Friday, August 21, 2009

A View of Mt. Twitter

Doc Searls is a most interesting fellow and he has a wonderful sense of metaphor. The other day he wrote that tweets have "the impact of snow on water" while "blogging is geology."

Tweets, as you know unless you've been comatose for a while, are those usually trivial and often incomprehensible mini-messages that some folks like to send out into cyberspace from their phones or computers in hopes of relieving their feelings of inadequacy and/or irrelevance.

Some folks in Iran did a lot of tweeting after the recent elections there, you may recall, and there were important social and political reasons to demonstrate their relevance. Their tweeting served the common good, to be sure, which shows that twittering offers real and potential benefits. Still, so much drivel, so much snow on water.

Not that there's anything wrong with drivel. It serves a purpose. It's part of the glue that holds people together, and there's value in that.

Twittering is sort of like the "Active SETI" project that attempts to send messages to intelligent aliens (should there be any) elsewhere in the universe. Both twitterers and the Active SETI people assume somebody may be out there listening for signs of intelligent life, though tweet-makers sometimes seem to be less concerned about the intelligent part. In the case of SETI, the subtext behind the messages is "You are not alone," while for tweeters it's often "I am here."

Doc's point, if I may be so bold to hazard an interpretation, is that tweets are ephemeral – part of the babble of the human brook flowing by. Blogs, on the other hand, become part of the record of human experience, just as sediments become a record of biological and geophysical events.

No doubt part of the appeal of Twitter is that it's so darned hip. But another part is that it IS ephemeral, which makes it a low-risk form of communication. Tweets aren't as likely as blog or Facebook postings to come back and haunt us someday. They go away pretty quickly, almost as fast as the remarks we make in conversation, so we can be spontaneous and frivolous and not fear that others may use our words to our detriment in the future – to make us seem supercilious or trivial or careless or worse.

I think Twitter may be changing blogging, making its recording function more significant and its reporting function less so. People use Twitter now to point others to things they find interesting or provocative and to publish trifles – things they might have formerly done with weblogs. Blogs are, I think and hope, becoming a medium for more carefully considered and painstakingly prepared messages. Blogs may become more worthy of the preservation that is part of their nature. They may become more interesting. They may even remain interesting to the cultural archaeologists who will dig around in them in the future to find out what people were like back in the early part of the 21st century.

It's a commonplace that each new medium adopts some of the characteristics of those that preceded it. Television, before it found itself, was a lot like radio – but with pictures. It's also true, though, that new media change those that are already in use. Radio became something different when TV came along. Twitter is a new medium that has taken to itself some of what was once the purview of the blogosphere, and I expect that blogging will change, now that the "frivolous" stuff we can't stop ourselves from producing finally has another place to go.

Of course, all this presumes that Twitter will persist long enough to make an impact beyond the few million digitally devout souls who use it now. Or that something else will take over its niche. It seems important enough to survive, but I wonder if its importance might be an illusion.

Seems like Twitter may seem important mostly because people talk about it. When people talk a lot about something, marketers perk their ears up, wonder if they can use it to sell stuff, and start sniffing around like dogs around a sandwich bush. When people with money in their pockets start sniffing like that, the cadre of consultants sees an opportunity to transfer some of that cash into their own pockets. Those consultants join the crowd of talkers. And pretty soon you've got a phenomenon on your hands, and pretty soon after that it becomes a mania.

There is a marketing principle that says the best way to success is to stake a claim on top of some mountain, where the mountain is an idea or a proposition or a gizmo or what marketers call a "category." Stake a claim at the top where you can be most visible. Many companies and would-be gurus are battling for control of and visibility atop Mt. Twitter – which seems to be about the highest peak on the horizon these days. I wonder, though, if Mt. Twitter is a real mountain or just another hill piled so high with curious marketers and hungry consultants that it has the look of an actual mountain without the granitic core to hold its own against the forces of erosion.

Time will tell. It always does.

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