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.

Can you spell Bisphenol A?

There seems to be growing momentum in the U.S. press about plastics, their risks to our health, and the lack of legislation around those risks.   Within the past year, the NY Times has had a few really interesting articles.  The first one was called The Unintended Consequences of Hyperhydration, and it was about the challenges facing law-makers around recycling bills for plastic water bottles.  I knew we were experiencing a massive proliferation in the amount of bottled water Americans were drinking, but I had no idea how bad it had really gotten.  More recently there was a CNN video called Garbage Island, which described a place in the Pacific where the currents have brought together an island of plastic that is two times the size of Texas.  Small fish are eating the plastic as it melts together and then deteriorates, big fish eat smaller fish, and humans eat the big fish.  Plastics have been linked to infertility, which is also running rampant in industrialized nations today.  What a mess!  What are we doing to ourselves?

All of this has formed the backdrop (for me) for some vague worries about different kinds of plastics and their impact on babies.  For quite some time, I hadn’t found anything to substantiate my concerns.  We bought Dr. Brown’s bottles because of their reputation for reducing baby gas.  Because we knew there might be issues we were washing them by hand, but we also eventually realized that the bottles were still getting heated with the milk in them at daycare.

What finally put me over the edge was an interview with Michael Schapiro from NPR’s Fresh Air.  My sister sent it to me, and I just couldn’t make the time to listen to it (it’s over 40 minutes long).   When I finally got around to it, though, I was glad I did.  Michael talks about all kinds of toxic chemicals that are permitted in a variety of products in the U.S..  He speaks about products like baby bottles and what health problems they have been linked to.  It turns out that there are many toys, too, created with toxic plastics.  The European Union has passed legislation banning those toys in the E.U., and laws ban the sale of them in China as well.  But China still produces them for a large and ignorant consumer market – U.S. parents.  I think the thing that really struck me is that the reason the E.U. has passed legislation is because their medicine is socialized, the state ultimately bears the costs of all the health woes that may result from plastics.  Since the U.S. medical system is privatized (and corporations aren’t forced to indicate what type of plastic is being used in their products), we get all the discards from other markets.  Unbelievable.

Michael also talked about the composition of polycarbonate (clear plastic) baby bottles, and specifically about Bisphenol A (BPA) that is found in them.  A recent, U.S. commissioned study found that BPA has been linked to “neurologic and behavioral problems in fetuses, infants, and children”.  You can read more about the study and which bottles to avoid on the Baby 411 website.

We have a bad water bottle habit that is going to be hard to kick, and apparently we can’t switch to Nalgene bottles because they are suspect too.  But as a starting point, we’ve already gotten rid of all of our son’s plastic baby bottles.  We’ve switched to a non-BPA brand called Newborn Free, and we’re doing everything we can to alert the other moms and moms-to-be that we know.   The alternate bottle options aren’t cheap, but then the consequences of BPA aren’t worth the risk, either.

I thought IM was hip

This week at work I sent an email announcing that I was stepping down from the intranet governing body.  It was a big deal (at least for me) as I have been working in that space since early 2004.  But it was really time for something new, and I am looking forward to the change.  The main thing it’s doing for me at the moment is that it’s allowing me to step away from all the standard corporate technologies (the portal, enterprise content management) and really start figuring out what’s going on in the high-tech industry.  I have been out of touch, people!  And it’s not just because of the baby, because it’s been years.

I am relishing it!  I am able to focus more deeply on the areas I’m still responsible for, and I am learning and thinking more than I have in years.  Bringing social media to business is a big part of my job, now, and it’s making my hyper aware of how out of touch I’ve been with the industry.  I’ve upgraded my version of Photoshop CS, I’ve been learning about Dreamweaver.  The last time I made web pages myself, CSS didn’t even exist yet.   I have been putting all of my bookmarks into del.ico.us/ndhanthro, and then also putting all my blog links into an aggregator (I chose Netvibes, but more on that another time).  In the course of this tedious exercise, I have come to realize that there are three kinds of RSS feeds.  OMG, I am so far out of touch.  I mean, I haven’t even got my first feed set up and we’re already on third-generation technology!  What’s the difference between them?  And, just because I have a blog on WordPress, does that mean I have to have a feed?  I am not sure I really want to be that exposed …  Really, the questions are endless. 

One of the other things that’s really important for me right now is to get back to my anthropology, and to try to think about what’s going on around me with that perspective.  It is very hard when I am largely surrounded by business people and technologists, but I am trying.  One of the things that I’m doing is treating my technology re-immersion as fieldwork, and trying to capture some of my experiences.  So here is Part 2 of The Plunge, in which I reflect on what I’ve experienced so far.

I remember how unhappy I was when I worked in IT and had to carry a pager, and when the Palm and first Blackberries came out, I gave them away to other people in my area.  I just didn’t want to be that connected.  But when we were preparing for the go-live from the intranet to the corporate portal, I really had to be available, so I succumbed.  For the most part I’m pretty good about not getting sucked in to email on the weekend, though when the phone rings it’s hard not to notice how many unread messages are sitting in my inbox.  

I also resisted Instant Messenger (IM) when it first came out.  I felt that I already had so much going on at work – reading emails or other things while on conference calls, etc.  I just didn’t see the need to add another channel.  But one of my bosses required it so that she could get quick answers if she needed them, and so we could essentially ‘pass notes’ during conference calls when we weren’t together.   I configured iChat on my Powerbook at home, too – I was HOOKED!  I have at least one IM client open all the time at work now, and I can’t imagine doing without it.  Given that I spend a large portion of my work day in back-to-back meetings, it enables me to support my team even on days when I’m essentially unavailable.  I would probably SMS all the time, too, except the way my Blackberry is configured, all the SMS messages come into my work email inbox and get lost.

While I really like the ability to do many things at once, I am also finding that (for the most part) when I’m called to a meeting these days, I should be paying attention.  So I am trying to be cognizant of that, and I rarely bring my computer to meetings any more.  People that urgently need to a hold of me will call my cell.  Besides, I’m starting to be aware of how annoying it is to be in a meeting where no-one is really paying attention.   Because let’s face it – you’re getting a lot done, but in the end it’s rude.  In the multicultural training my team took, they learned that multi-tasking is considered rude in Germany.  One of the women that works for me (Kirsten) said that it’s rude here too, but the difference is that people do it anyways – d*mn Americans!

Ok, I have a lot more to say on this, but this post is getting waaay too long.  Watch for more ramblings on social media, coming soon to a theater near you.

Taking the plunge

For a long while now, I’ve been meaning to get my act together with a web site and an online presence in general.  But now understanding all the new technologies is integral to my work, so I’m deep into it trying to figure it out.  I’m on Facebook now, and finding some long-lost friends from high school, and from former jobs.  I’m Twittering (you can request to follow me here), and I’m even set up to tweet from my cell phone. 

There are other areas where I’ve made less headway – and not for lack of trying in some cases!  I’ve uploaded my Safari bookmarks to del.icio.us and am experiencing both the pain and the rewards of tagging and sharing bookmarks.  I’m still trying to figure out why I should use Flickr instead of the .Mac capabilities, but I haven’t really delved too deep into that yet.  I really love just browsing Flickr – so many beautiful things to look at.  

Overall, I have more questions than answers at this point, both at a personal and professional level.  At a personal level, the web site and the blog have been slower in coming because I’m really struggling with the boundaries of public & private.  On my family blog, most of the posts tagged with ‘pregnancy’ are password-protected, for example.  Without actually building things, it’s not always clear what the boundaries are between I want to share with which audiences.   At a professional level, I am especially curious about what other anthropologists are working in this space, and about the applicability of these technologies in a corporate setting where managed content is king.  

In any case, though, I’m enjoying the new learning, and the thinking too.  I hope it may eventually help me get my anthropology hat back on at work!  So stay tuned for more on this topic, under the ‘social media’ tag.

Project Delight

In the coming month or so, I will step down from the governing body of our intranet, the Portal Business Group (PBG).  I helped formulate the concept of the group in 2003 and was one of its founding members.  During my tenure I was responsible for representing the interests of a quarter of SAP’s employee base – ten thousand sales and marketing employees globally.  From my point of view it has been one of the most successful virtual teams I’ve ever participated in, but after five years it is more than time for a change.  Fortunately, one of the guys that worked for me had sat in for me during my maternity leave last year, and so I had a clear successor. 

In May last year, I worked with my User Experience Manager to conceptualize and run an information architecture workshop for the PBG.  Based on multiple user research studies and a lot of research on best practices, our work has led to a multi-year plan to redesign the corporate portal.  It was great to bring our expertise to such a large scale effort!  And then in January of this year, the Jakob Neilsen group announced that we had been recognized as a Top Ten Intranet based on our initial launch of the portal on the NetWeaver platform.  With those two achievements, I feel that I have made a significant contribution to the organization, and I also feel that the value of my User Experience team is well understood across the multiple Board areas that are represented in the PBG.  So I am definitely leaving on a high note, though with such a large, complex system, there is always more to be done. 

There were a couple of people in IT who I have collaborated with since the launch of the corporate portal, and I felt it only right to let them know of my plans before announcing them more widely.  So while Dirk was in the U.S. this week, I let him know that I would be stepping down in the coming weeks.  He has been ready to make a change too, so we spent some time reminiscing, and then got to talking about what we hoped to do next.

Towards the end of our meeting, we got to talking about the Sonos music system that he wanted to buy and bring back to Germany.  The Euro continues to gain against the dollar, so it seemed worth the trouble of getting it home on the plane.  I had purchased a Sonos when they first came out, and couldn’t say enough good things about it.  Prior to the Sonos I had been listening to my music through my home theater on two 400-CD jukeboxes.  Although I was frustrated with the lag as the system switched CDs, I loved the shuffle feature by genre.  I felt that my setup had transformed how I listened to music, and in fact enabled me to listen to a much more varied selection of music than I would have by selecting individual CDs.  

But the jukeboxes were getting full, and I didn’t want to buy another one.  We had moved from our small row house in the city to a larger house in the suburbs, and the home theater was not in the main room (family room / kitchen) where we spent most of our time.  In addition, I was buying more and more of my music from iTunes, and I was having to burn one CD for the jukebox, and another for my car.  It was time consuming, felt redundant, and I had a hard time keeping track of my new music.  The Sonos has changed all that.  I used the wireless network to position amplifiers and speakers on all three floors of the new house.  I download music from iTunes to a network-attached storage device (NAS) and I can sync both my iPod and the Sonos system with the library.  The playlist feature is easier and more powerful than the one in iTunes.  And now I have an iPod jack in my car, so I don’t have to burn CDs at all.  I can listen to new music in the house and in my car just as soon as it’s downloaded.

Dirk and I got to talking about user experience, then, and why it is so hard to bring that type of compelling, easy flowing experience into the enterprise.  If we could launch a Project Delight, what would it accomplish, and how would it enable and entice our users?  It’s a good question, and one that I continue to think about as my work at SAP grows and changes.