The Paradox of Choice on Twitter

On: October 5, 2009
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About Sarah Moore
I am a MA New Media Student at the University of Amsterdam. I received my bachelors in Radio-TV-Film and Sociology at the University of Texas in 2007. I am interested in graphic design and media arts. Currently working on a website about life in Amsterdam http://www.muntthee.com/.

Website
http://sarahnatsumi.com/project/blog/    

Even though I have spent a large portion of my life connected to the internet, I have noticed my attention span waning in the past few years. The first year I went to University in 2003, I walked into the library and the computer labs were full of people working on their papers. Now in 2009, I walk by the same computer labs and see at least half the students on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. My aunt tells me about a time when she went to university and it was just a row of typewriters. It’s difficult for me to imagine this, nor a time of just pen and paper, where one was not able to look up knowledge in a matter of seconds. When Nietzsche became older and  was going blind, he got himself a typewriter to be able to type without seeing. Many commented that his writing changed after he switched to this new technology. The medium had changed his way of thinking.

For Nietzsche, switching from pen and paper to the typewriter was mostly a difference in speed. The typewriter gave him time to write faster and more directly from the mind to paper. Not a drastic change compared to what might have happened if he had to write in 140 characters and then it was immediately published to the world. Twitter.com is exactly that. A micro-blogging website where people answer the question “what are you doing?” in 140 characters or less.

What does the gaining popularity of this site do to our way of thinking? Twitter to me is a very visual depiction of the internet’s idea of  having access to everything. The concept of Twitter would had been unimaginable until access to search engines and blogs became the norm.  With a typical web browser, you choose one news site at a time and actually click on that site and visit it. With Twitter however, you can follow CNN, BBC,  and The Guardian, all at the same time and only click on the story that appeals to you.

Currently, my twitter home page has about 20% of people updating about their day. The other 80% are just linking to other “interesting” sources on another site.  This tells me that most people/company want to say more than 140 characters and if you click on the link, you can find out the more in-depth story. The beauty of Twitter is that you don’t have to just keep track of one new source and a few blogs. You can follow them all and have them neatly stacked in order of the time each status was published. But when there are 20 posts with 20 links all published in the last 15 minutes, which website do you choose?

Barry Schwartz, a psychologist and author of “The Paradox of Choice” states that “With so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all.” Just like the typewriter changed Nietszche’s thinking, the Twitter interface has given us choice, thus implying that more is better.  Schwartz argues that infinite choice is paralyzing and exhausting to the human psyche. Twitter visualizes the paradox of choice by design.

Though I am a web surfing, blogging, link clicking user, I have a difficult time using Twitter because I am overwhelmed by the amount of possibilities on one single page. In one hour, I see that six different news sources have published breaking news stories but having to choose which news source to click on has left me paralyzed and finally resulting in me clicking on six different articles and skimming through them rather than fully immersing in one story. It has left me scatterbrained. Twitter is one way to try and manage the amount of information on the web. However, if it is already difficult for me to read whole articles and make decisions on what I already believe is an insurmountable amount of information, how will we make determined choices when the content on the web as a whole is multiplying on a daily basis?

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