Friday, January 23, 2009

Digital Evolution: Microblogging (Part One)

Some things can be difficult to understand without having experience of them. Microblogging is very much like that.

This sounds like a convient argument for evangelists of microblogging, which it is. But it's also true. If you believe me, you can go here to set up your Twitter account, now.

Postcard, telegram, teleprinter, sms, tweet; short-form messaging combines meaning and rhythm. It can project a powerful pulse of data.

For me, running a microblog is like sending a series of text messages on my phone; just responding to a text from a friend saying 'what you doing?'. To give microblogging a proper go, my feeling was that I should tweet at least once a day. Initially, I thought it would be a chore. But it hasn't turned out like that.

The evolution of short-form message technology means I can send as many messages, as I like; and each message could be read by millions of people.

Every time I look at my Twitter home page I can see 20 messages. I tweet several times a day to my hundred or so followers. Many of them I acquired by spending a day or two choosing people to follow; after I followed them, they followed me back. People say the maximum number of social relations one person can maintain is 150 - the 'Dunbar' number. President Barack Obama is the number one twitterer. He has 165 414 followers, and he follows 168 067. Kevin Rose, the number two twitterer, has 88 202 followers but he only follows 140.

Technology increases the volume of information available to us. This creates problems. But it also creates solutions.

It's a little early in the day for me to say how many social relations I can maintain through microblogging. I reckon 150 is low, though. Some people, internet marketers in particular, follow thousands. To help them exceed the Dunbar number (so named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar who proposed the limit), many software tools are offered to assist in managing a large following. But even so, a thousand twitterers could very easily produce in excess of 5K tweets on an average day; that's a lot of messages.

Time is a limited resource for all. Some messages are read, some are not. But every message we see is assimilated by our 'ambient awareness'.

I don't read my Twitter home page, I scan it. I read only those tweets of interest to me at that moment. But I do feel like I get a sense of those people I follow. By choosing tweets to read, I'm still noticing the ones I've chosen not to read. Plus, its not just the content that tells me about you, the rhythm of delivery is important too. Most of us do similar things regularly through the day. If you don't, then we notice. Of course my *ambient awareness* isn't infallible. But if I miss something important about you, or about something that's happening, I rely on other's awarness. Important news gets re-tweeted and commented upon.

Its difficult to imagine what it would be like to *know* a thousand people. *Know*, so that what happens to them, and how they feel, affects us.

Have you had the debate about whether an 'online' friend is a 'real' friend? It seems to bug people. Of course, on Twitter you follow people, rather than 'friend' them. Generally, you don't know them, before you follow them. Say you liked flying kites. You could search Twitter for all the people who mention 'kites' in their tweets, and then work your way through the list, following anyone you like. You get to *know* them from there, through their microblog and online presence. You can easily, and without much social awkwardness, send them a public @username message. Its more akin to a smile, nod, or 'Good Morning' in normal social discourse, than it is to one to one conversation.

The biggest barrier to the uptake of microblogging is our own fear of public self-disclosure.

People worry about privacy. They worry about giving away too much of themselves, and making themselves vulnerable. I worried. Not about online scammers or any other of the internet bogeymen, though. But about the uncomfortable feeling of putting myself out there; where I could be judged. It felt odd. Anyone can read my tweets, anyone can send me a tweet @jonone100. Anyone, from anywhere, could tweet any words, to me. But most frightening of all. Taking the first steps to running a public microblog I was making myself vulnerable to the thing guaranteed to upset me most - silence.

Mutual self-disclosure is the way we get to know people. It has never been seen on this scale, before. It might change things.

We take the risk of rejection each time we connect with one another. But if neither of 'us' takes the risk, there will be no 'us'. Following rather than friending, and the public nature of the @messages, help to minimise the fear of rejection. That enables people to take more risks, and combined with the technology's huge capacity, to make more connections with more people. Microblogging increases the potential for empathy and understanding between us.

As the microblogging ritual embeds into our daily lives, it's mundane nature belies its power for self revelation.

Framing my thoughts, feelings and emotions into 140 characters, isn't just about dumping my angst into the public sphere. Although, giving a voice to frustration can sometimes be a good thing. The act of microblogging forces me to express myself. This is a revelation to my followers - and to me. A Muslim work colleague once explained to me how giving thanks to Allah five times a day, gave meaning to his life. I liked him and I was a little envious of the meaning that this ritual act gave to him, each day. I'm not saying Twitter is like religion (Tweligion) - I wouldn't be here if it was. But it does take you outside yourself. Each day, in small steps, microblogging creates my own history. It gives me context.

Perhaps I get a little carried away with possibilities. I haven't actually got out and met any of my Twitter people, yet. That, I guess, will be the next step. But I've been around long enough (on the internet) to know that behind every message, behind each and every word, there is a person. I always try to remember that.

This technology takes power from the distances that divide us, and uses it to amplify the resonance between us.

It offers us emancipation from isolation.

That's what I think about it right now. Here's what someone else says:


Laura Fitton, the social-media consultant, argues that her constant status updating has made her “a happier person, a calmer person” because the process of, say, describing a horrid morning at work forces her to look at it objectively. “It drags you out of your own head,” she added. In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself.

The Brave new World of Digital Intimacy - Clive Thompson
(New York Times - 7th September 2008)
You can follow Clive on Twitter @pomeranian99
Here's a link to the entire article.

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