Friday, March 23, 2007

Twitter, a New Form of Isolation

This BusinessWeek article identifies one of the most irritating things about Twitter:

Twitter really caught fire, though, at the South by Southwest music and digital conference, held Mar. 9-18 in Austin, Tex. Obvious cleverly prepared the ground, setting up two 51-inch plasma screens next to the conference registration desk and in a hallway where panels let out. As the techie crowd milled around, they began paying attention to the scrolling updates from bloggers about hot parties, panels, and restaurants. "You would go into a panel room and 20% of the people would be staring at their phones, sending out or getting updates," says Narendra Rocherolle, an early Twitter user.

Heaven forbid people should mentally be in the physical space where they are, actually listening to speakers, talking to panelists, and that kind of craziness. They might not know that Bob in at the Cleveland airport eating a cheeseburger.

In a recent blog post, RIP Twitter (2007-2007), Mathieu Balez, a Web entrepreneur, knocked the mundane nature of Twitter posts ("Going to the gym," "Groceries with mother-in-law") and the voyeurism of readers. Twitter will be history by the yearend, abandoned by former fans too tired to keep up with endless streams of quotidian tidbits, he predicted. Balez's blog was soon flooded with comments, pro and con. "Yeah sure," one Twitter supporter replied. "Twitter will die. Just as text messages, mobile phones, blogs, the Internet..."

Oh, my. It's so embarrassing to hear that response. Maybe Balez is wrong and Twitter will become part of our communications toolkit, but it won't be because mobile phones and text messages did. Or because CB radios, home email appliances, and PointCast didn't.

Of course, there's another possibility: that Twitter will begin to provide services that have more obvious value. In different contexts, say among friends or colleagues, knowing that someone is sick or at lunch explains why they aren't returning your call or why they're so cranky, argues Ross Mayfield, chief executive of corporate wiki outfit Socialtext Inc.

This strikes me as yet another silly "Twitter, like sending an email, but intrusive!" or "Twitter, like talking to people, without the people" explanation of it. Do people really need to know that you're at lunch? If someone doesn't return my call, or their mobile phone is off, I assume that they are busy, and will call me when they can talk to me. Are people sitting there thinking, "It's been ten minutes, why hasn't he called me?"

And do all the people not calling them want to know they're at lunch? I don't really care when Maureen is having lunch. If they are cranky, I'll assume they are having a bad day, and that if they feel so inclined, they'll tell me that they're sick, they had a fight with their spouse, the kids are acting up, the dogs ate another remote control, or whatever.

Me. They'll tell me if they want me to know. I think that's what I find so alienating about the whole idea of Twitter - the broadcast nature of it.

Little personal updates from the people in your life are nice... in large part because they are thinking of you when they send them. When my partner is on another continent (which is fairly often) and my phone chirps and there's a text message telling me he's having dinner (while I'm thinking about lunch), I smile. It's a connection across the miles and time zones. It's warm and personal, even though it's just text on a mobile phone screen.

If I thought that text message was going to everyone we know, it would be very different. And rather cold.

And that, to me, is Twitter: another way that people can tune out of their physical environment. A way to strip interactions of their personal flavor. Another way to avoid thinking about the same thing for ten minutes.

But maybe I'm wrong, so just in case: when I finish writing this post, I'm going to clean up the kitchen! Then I'm going to see what came in the mail, have a cup of coffee, and relax a bit before going to have dinner in Montrose with a friend. Then we're going to see Emmylou Harris perform at the Houston Symphony. After that I'll probably finally start packing to leave on a trip tomorrow. There will be folding of laundry involved. I will also pet the cat, take the trash out, and sort the pile of paper on my desk. I'm not sure what the musical background is, and sadly, I don't Twitter, so I can't send you a text message with that later.

I just wanted you - all of you! - to know.

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