Bigger than Twitter?

(Warning, heavy nerding ahead….)

So, I’ve been struggling with this Twitter thing for a while. It’s the first piece of technology to gain lots of users that just didn’t feel right to me. I get all the interactions, I get the viral part, I just couldn’t see anything substantive. It’s massively popular, but besides that I can’ see where it’s going (and, like Twitter, I decided to just ignore the “what’s the business model question”).

This post from Grant McCraken has been hanging out in my browser for a few weeks. He has a fascinating point comparing Twitter and the social conventions of puns. I’ll spare you from quoting the whole post (please read it), but this sentence has had me churning since I read it.

Maybe we groan at “twitter” because it represents a cultural confusion, a semantic overload, an immensity of messages too much for our frail cognitive capacity.

During a long, slow, wet jog this week, everything came together for me. I was thinking about how Twitter is mainly people just posting about moments in their lives. Like all flavors of personality, people post for all types of reasons…conversation, promotion, vanity, informational, and on and on. The fascinating thing is because the medium is pretty open, people post for many, many reasons. On the other side of that, there are people read tweets for almost a completely different reason. (I get that there are actually conversations going on, but there lots, and I mean LOTS of people just noodling about their day.)

On the buy side of the equation, people have to opt-in to hear you. So by definition, everyone gets exactly what they asked for. Wannna hear about aplusk, go right ahead, you won’t drag me along with you. Readers can also do LOTS with those little posts. They track activity, personal interest, entertainment, etc, etc. It’s like someone taking the classic communication model and breaking it to bits – lots of messages going out, but they aren’t going to anyone really….and people are reading lots of messages and in many cases they aren’t reading from anyone specifically.

I was wondering, when you post for one reason and people consume for different reasons, is that breaking the convention of communication tool? You use tools to get things done. Hammers sink nails, emails deliver communications, wikis allows group editing. Twitter is different, you can’t exactly control what’s going on after you post…it’s a little like releasing a bird in into the wild. What happens after you send is beyond you. There’s so much flowing into this river of communication, you can’t be sure anyone will read what you write. If they read it, you can’t be sure they aren’t reading for a different reason than you intended. (You didn’t communicate to them, they opted into what you said…subtle but huge behavioral difference.)

It sort of offends the sensibilities to say it, but Twitter (or micro-blogging) feels more like an extension of self, less like a tool. FaceBook is close to being an extension, but it’s still filtering to your friends, it’s not completely open, definition in the communication. Maybe I’m getting too caught on the ‘tool’ versus extension thing, but the behavior is significant.

I’ve done a lot of work around mobile phones, and I’m always fascinated that people feel like their phone is an extension of self. There’s the image component, but more importantly it connects them to everything, without it, they’re crippled. Twitter seems to be working in a similar capacity. So if this is a significant behavioral evolution (and it could be a total fad), can one company be in center of it all? In this open, networked world, if this type of communication is bigger than any of us, shouldn’t it be bigger than Twitter?

This morning I saw a presentation from a student at Rice advocating for an open micro-blogging model. He draws a nice analogy between tweets and email and Compuserve and Twitter. He built an implementation of the open platform and he’s hosting it for others to learn from.

Maybe it is bigger than us…

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