Saturday, May 24, 2008

Twit Stream

Once upon a time, long before the Web, a Welsh writer by the name of Roald Dahl penned a highly amusing children's book called The Twits, about an annoying couple who pestered each other (or anyone else within earshot) to distraction. The Twits stayed together because they preferred the constant noise and attention to none at all.

I couldn't help but recall Dahl's Twits during last week's first media conference on social media hosted by Media Bistro in Manhattan. Robert Scoble, one of the most prolific bloggers in the social media sphere and the managing director of Fast Company TV, spoke passionately about some of the new ways people are using the Web to bring about social change. His brief demonstration of Twitter was especially intriguing.

Twitter, for the uninitiated, is a free instant messaging service that is both making noise and breaking news. It lets people in an online social or professional network stay connected with each other in real time—all the time—around the world. A Japanese version of it debuted last month; people from Boston to Burma, CNN and Scoble included, are using it to report the news. Scoble says he considers Twitter potentially revolutionary—"proof that the world has a pulse" as well as a multitude of new voices, views, and common social problems that should be heard.

But Twitter also makes a lot of noise. Fans say it's a great way to keep in touch with busy friends: it lets them "tweet" (send impulsive and often annoying little text messages of no more than 140 words to people that pop up, instantly, on their computer screens like blips on a radar). People who aren't fans—mostly early adopters who've been twittering since the beginning (April 2007)—say that sometimes, Twitter makes them feel "too connected" as they grapple with check-in messages at odd hours and a need to stop telling acquaintances what they just had for dinner.

Scoble, for his part, doesn't argue the downside. Last week in New York, Scoble asked his twitterati to weigh in on his speech as he was delivering it to us. He let us watch the results: he projected his home page to an overhead screen. (Cool, we thought. Some of the world's most wired and intelligent people—those most certainly in Scoble's vast social network—would now start twittering like crazy, forever altering our view of social media, right?)

Mostly no. The "twitter-stream" (as it would become obvious that day in Tribeca) is hard to predict. Sometimes it works like a sort of global police scanner (lots of dead air and static amid occasional spurts of bad news). Other times, Twitter behaves badly, like some kind of weird, 2.0 version of Beavis & Butt-Head that 90s-era, pre-Web MTV cartoon series that approximated what real-time twittering might feel like a decade later. (The two geeky cartoon adolescents would deliver a snarky, running commentary of the music video or movie they—and you—would appear to be watching together as it played.)

During Scoble's remarks last week, of course, Beavis wasn't around to mumble over the proceedings—but things might have been livelier if he had.

The first tweet that Scoble got that morning, for example, was from a man in the Ukraine complaining about the sandwich he just ate. (Too bland, he said.) Then, someone in India asked Scoble (and others in their shared social network) whether he should attend some upcoming conference in Asia. Scoble, patient, kept talking to us about how immediacy is "the new intimacy" (trumping, at times, common experience) in the Web 2.0 world.

Then, as it became clear that no real signs of intelligent life would be eminating from Scoble's universe that morning, Scoble relented. From the stage, he sent out a live video shot of us—the audience—to his Twitter-sphere, and seconds later, somebody said we looked like a "nice-looking" group. The "global pulse" had a heart (and attention span) after all.

If Scoble's point was to show us rather than simply tell us how small the world is getting (or how mercilessly big, mundanely interactive, and more broadly connected than ever), then he succeeded. "Just be careful," he said, "to keep listening through all the noise."

Indeed, as with Dahl's fictional Twits, quiet is not an option in these early days of social media. And maybe that's a good thing: at least for now, the world doesn't seem to be listening to itself nearly enough.

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