What is Twitter?

Sometimes it is just good sense to follow blindly, so when Paul Walk invited me to Twitter I thought it time to try this thing called microblogging <-which isn’t blogging at all in my opinion…read on.  With contacts like Bryan Kelly, Richard Ackerman, Paul Miller and Andy Powell I was soon off and experiencing Twitter.  Of course as soon as you start Twitter you join in the conversation of “what is Twitter” and “how to improve Twitter”.  My initial answer was what can we do with the Twitter API: especially the idea of a phone app that posted my twitter from a Google maps location so you could actually see where the Twits were coming from.  I also had a look to see if there wasn’t a way to SMTP twits so it could be fed into outlook and then filtered there?  On the whole it was beginning to feel like one big navel gazing exercise and frankly it got in the way of working on Ruby 2.0 this past week.  However, I can now say I am a Twitter convert.  Yes, despite fighting off Web 2.0 Social Networking sights for the better part of four years (AOL… FriendsReunited … MySpace… Bebo… LinkedIn… Facebook) I’ve finally come to see the light (well maybe). 

 So why Twitter, why should everyone have a twitter account?  My philosophical response is because “it is the smallest and easiest way for anyone to publish”, hell a monkey could make more sense than some of the twits I received this week…!  But why is it important to publish, well because we can.  In today’s world Descartes would have said: “I publish, therefore I am”.  In short, it is your responsibility as a human to process knowledge and then publish it back out to the world to re-process (makes you seriously question copyright doesn’t it!)  This that is my 21st definition for “human”.  OK so enough of the philosophical BS.  Why do I really like Twitter; what are the pragmatics?

I have to go back a bit to explain why Twitter suddenly makes sense to me.  This past Thursday and Friday I attended the JISC EMERGE event for the Users and Innovations start-up projects in York (lovely city by the way).  On the whole the event was a waste of my time (but fortunately with InstantRails2.0 on my machine) I was able to bide the time during presentations until we actually had some interesting conversations with the other projects over some meals and drinks (gold dust project looks like it could be on to a good idea, and the multimedia annotation project I will watch closely: though I don’t think they’re ready for the technology problems required to solve the problem they are addressing).  One of the ongoing navel gazing exercises that EMERGE group is involved in is asking itself: “are we a community” and if so “how are we a community”.  I’ll save you the pedagogical philosophy and multisyllabic nomenclature words (the worst offense being “dystopian connotation of unconference”?!) and skip to the point:  the Emerge community has failed in setting up an online community, but they have put on some decent events (in nice locations) which has in turn provided networking opportunities that otherwise might not have emerged (forgive the pun).  So in essence, this community of “technological innovators” have concluded that communities can not exist online alone; and that face-to-face collaboration is essential for any community to be established (especially if it is to be continued online). 

Ok so here is where this rambling post gets tied all together.  The final luncheon at York had about six of us asking the root question: “so what is it about face-to-face interaction that creates trust amongst individuals times more individuals, ergo ‘a community’?”  The general consensus at the table was the following:

  1. Trust is how a community is formed
  2. To establish trust you require a means to understand and agree with the person(s)
  3. The online environment lacks a means of establishing trust
  4. The physical environment establishes trust through set patterns in communication (eg interoperable social standards), such a

a.     Human interaction patterns for initially interfacing with other humans, i.e. small talk, body language, etc

·   machine eqv: defining your service with a WSDL/WADL service specification

b.     Moments of establishing initial trust (pairing between humans) is done through passing common commands (verbs) between one another, i.e. asking questions and/or making statements that all in the conversation can agree upon, e.g. “wasn’t the weather horrible today”, <all agree>

·   machine eqv: common headers and/or verbs passed between ports

c.     Testing one another’s knowledge to see what kinds of interactions may occur, e.g. using nomenclature/acronyms to sort out position within the community framework

·   machine eqv: document types and common syntax for understanding these documents (XML via RPC vs ReST, etc)

5.     .: -> If online communities are to establish trust online and be maintained the human online world requires set interoperable social patterns for interfacing with strangers. 

In other words the online world needs a single platform so that base social patterns can be established for interfacing with other humans.  Facebook was a good attempt at it, but its means of initial social interface were convoluted by too many crud aps (vampire bites, poking, etc).  Which brings me back to my point on the philosophical meaning of Twitter: it is the smallest means of openly communicating with all other human devices (via online).  So long as Twitter keeps it as base and simple as possible (eg Google interface) then they really have a chance of being the initial interfacing platform for creating trust (via online) between humans.  And if trust can be established then further human to human interactions can occur online (eg passing more valuable information between one another, and even passing of objects: money, resources, fluids, etc). 

Ok let me surmise in more humanistic terms.  Twitter is small talk: a way of interfacing with other humans in a way that gives out information that may be meaningless in terms of content (“what the weather is like”, “how the sports teams are playing”, “what the hotel is like” etc) but is valuable in terms of establishing set patterns of trusting and communicating further information with one another.  Don’t get me wrong, Twitter could get it wrong and start to build beyond its base principle, but at its start it looks to be a common platform that all people can come to and begin to participate in so that further services may be utilized, eg the conversation might just actually go beyond small talk.  Ergo, it might just answer the problem: you have to have human trust before you can have an online community.

 If you made it this far through my rambles congratulations, and if you found it interesting in the slightest then do give me a Twit as we may have much more to talk about?!  Twitfully,  dfflanders


~ by dfflanders on January 31, 2008.

5 Responses to “What is Twitter?”

  1. Any use?

    “Geo Twitter – GeoCoding Your Tweets and Plotting Them on an Embeddable Map” ( http://blogs.open.ac.uk/Maths/ajh59/012696.html )

  2. I think there’s an aspect of Twitter that’s about intentionality and social obligation. There’s a story (I don’t know if it’s true), that on a train in Japan, if a stranger fell down, no one would move to help them – not because they weren’t concerned, but because the level of social obligation that would be imposed on the stranger would be excessive. Emails, instant messages, they can have a push, a social obligation of response. Twitter, like blogging, is more of a pull, it feels lightweight, if you write something and there’s no reaction, you don’t feel bad. I think as you say this makes it very easy to interact socially with people, because you don’t have to worry that you’re imposing an unreasonable burden upon them. Between people who don’t know each other well, email/IM tends to be either request-driven or information driven, it has a different intentionality from Twittering about the weather.

  3. Ineed. One obvious, but easily overlooked aspect to Twitter is that, for me at least, it’s a form of ‘publishing’ which isn’t really about content.

  4. I am just learning about twitter and while I found your commentary on social interaction interesting it was a little more deep then I expected. It did , however, increase my knowledge of what twitter is and can be. Thanks

  5. […] this help you get it? If you still don’t get it, perhaps Dave Flanders post on What is Twitter? might help, with its explanation of the role Twitter can play in the development of an online […]

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