That Twitter Thing That You Do
Take for example Nicholas Carr’s recent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In it, Carr talks about how many of the modern Web’s features – such as short form text services like Twitter – are turning all of us into constantly distracted drones with minimal attention spans and diminished reading comprehension. As negative as that sounds, it is probably safe to say that platforms such as Twitter are changing the way people communicate and divide their attention. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times that people seem to be flocking towards bite sized information chunks that can be consumed with minimal effort? This line of reasoning seems to match Manovich’s views on the database as a new symbolic form (Manovich, 1998). According to Manovich, the linear mindset that rose as a result of the spread of printing and cinema technology is giving way to a non-linear mindset focussed on separate elements. Of course, each individual tweet is still a linear block of text, but if you look at an entire feed they’re clearly all little separate elements that don’t necessarily have to be read in any particular order.
If Twitter really is just another outing of a broader shift in the human mindset, than more examples of a similar nature should be out there, right? And what about cultural expression using Twitter itself? Though short form content isn’t entirely new – think of the haiku – there’s a fair bit of it to be found on the Web. Take for example One Sentence. This site is dedicated to posting short one sentence stories submitted by readers/writers. The size limit not only provides bite sized content, but it also stimulates creativity. There’s also the hilarious Texts From Last Night. A website completely dedicated to posting cellphone text messages full of drunken midnight ramblings and commentary on equally drunk sexual escapades. More examples of similar short form content can be found at FMyLife and Dear Old Love. Another site that I find fairly entertaining is Translation Party. This website uses the inaccuracy of Google Translate’s algorithms for English to Japanse translations and vice-versa. The goals is to enter an English sentence and hit the button. The site will then proceed to query Google Translate and keep translating your sentence from English to Japanse and back, heavily mutilating the sentence in the process. The back and forth translating often results in an equilibrium that looks very little like the original sentence.
All in all, it seems people are making strides towards using Twitter as a platform for cultural expression. Though I’ve only been able to find a few things, I’m sure there’s avid Twitterers (Twits?) out there who know a lot more. If any of you know any good examples, please share them in the comments.
To conclude, I’d like to pose a question. What are your thoughts on Twitter and its effects on the human mind? Is it making us less focussed and more easily distracted? Does it make us better multi-taskers in every day life? Is it making us dumber or just different?
Carr, Nicholas. ‘The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’. W.W. Norton & Company. 2007
Marwick, Alice and boyd, d. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” (Forthcoming) New Media and Society. [Draft PDF]
Java et al. ‘Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities’. Procedings of the Joint 9th WEBKDD and 1st SNA-KDD Workshop 2007. University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 2007.
Manovich, Lev. ‘Database as a Symbolic Form’. 1998