Twitter: The next “great good place”?

On: October 11, 2010
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About Ilektra Pavlaki
Here I am in Amsterdam. Studying in the New Media Master Program and hoping that by the end of this year I will have gained new experiences, new friends, brand new goals. My bachelor was in Communication, Media and Culture in Athens. Then I found myself a 90% dreamy job as a copywriter in a global advertising agency (BBDO). Great boss, big clients, small income :) Fun Theory and Free Hug Campaign magnified my interest in new media. "So, there must be a way to combine passion -advertising- and curiosity-new media-. Let's find out" I said. So... here I am in Amsterdam.


My activated Twitter account could not be more passive. Two tweets in about two years’ time is my contribution to the broadening of horizons of eleven people that decided to follow me, as an extra confirmation of our friendship sealed in Facebook . Both of the tweets were sent “out there” in my effort to understand how this medium works. Or to be more accurate, to examine what I was missing: the value of following and being followed.

I was relieved to read the statement of Dom Sagolla, a co- founder of Twitter: “We all knew that we were going to change the world with this thing that no one else understood”.  And the world was changed but not even Twitter addicts were able to come up with a cast iron argument in my question: “why are people intrigued to follow the what’s happening trend?”. What they all agreed on (and I am quoting them) is that Twitter is “sophisticated”, “intellectual”, “a place of free conversation and not a place to set a blind date. You have Facebook for that.”

Does that mean that we have incorporated features of real societies, such as intellectual investment and share of thoughts to the virtual Twitter community? Are we trying to find our way towards a new form of social integration by signing in to Twitter? Before answering these, it’s worth to look on the two most basic features of Twitter. Its users and the limitation of 140 characters.

The followers who used to be watchers.

Jack Dorsey, the creator of Twitter, when interviewed by David Sarno for the LA Times, stated that in the first days of Twitter “the concept was watching before we kind of switched it and developed it into “following”. So you could watch or unwatch someone — but we found a better word — follow or unfollow“. The use of the adjective “better” was what intrigued me to look up for the definitions of both “watcher” and “follower” in the Webster’s Online Dictionary.

Definition: watcher

Part of Speech Definition
Noun 1. A close observer; someone who looks at something (such as an exhibition of some kind); “sky watchers discovered a new star”.[Wordnet]
2. A guard who keeps watch.[Wordnet]
3. A person who keeps a devotional vigil by a sick bed or by a dead body.[Wordnet]
4. One who watches; one who sits up or continues; a diligent observer; specifically, one who attends upon the sick during the night.[Websters].

Definition: follower

Part of Speech Definition
Noun 1. A person who accepts the leadership of another.[Wordnet]
2. Someone who travels behind or pursues another.[Wordnet]
3. An ordinary person who accepts the leadership of another.[Wordnet]
4. One who follows; a pursuer; an attendant; a disciple; a dependent associate; a retainer.[Websters]
5. A sweetheart; a beau.[Websters]
6. The removable flange, or cover, of a piston.[Websters]
7. A gland.[Websters]
8. The part of a machine that receives motion from another part.[Websters]
9. Among law stationers, a sheet of parchment or paper which is added to the first sheet of an indenture or other deed.[Websters].

As it can be noted, “watcher” and “follower” are not synonyms. In fact, there is an indiscernible but existing difference in the significance of these two words. To be a watcher involves close contact with the person being watched and vigilance from the side of the watcher. It’s obvious that the focus, no matter of which definition we choose, is always on the person being watched.

On the other hand, it seems like the very existence of the “follower” depends on his relation with the person being followed. Either if that is to accept his leadership, to help him or to receive motivation from him. Does that mean that being a follower in Twitter is like admitting that you can’t exist if it’s not in relation to the persons you follow?

In the same interview, Jack Dorsey justifies the use of the term “follower” claiming that in Twitter, “you’re not watching the person, you’re watching what they produce. It’s not a social network, so there’s no real social pressure inherent in having to call them a “friend” or having to call them a relative, because you’re not dealing with them personally, you’re dealing with what they’ve put out there.”

That still doesn’t change the relationship of dependence between follower and person being followed. But if we stick to the definition, being a “follower” in Twitter means to recognize the superiority of an idea, an idea that it’s either worth to follow and spread or one that we are willing to associate to make it “happen”.

In both cases, our only tools to this collective production are these valuable 140 characters. 140 characters that must fit our manifestation of what matters to our world any specific moment.  140 characters that we have to spend wisely if we want our own micro-world to influence the giga-world of Twitter.

140 characters + 1. The character of the author, our personal writing style that we can’t negate even in a world where persons don’t matter. In this procedure of collective production of worthy ideas, we need to distinguish ourselves from the others, to write our own existence in Cybertwernity. Creativity is the key. And for those who argue that there is no space for creativity when all you’re given are 140 characters, Steven Shaviro in the “Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies” claims that “scarcity is a barrier to fulfillment, but for that very reason it enables fantasy” and that by preferring it to abundance we make our virtual social being feel worthwhile and meaningful. So we can keep the global conversation going.

Could Twitter become “the next great good place”?

In the past, the local bars, the bistros, the coffee shops were the places where members of a community could start a conversation, entertain themselves, share thoughts and the sense of belonging. When these places, called by the anthropologist Ray Oldenberg “great good places”, stopped existing in their early format, people tried to find new ways to join a community.

Twitter seems to have much in common with the old neighborhoods that we look upon with nostalgia. Following and followers become members of a community, eager to share their personal view of reality and even more eager to get feedback.

Tweeting and retweeting are not just a short form of expressing thoughts. They are about setting the start of a conversation. Even when we copy the exact words of a person, we give our silent approval as a reply. And once our message is posted –that might not be our message- a new “conversation” might start.

So the question that emerges is: “Could Twitter become “the next great good place”? Surprisingly enough, it’s not easy to give an answer. And that’s because Twitter is still new. Not in reference to the date of its foundation (since counting four years of existence in the redefined Time of virtuality, equals to have already grown old). Twitter’s newness consists in the continuous birth of new applications generated by the users and in the changes that their embodiment causes in the interface and structure of the community. As Jack Dorsey, the creator and chairman of Twitter claims: “We defined a mere 1 percent of what Twitter is today. The remaining 99 percent has been, and will continue to be, created by the millions of people who make this medium their own, tweet by tweet”.

To me, Twitter is still trying to define itself in the field of new media, having to cope with its own openness and with all those experts that rushed to praise its virtues or foresee its collapse. As Shaviro puts it:

… a medium becomes truly radical in its effects only when is no longer exceptional, when it is seamlessly incorporated into ordinary experience, and taken entirely for granted.

Isn’t it too early to talk on the radicality of Twitter? Are we able to examine its social impact when we are not yet aware of the value of its existence and its potentialities? Is there anything we can take for granted in Twitter? In other words, is there anyone out there able to follow 100% the Idea lying behind Twitter?

It seems that we all need a new “great good place”. But maybe it’s not a great good idea to attribute this quality in Twitter- not yet at least.

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