I like Twitter.
I didn’t think I would.
Really, when people first started telling me about Twitter I thought it just sounded stupid.
One Hundred and forty character “micro blogging?” Yeah. I thought the name described it perfectly, a bunch of little birds chirping back and forth.
I’ve got enough noise in my life, I sure as hell don’t need any more background chatter.
I mean seriously, I don’t really like people in the first place. I’m not a social person (Really, Jim? We would never have guessed that. See? That’s what I’m talking about, that kind of sarcasm will not get you invited to dinner). Anything with the phrase “social networking” in the title turns me right off. I like my peace and I’m not afraid of silence. People irritate me. Noise irritates me. The soap opera crap most people talk about doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I don’t care what people are doing, or who said what, or what some dumbassed pop star did, or who said what as long as they leave me alone. I’m the guy who doesn’t slow down to gawk at accidents, because I just don’t care. (Oh hell, I’ll stop to help if I’m needed, but if I see blue and red lights I figure the cops got things under control and it’s none of my business. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have that printed on my gravestone. Well either that or, “Move along, Dickhead” which I think is a pretty fitting epitaph)
But I digress.
Back to Twitter: I especially don’t need to see posts from the bathroom about bowel movements or from the kitchen about the wonders of baloney sandwich construction or any of the other endless personal minutia of the lives of people I don’t know and couldn’t possibly care less about.
When the most famous post on Twitter is “OK, poop is coming out” I figured me and Twitter got nothing the other one needs.
Twitter seemed like something kids did. Wandering down the street with their hair hanging in their eyes, furiously clicking away at those little texting phones until they fell into an open manhole or got weeded out of the gene pool when they drifted into traffic.
Twitter held no interest for me whatsoever.
Or so I thought.
But people kept talking about it.
Things were happening over there.
It made me curious, I wondered if I was wrong. I mean, I’m hip, Daddy-O, I’m cool, I’m not a N00b, I know the cake is a big fat lie – maybe I should be on this Tweeter thing because it’s an emerging technology and if I don’t get onboard my brain will shrivel up and I’ll be left behind with the fading remnants of the Bush Administration.
Hell, even Sarah Palin is on Twitter. Maybe I was missing something?
Then there was Flight 1549, and I went back to being pretty sure Twitter was just as stupid as it sounded. You remember Flight 1549? The US Airways jet that belly-flopped into the Hudson after plowing through a flock of birds and losing all power? Passengers were sending tweets from inside the sinking plane as they were scrambling to get off. How stupid is that, seriously? If some dipshit is blocking the emergency exit while she taps out a tweet to friends (OMFG! We just crashed! We’re in the RIVER! I hope they don’t lose my luggage!) they’re going to find her dead body at the bottom of the Hudson with her Blackberry jammed about a foot up her colon. I mean, who risks their life, who risks my life, to send a tweet to a handful of “friends” and ten dozen pornbots? Stooooopid.
Except, maybe not.
See, suddenly people with smartphones were sending data from on scene. In real time. Hundreds of times faster than any News organization could get on site. People were alive (and honestly, how often does that happen in a major airplane crash?) and the whole world knew about it instantly without waiting for the press conferences. There were amazing pictures appearing on the web and little lines of text – connecting people to the event all over the world in real-time.
My job used to be information - the collection and analysis and management and manipulation and weaponization of information – suddenly, in that second, I saw smartphones and tools like Twitter and Plurk and twitpix and Flicr and other social networking sites as near real-time sensors. Spread across the globe in a vast loose network.
I started paying closer attention.
Turns out there were actual sensors, like those of the USGS, plugged into Twitter. And real time twitter feeds from varied instrumentation and cameras and dozens of other things.
I started seeing hits here on Stonekettle Station that back-linked to Twitter. Sometimes swarms of them (is “swarm” the right word? Maybe I should have said “flock?” Seriously what’s a group of Twitterers called? I’m such a N00b). Sometimes huge swarms of them. I had one day were I got over a thousand unique hits for something I said here – that got my attention. I wanted to know what people were saying about me.
So I set up a Twitter account.
And found that I was right – both ways.
Twitter is filled with silly, inane chatter (and yes, I am currently contributing to it. Thanks for pointing that out. Dinner. Invitation. Yours. Not likely). People do tweet about bowel movements and baloney sandwiches and stupid silly nonsense. It’s entirely possible that this kind of soybean filler makes up 90% of the traffic on the network.
But then there are things like Iran.
People were sending pictures and words and impressions and eyewitness accounts from the streets of Iran, from the middle of riots and protests and clouds of tear gas. Real-time data from inside one of the most secretive countries in the world. They’re still doing it. As an intelligence analyst, I would have killed for information feeds like that. Amazing. And I’m not the only one who thought so, the State Department asked Twitter to postpone its routine maintenance down cycle in order to ensure Iranians had access to the outside world.
Like any technology, especially communications technology, Twitter is a two edged sword – you have to be careful. There are no filters between the transmitter and the receivers – i.e. while Twitter allows for the almost instantaneous dissemination of information, that information is limited and only a piece of the picture and there is absolutely no guarantee that the information is nonbiased or correct or or complete or even real. There’s a reason that cops and intelligence folks put little stock in eye-witness reports, most people are not reliable witnesses. Twitter spreads rumors and hysteria like wildfire – and this can have devastating effects by propagating false information and then reinforcing and mutating it over and over.
This rapid spread of information is having a debilitating effect on traditional news organizations – and this trend is only a subset of the overall effect of the Internet and rapid communications technology, such as blogging, is having on Newspapers and Broadcast News. In an effort to just keep up, those organizations have almost completely dismantled their traditional fact checking and editorial functions. Few news organizations still adhere to the Edward R. Murrow ideal. The once vaunted CNN is a perfect example, once the epitome of integrity in reporting, CNN nowadays is fronted by the likes of Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace and their daily news line up is little more than topical fluff, rumor mongering, and hysteria. CNN isn’t alone, the behemoths of journalism are in serious danger of going extinct. They simply can’t compete. What they fail to realize is that they shouldn’t even try. Their strength lies elsewhere, in integrity, in in-depth investigation, in accuracy above all else – and as the buck stops here wall when it comes to those rapidly spreading rumors and falsehoods of the internet. By lowing themselves to the level of bloggers and tweeters and social networkers they’ve given up their credibility – and the public increasingly sees them as no better and no different and in many cases far less reliable than the average blogger or tweeter.
The sad thing is that they just can’t seem to grasp that, and as a result many of them are dying off.
On the other hand, Twitter can be an absolutely vital guide to information you would otherwise miss – and a guide to accurate and timely information. I follow the feeds for the Alaska Volcano Warning center – if Mount Redoubt or any of the other half dozen active volcanoes within range of my house here in Palmer, Alaska blows, I’ll know almost immediately via real-time sensors and the USGS twitter feed to my phone – and I’ll have time to take the appropriate action before the ashfall reaches us.
Which brings up an interesting dichotomy: the Twitter Haves, and the Twitter Have Nots.
I’m much more likely to survive a catastrophic natural event than those who don’t subscribe to the USGS/AVO Twitter feed – because they don’t care, or don’t have access, or don’t have Twitter accounts. It’s the difference between living next to the tornado warning siren and being deaf. Push this far enough, allow the rest of the information infrastructure to atrophy, and real-time social networking becomes a survival characteristic.
Another example: yesterday I saw a Twitter notification from the White House, requesting that small business owners weigh in on health care reform. Yes, that’s right, the President was asking Americans, specifically small business people, to help his administration design the Universal Healthcare program. Those with Twitter feeds are a hell of a lot more likely to be involved than those without. There may come a time when your franchise requires such social networking connections. Those without might become the Gypsies of the Information Age.
Things like Twitter are changing the world and America in far less tangible ways.
In a case that has the potential to impact 1st Amendment Rights, a property management company is suing one of their tenants for expressing her dissatisfaction on Twitter with one of their housing units in Chicago. It’s not that they’re disputing the woman’s claims, that mold was growing on the walls of her apartment, it’s that they feel saying so to twenty friends online harms their reputation – so they’re suing her for defamation in an attempt to specifically limit what anyone can say about them in any public forum. Without Twitter this woman’s complaint would have been limited to a few friends and acquaintances, with Twitter she speaks to the entire world – and has in this case, the company’s actions turned this minor issue into a top trending topic on Twitter and as a result they’ve basically hung themselves on their own petard. People coming to Chicago in search of apartments would do well to avoid this landlord, and they are – which is the crux of the company’s complaint. I suspect the company will lose, I also suspect this is only the beginning of such cases, but it begs the question – if a tenet can’t complain about her landlord online, can she protest in front of the building? Can she complain to her handful of friends. What are the limits of free speech and the number of people she is allowed to reach, where does that line fall in between zero and the entire global online population? The case very much has the potential to effect bloggers like me.
Twitter can be fun.
Those folks we admire, actors for example, are sometimes as interesting on Twitter as they are in our movies and TV shows. More so in many cases. It’s not surprising I guess, they’re entertainers, and Twitter provides them with a personal and direct connection to their audience. Brent Spiner, of Star Trek fame, is a prolific tweeter, running improvised story arcs and strangely entertaining and amusing and often bizarre glimpses into his incredibly creative mind. Some people simply don’t get it. They’re not amused, they expect to follow Commander Data, the Next Generation Android, and instead they get Spiner, clown, philosopher, jokester, and raconteur.
And of course, Twitter connects us to friends
And yes, sometimes it does connect us to the minutia of their lives.
But that’s what friendship is about, isn’t it? We share the details of our lives, we trade jokes and stories and things we know that others will find interesting. We live vicariously through each other, scattered across the globe and even out into space. Twitter in many cases has humanized the Internet, for both good and bad and mostly something in the middle.
The medium is changing people, changing how they see the world and each other. Breaking down barriers and opening doors into parts of the world many of us have never seen. Like inside of Iran.
It’s been fun watching it evolve over the last couple of months.
I wonder where it will go.
Note: I continue to resist Facebook with all my strength. I do not have time for Farmtown. I do not.