Saturday, March 17, 2007

Twitter: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Online

Recently I was talking with someone who's single after more than a decade of marriage and finds herself figuring out how to navigate the dating world of the 21st century. That means, of course, online dating, and she is running into this phenomenon: she chats with someone who seems interesting and compatible online. The discussions (via email or IM) are great. Then it's time to meet for that first coffee or drink, and it's hard to make it happen. Or there is a date or two, but then things stall.

Some of this is, of course, just how things work between people, but I observed that online, it seems worse. Why? Because you get a sense of intimacy and connection from all those emails, which are generally more revealing than the conversation you'd have if you met somebody at the coffee shop or on the train. But it's not really there.

My theory is that these kinds of online contact progress differently than old-fashioned, "First Life" contact. We're trained to meet new people and get to know them at a certain rate and with a certain progression of knowledge; first you find out his name, that he lives in your neighborhood, that he works for that ad agency downtown and seems to like it. You don't find out about the crazy parents or the horrible divorce until you know each other better. And so we're used to peeling the layers off the onion of a new person in a certain way.

But online, it changes, and you learn some personal things early, but some more mundane (but possibly important) details only are revealed later on. It can be challenging.

And, most importantly in the dating world (but perhaps elsewhere too), the online component gives us a feeling of intimacy that sometimes satisfies us just enough, and other things stall out.

I thought about all this as everyone started tweeting about Twitter over the last week or so. (For those not in the know: Twitter is a web service which lets you broadcast brief, IM-like messages out to a group of people (or anyone who cares to look). The basic idea is that you can send a "tweet" ("I'm walking the dogs!") and everyone who is your "friend" on Twitter gets it - via IM, as an SMS on their phone, or however they want it.

When I first heard about it, my reaction was, "Great, another way to stay distracted." That's more or less still how I think about it, but obviously Twitter (and the endless breathy blogging about it) has struck a chord with some people - and a nerve with other.

In the nerve category, there's Kevin Dugan at Strategic Public Relations, whose reaction is, more or less, "Oh, shut up."  

In the chord category, there's David Armano at Logic + Emotion:

If you are interested about marketing, conversations and the ways which we communicate with each other (and how this is changing and evolving), you should at least investigate what the hoopla is all about.  My recent experiences with Twitter tell me that the service is morphing due to how users want to use it.  What was once initially designed to answer the question "what are you doing?", has turned into a free-form communications service where people are having burts of shorthand conversations, sharing links and information in rapid-fire fashion.

The case study I offer for this is the SXSW conference which is currently wrapping up.  I observed (and to some extent participated) in some of the back and forth communications and even got some gems out of it like this link to Kathy Sierra's keynote.  I've also been reminded via someone's Twitter about daylight savings which I've made a tradition out of missing every year (except for this one).  And here, Leisa shares how she would have missed her flight to SXSW if it were not for Twitter.

I see David's point... sort of. I've yet to see anything that Twitter that we're not doing already, often more efficiently. One example that David gives that sounds great is this: "Twapper as well as a application which puts you in touch with people who are using the service and are in close proximity to you locally."

Except, of course, that I remember exactly the same thing going on at SXSW in 2005 with Bonjour messaging on iChat.

The Twitter as blog replacement idea is the strangest of these. If your blog posts could be replaced by a tweet,

Twitter sounds mostly like a harmless irritation to me, a flavor of the month that will probably fade out. That fade out could be hastened by marketers figuring out how to use it.

And my gut rejection of it is a personal thing: the idea of getting what amounts to an instant messaging status line as SMS messages just annoys me. I feel like my email is giving me ADD some days - I need this stuff to follow me to the gloriously wifi-free Cafe Brasil when I escape to sit on the patio and have lunch? No thanks.

But there's also, I think, a dark side to this. Many of the comments I've heard about the wonders of Twitter are from people who are somewhat isolated at work - home office workers who like seeing what their friends are up to, because they feel a bit less alone.

I'm one of those solitary workers; with nobody but a cat to keep me company by day, I find myself sometimes longing for human contact. And yes, my partner and I sometimes exchange quick little "what's up" emails or IMs through the day, which I suppose are very Twitter-like.

But it's not contact, not really. And Twitter in a way is worse; if I get a two line email that says nothing more than "Crazy day!" it is, at least, something that was written for me, with me in mind - not a random brain fart for anybody who cares to tune in.

And so on a personal level, the idea of Twitter as human contact makes me very, very sad. On those days that the office feels amazingly lonely, I try to take half an hour to go to the deli up the street, have a sandwich, chitchat with the owner about the neighborhood goings-on, observe the people strolling down the street, and spend time among actual living human beings.

Try it - it's quite wonderful.

I make no predictions about what Twitter will or will not be. It is, after all, just a communications technology, and there may be some great use for it out there.

I just haven't seen any sign of it yet.

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1 comment:

Kevin said...

David Armano and I have been having a good conversation on this whole hub hub and I think I was more annoyed by the extreme giddyness exhibited by its users in such a short period of time.

As a result I am actually studying that phenomena.

Back to Twitter and other new communication tools. We always seem to want to divide ourselves into all or nothing camps of old vs new communication types.

At the end of the day, I think we'll adpot mash-ups of new and old tools. Twitter is still wet behind the ears and will either be scooped up into a larger device/commuication software or we'll figure out a few practical applications for it and move along to the next shiny new wow toy.

All it means at the end of the day is change should not piss me off. Good luck with that!