On becoming a tweet

I’ve become a tweet.

I am not really sure how it happened, honestly.  I mean, I was not really even a regular blogger before I got hooked.  During my work day I typically run from meeting to meeting, usually eating lunch at my desk or in the hallway on my way to something else.  When I am not working or eating, I am coping with all the life realities of being a new mom and a PhD with no time to write for publication.  When I get home, I want time with the baby, a real dinner on the table, and thirty seconds of quiet before collapsing from exhaustion.  These are not excuses – I was just really not convinced that I had any of the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky is talking about.

Robert Scoble is a well-known technology blogger, and he commented that if you subscribed to Twitter before the end of April 2008, you are considered an early adopter.  I just made the cutoff! 🙂 I still don’t tweet much between when I leave work and when I crash at night, but I am enjoying participating online in this new way.  Right now I have 42 people following me, and I am following 69.  I have made a modest 216 219 updates as I write this post.  But more importantly, as a real participant-observer I now have a much better sense of who is using twitter and why.

Initial Impressions

At the outset, I was only following people I knew, and because my feed was private, there were only a few people I knew that were following me.  As a result, my initial postings on Twitter simply formed a supplemental communication layer with people I already knew.  And it was fun!  A number of people from my team were posting, and I felt that I was getting to know them better by following what they were doing outside of work.  I liked knowing that Greg had taken his daughter to the zoo over the weekend, or that Jen had an opportunity to watch a local regatta.  I also learned that Jen tweets while riding her bike.  Really!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it took me awhile to commit to a Blackberry and to IM.  As I got deeper into my use of Twitter, I really started to question when I should use it.  At one point I laughingly said that “If it’s not happening on Twitter, it’s not important.”  I was kidding, of course.  What I was trying to do was to make sense of where this new communication channel should fit in with all the other means of communication I already have at my disposal.  So, for example, as I started to follow more and more people, I found myself interacting with other people from work.  I started to stumble a little, questioning whether I should twitter, IM, or send an email.  Which technology, when?  My current impression is that people don’t tweet because they’re looking for a response – though occasionally people do explicitly ask for feedback.  (In that respect I find the description micro-blogging more appropriate than many-to-many chat.  But that may just be how I’m using it, based on who I’m following, what our level of connectivity is, and the limited time we have available for that type of online dialogue.)  For me, I am pretty cautious about using IM except for really urgent things or things that can be handled quickly and save email clutter.  Typically, I also only use it for work people I know well, because I know it can be disruptive.  And finally email, which may be for old people, but is still a viable means of communication in the work context.  Notice I don’t mention the phone – I don’t do much of that if I can help it!  I think that’s a reaction to too many years of call center work, and the fact that I’m not really auditory.  I’d much rather have the ‘paper trail’ so to speak.  So at work, it’s generally email, unless it’s something quick that I can do via IM.  Right now, Twitter is mostly just for fun with people that I enjoy at work, though we are looking for viable business scenarios where we could use a twitter-like application internally.

There are some odd things about keeping up with people online rather than in person.  In reading people’s postings, sometimes you feel like you know what’s going on with them; I have found occasions where I didn’t think to ask about someone’s weekend, because it was touched on in Twitter.  But there is still a value in further exchange!  For example, Kirsten posted about her attending the Little Feat concert “Concert was GREAT! Seventh row! Had fun with the aging bikers and hippies (these are my people!) in suits. And, I can still hear”, and because she posted, I didn’t think to ask more about it.  But when Jen R asked more about it in front of me, I realized there was more to learn (of course).  So now I have to remember that Twitter provides me with that visibility, but in the end I still have to DO something with the new information if I hope for it to transform the relationship in any way.  The other thing that is so critical for me (especially as an anthropologist) is to remain cognizant of what’s not being said.  I have post in draft about that, so I’ll come back to i another time!

For me what is interesting is the blurring of personal and professional.  I really do like getting to know my team in these new ways.  I am very curious to further explore the ways that people construct their identity online, and how they decide what to present to whom.

Overall, I am enjoying the multi-layered, multi-threaded conversations with my work friends, some new online friends, and some friends that are recent converts.  I find that the lines between our different forms of communication are more and more blurred.  Though overall there is nothing really fantasically new about it – our exchanges are not all that different than what happens in person, for example, when people go out for happy hour and then tell / extend jokes at work the next day.  There is also that delicious moment of being bad by participating in online conversations during business hours.  At it’s worst it’s a vehicle for gossip and distraction, but at it’s best it becomes a new and viable way to interact online with people you enjoy.  And, in my day job I am enjoying the challenge of finding the right business scenarios so we can bring this technology to bear on solving business problems.

Ambient Intimacy and the Twitter Curve

I’d like to thank Jen R for her comments on my earlier post, and for pointing me to many of the materials I’m referencing below.  They really resonated with me, and helped me get up to speed on what has already been said in this arena.

In the popular press, I am finding that there are two major opposing points of view about Twitter (no big surprise).  On one hand, there are individuals who believe that Twitter has the potential to foster a closeness between individuals who use it.  On the other hand, there are individuals who think Twitter represents the world moving at an ever-increasing pace, a world full of interruptions and no real thinking.  Twitter is therefore vilified as perpetuating or even exacerbating the problem.  Of course, both things are true, since it’s the people and not the technology that determine that!  Below is a summary of some of the more articulate writing that’s been done to date on these topics.

In a blog post written last year, Leisa Reichelt coined the phrase Ambient Intimacy.  She said that

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. … Knowing these details creates intimacy.

This point of view is consistent with what I’ve experienced to date as a relatively casual user of Twitter, which is generally positive and connective in nature.  But my exposure has also been relatively limited, over a short period of time so far, and I have been cautious to keep my following and follower numbers low.

On the other hand, some of the individuals using Twitter have found it addictive, or have found that the background noise distracts them from more important work.  In his blog entry entitled Why I Deleted My Twitter Account, cartoonist Hugh MacLeod (http://www.gapingvoid.com) describes a period where he stopped using Twitter, because it was interfering with his ability to stay focused on his real job.  The cartoon below is from his post on that topic.

On her (now defunct) blog Creating Passionate Users, Kathy Sierra drew The Twitter Curve (copied here), and talked about the challenge of getting anything done due to all the interruptions.

In the same vein, blogger Linda Stone coined the term continuous partial attention, again calling attention to the fact that productivity declines in the face of constant interruptions.

As I mentioned at the top of this section, I think the dialogue has been fairly split into these two camps.  And while the perspectives are engaging, well-written, and often funny, I think a social sciences perspective could enable a more holistic view of the discourse around this emerging technology.  So that’s where I’m headed next.

So what – especially for Anthropology?

Well, I didn’t realize how long this post was going to be – it’s waaaay too long already!  I think bringing an anthropological perspective into this is very exciting, but too much for now.  So please watch for a subsequent post, in which I will endeavor to answer that very question.

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