Twitter’s Implications: Is Less Really More?

On: October 12, 2008
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About Annewil Neervens
I hold a Bachelor's degree in journalism and recently graduated with a Master's degree in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. I am particularly interested in online social networks, software and digital influence.


It’s around us everywhere. Increasingly, the trend of creating single-phrase sentences – or aphorisms – is taking over the way we write and read, on line and offline. It almost seems as though there is no more room for elaborate writings and conversations. It has to be short, fast and informative. But, is less really more?

The microblog Twitter is a good example of what we all put on line in short sentences, with a maximum of 140 characters. Letting others know what we are doing and when we’re doing it. What have these aphorisms to contribute to society, and why are we all so eager to take part in it? Why do we use Twitter and what are the implications?

Alexandre Passant, Tuukka Hastrup, Uldis Bojärs and John Breslin wrote the paper “Microblogging: A Semantic and Distibuted Approach”, in which they describe ‘the features, methods and architecture of a distributed Semantic Web microblogging system, as well as the implementation of an initial prototype of this concept that provides ways to leverage microblogging with the Linked Data Web guidelines.’

Before we can look at the implications of microblogging, we must first understand why we use these sorts of tools. Passant, Hastrup, Bojärs and Breslin write:

‘The simplicity of publishing such short updates in various situations and in a fluid social network based on subscriptions and response posts makes microblogging a groundbreaking communication method that can be seen as a hybrid of blogging, instant messaging and status notifications, and that some already studied from a social point of view. Moreover, this way of publishing can be extended with more advanced communication means like video recording, as in Seesmic2, which is considered a video microblogging service. This communication method is also promising for corporate environments in facilitating informal communication, learning and knowledge exchange. Its so far untapped potential can be compared to that of company-internal wikis some years ago. Microblogging can be characterised by rapid (almost real-time) knowledge exchange and fast propagation of new information.’

I feel like this is just part of the answer. I too, have seen the advantages of Twitter in my own Twitter community. Like the exchange of knowledge through links to interesting articles, or pointing to new web features. Even drawing attention to job applications.  But I can imagine a part of it also derives from self explanation, or even self absorbtion. Especially when you consider that a lot of ‘tweets’ are not professional or job-related, and are very informal. This tool might be, more than others – at least in my opinion – blurring the boundaries between practical, formal and professional (like sharing interesting links with colleagues) and social and informal (like mentioning that you are about to start dinner and that you’re having lasagna tonight).

All of this information is being shared with the people in your Twitter community, if you are a part of that community there is simply no way around it. Which brings up the question if it is true that ‘this communication method is also promising for corporate environment in facilitating informal communication, learning and exchanging knowledge’, like the authors suggest.  What does informal information have to contribute in a formal, corporate environment? Is it getting to know the person behind your colleague? Is it bonding with them, thereby improving the professional relationship?

Another implication Twitter, and all microblogs for that matter, might have is the reduction and changing of our literary capabilities in reading and writing. Passant, Hastrup, Bojärs and Breslin write that:

‘Twitter users have adopted certain shorthand conventions in their writing called hash tags, but their semantics are not readily machine-processable thus raising the same ambiguity and heterogeneity problems that tagging causes. For example, the hash tag #paris could mean various things (cities, people etc.) depending on the context, and so cannot be automatically processed by computers.’

New ways of writing are introduced with these new applications. And with Twitter-like communication methods increasingly gaining ground – look at the status notifications in social networking sites like Hyves, MySpace and Facebook, or instant messaging for example – I can’t help but think that something might get lost in the process. Perhaps the idea of an information gap due to these tools isn’t such a crazy thought. With the Internet growing more and more into a semantic web, are we now on the verge of a new kind of digital divide?

It is not my intention to cast a dark shadow on these new ways of communication. As I suggested, a lot can be gained from them. I am merely wondering about why and how we use these tools, and how they change the way we write and read. And I am also interested in seeing the added value Twitter might have. It is unfortunate that  a lot of questions like these are not yet answered in research papers. It shows that due to the relative newness of these tools, not many studies have been conducted in this field.

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