That Twitter Thing That You Do

On: October 11, 2010
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About Laurent Hubeek
Laurent Hubeek is currently participating in the UvA New Media Master’s program. He has also spent time studying at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where he received a Master’s degree in information sciences. Before making the switch to the UvA, Laurent worked at Accenture, a large multi national IT consulting company, and participated in a variety of projects focusing on HR systems automation. Activities ranged from functional design and requirements elicitation to offshore team coordination and system configuration. Having left behind the world of business IT, Laurent is now exploring his interests in Web culture, social media phenomenon, the security and privacy aspects of IT use, cloud computing and (online) gaming and its design principles. Having an appreciation for old media (and old curiosities in general), he is also developing his skills as a writer on Masters of Media, Xi and his own blog.

So, Twitter. It seems to be all the rage these days. Blog posts about it seem to be popping up everywhere. Then again, a tool that simultaneously fuels revolutions and allows me to share with the world the mundanity of the wonderful sandwich I’ve just eaten is bound to be divisive. Could there be more to it, perhaps?Twitter’s been around since 2006 but it’s only really taken off during the last two years or so. This rise in popularity has sparked all kinds of new ideas about what this service actually is and how it can be used. Is it a tool that allows people to organize collective action? Is it a real-time, distributed, grass roots news ticker? How about Twitter as zeitgeist tracker and global mood ring? Or perhaps it’s a marketeers ultimate direct marketing tool? It seems to be all of these and more. Researchers such as danah boyd and Akshay Java et al. have already written extensively about how people manifest themselves on Twitter and why they seem to like it so much (boyd, 2010) (Java, 2007). It seems the final word on Twitter has yet to be spoken.

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.

No shortage of short form content on the Web it seems, but what about creative usage of Twitter itself? I’ve managed to find only a couple of examples. There’s this story as reported by Techcrunch about somebody reenacting the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off using Twitter and Forsquare. While thinking about what to write for this post I was toying with the idea on how to implement an old fashioned text adventure game on Twitter. It seems someone is already doing this, however. User Txtadventure is running a game where followers post actions and the account holder replies with a description of how the game responds. (The users involved are probably just making everything up as they go along, but it might be interesting to have a bot come up with the respones. Also, I’m hoping people use old school commands such as: ‘open door’, ‘look at statue’, ‘use rubber chicken on ceiling fan’).

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

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