dinosaurs out there, here are my results.

The Technology
Twitter is bizarre technology. Superficially, it looks like a way for you to put extremely brief comments into the ether on the off chance someone happens to care. In 140 characters, you might say something like:
Going to Starbucks to work on my novel.
Twitter is described as a social-networking site, but it's more like a river of conversation. Imagine all these little tweets as buckets of water. Pour them into a funnel, and what flows out is a stream of chatter. You control the chatter by selecting other twitterers to "follow." Once you designate a person, his tweets start flowing into your river. In this way, no two people see the same flow of conversation, yet at the same time there's quite a great deal of overlap. (Remember party-line telephones? It's sort of like that, except ... oh, never mind.)

The Experiment
For the oldsters the act of tweeting seems both unnecessary and self-indulgent. You find yourself saying, repeatedly, "what the hell are you telling me for? I don't care what you're doing." In the process of trying to understand the phenomenon, I spun vast theories like: it's a technology for the youth, those who lived such fantastically scheduled lives they are used to reporting back to overweening parents about their every move. Reflexively, as they enter adulthood, they imagine someone gives a damn. The diplodocus's call can be heard across the cooling marsh: "Well I got news for you, whippersnappers, in the real world no one cares what you do!"

Yet instead of submitting to calcification, I began tweeting. Who knows, I thought, maybe the youth know something. The first experiment was with BlueOregon, where we had a network of Twitterers reporting from the DNC Convention. That seemed to work due to the symphony of our single notes--we played a mean tune when we worked together. But after the convention, my interest--and tweeting--waned. I failed to consider the lessons. Instead I noticed that the beery types all had Twitter feeds, so I joined in. Example:
Finally made it to the Victory. Enjoying a RR Salvation. Cool place, small crowd. Feels like a speakeasy. Great music.
And lo, I got followers! Dutifully, I tweeted my activities, ashamed and embarrassed to be joining the crowd who assumed others care what I do. But here's the weird thing. Aside from getting followers, you really don't have any other feedback mechanism. The damn thing is too brief, fragmented, and evanescent to support real communication. So you might respond to someone, hoping that they see your tweet before the river carries it away. Or that others would forgive you for responding to someone not in their streams.

Since there's no real feedback, I decided to just post random comments and see what happened to my list of followers. So I went with stuff like this:
The newest fashions: clothing made from pet hair. Stylish!
And my number of followers ... didn't change. What does that mean?

Inadvertent Lessons Learned
In running an experiment, one opens the opportunity to examine one's assumptions, the rarest of all gifts. I began to pay a lot closer attention to the fragments of information that flowed by and I realized that my frame was totally wrong, at least where my beer-stream was concerned. People don't tweet to alert you to their world, they tweet to give you a snapshop of the larger world. This should have been evident from the BlueOregon experience, when, working together, we brought a rather interesting men-on-the-street perspective. But no.

Your stream becomes a source of information, dependent on the small contributions of each Twitterer. The Oregon beer world has way too many moving parts to keep track of. Events, new beer releases, news, tap lists--the details are almost infinite. The stream fills in a lot of these holes, and in fact, itself has become like a little blog, with lots of contributors. Here's a sample of the most recent tweets in my stream:
belmontstation Full Sail Black Gold Bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stout in bottles goes on sale at 5PM today. Limit two per person

RogueAles Tonight is SF Rogue Ales Public House movie night. Tonight Monty Pythons the Meaning of Life starts at 7:30pm

Beer_Goddess Survey: Have you ever paired oysters and stout? Did you like it?

BREWPUBLIC Here's a look at some of the best afterwork beers around town
In a sense, I had it exactly wrong. It's not self-indulgent, but rather a community effort to keep each other informed. It's like pointillism, wherein we all agree to be a dot, knowing that the net effect will create a coherent image.

The dinosaur has evolved! He may now survive the glacial encroachment by laying at the bottom of a river, in a pocket yet unfrozen, where tasty muck will sustain him through the next million years. (Or until a new technology arrives.) Joy!


  1. Oh, this was sheer delight to read! I'm still not convinced of Twitter's necessity, mind you, but this is the best effort yet to justify its existence.

    And it's so FUNNY! When I grow up, I want to write as well as you do.

  2. You are too kind! And I mean that semi-literally. I re-read the thing and was appalled by various problems in coherence and grammar. You are a generous reader to overlook these things and take my meaning.

    I've cleaned it up a bit.

  3. No offense Jeff, but your experiment was pretty dim. Your one haiku/koan tweet per day was totally inoffensive -- heck, it's about the third most-common Twitter idiom. No one is going to stop following you for that. The only reason I've ever stopped following someone was for flooding the timeline with uninteresting tweets. For example, I would love to follow @portlandbarfly (BarFly Magazine), but they issue a tweet EVERY time a user adds a review to their website, which is sheer stupidity.

    Speaking as one old guy to another, I can help you with your confusion about the reply mechanism. You wrote "So you might respond to someone, [1]hoping that they see your tweet before the river carries it away. Or that [2]others would forgive you for responding to someone not in their streams." 1. Technology exists to have every reply to you brought to your attention (e.g. Twitterfox extension to Firefox), whether you even follow that person or not. 2. There's a Twitter setting that only shows you @ replies if you follow both the sender and receiver. I thought it was the default setting, in fact, though I personally like the serendipity of getting all the @'s.

    Whew! Sorry for the long comment, but I find Twitter very interesting, and think it's going to evolve in ever more useful ways.

  4. Probably just you and me now, Bill, so...

    Your one haiku/koan tweet per day was totally inoffensive -- heck, it's about the third most-common Twitter idiom.

    Perhaps, but everyone subscribing to my feed is a beery type, so when I went off-topic, I expected some to abandon me--or at the very least, quit signing up.

    On your points 1 and 2. On 1, wow--didn't know that. I have a hard time keeping up with major tech advances, nevermind the minor ones. In the time since I've started blogging, I could name at least 20 major developments. You pick your battles, and keeping up on technology developments (15 of which ultimately die) ain't where I'm putting my time. On 2, that's true, but if you're getting dozens of tweets a day and you check less regularly, the @ replies shoot on by.

    You may chafe that these are misappropriations of technology, but that's how tech gets used. Almost never as the engineer conceived of it. I know a lot of people live on Twitter, but a lot of others don't. My philosophy: the tech should accommodate itself to my needs, not vice versa.

  5. Oh, I don't chafe, in fact I completely agree with your last sentence. That's what's cool about Twitter -- it lends itself to being used however someone wants to use it.