James Gleick at the NYRblog on the Library of Congress’ plan to archive tweets. All of them:
Here in the twenty-first century, the Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth. As of December, the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where.
Of course, the chance of even your very best tweet being seen again by human eyes is approximately zero.
The rest of the article is a little techno-cranky, but he has a point. Is it worth it? I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, if we can save every tweet we probably should. The technical challenges to actually doing something useful with all that data are going to be solved as big data computing matures. The maddening thing is that the government shouldn’t have to do the heavy lifting, Twitter itself should.
On the other hand, I now have the option to download all of my own tweets and I don’t see the point. I guess you could say that the sum total of the words I’ve typed on Twitter for the past five years is just as valuable as any essay or blog post that I carefully back up and move each time I get a new computer. But I also have more than 10 years of email archived in my Gmail account, and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve looked up something more than a few weeks old.
I’m sure there’s value in a massive tweet archive to an anthropologist, or a prosecutor, or a journalist trying to track down a fake girlfriend hoax. But for an individual, tweets feel more like our real-world conversations; valuable only within the context of a certain audience and place. If it’s important enough, you can just say it again.
Consider this a follow up to my post about personal blogging. I had an idea today for a new side project, a blog where I’d like to write about something that doesn’t really fit in here. When I was thinking about how to set it up, I had to stop and consider if I wanted to make a standalone blog at all because there is a social network that already fits all my needs. I wouldn’t have to bother with settings, templates, and boilerplate copy, and I’d have a built-in audience as soon as I connected to a few of my friends. I haven’t decided if I want to do it yet, but if I do I’m going to build out my own site, mainly because I don’t like using the other site that could fill this niche. But the interesting thing to me was that I had this conversation with myself at all.
Anyone who spends a lot of time online has an idea of their online “home,” the place where they spend the most time, participate in a community, post the most stuff, etc. For most people these days I suspect it’s Facebook, but it could be as simple as an email account or a portal site like Yahoo. For the longest time I thought of this site as my home, because if anyone wanted find out about what’s going on with my life, they could find it here. Anything else I did online like Flickr or delicious was an adjunct account to augment the blog. This was the starting point. But now after over three years on Twitter, it’s the first place I’d tell people to find me online. I think it just has to do with frequency; I’m on Twitter all the time, posting my own stuff and replying to other people. As I said before, it’s taken up a lot of what I used to do here. It takes up the primary mental space, everything else I do online flows through there somehow. This site, on the other hand, has taken a backseat to serve a more specialized purpose. Instead of being the all-purpose Matt Wood clearinghouse (and we know the world needs that), it’s now the place where I write longer stuff because that’s what suits this particular tool best.
Scott Rosenberg commented on my post about personal blogging that blogs may seem to be in decline because we simply have more tools to choose from for doing our thing online. What we used to think of a blogs are more heavyweight, and social networking sites pick up a lot of the rest. The reverse chronological blogging format has also become so tightly incorporated into the rest of the web that you could argue that most sites are really blogs, or have very blog-like elements, at their cores. You’d be hard pressed to find a news site or social network that doesn’t use that format in some shape or form. So maybe what I was talking about in that last post is that blogs have shifted from being the focal point of our online lives to having a more specialized purpose. They’re still important, but they’re no longer home.
Wired just published a little how-to on digesting the web like a Twitter feed. The idea is that the short, simple interface of Twitter let us process information faster, and so we should emulate that experience for the rest of our internet consumption.
It’s kind of a throwaway post; that idea is obvious when you think about it. Of course short snippets of text make it easier to scan for useful information. What it didn’t mention is a key feature of Twitter that has kept me using it for so long: it’s okay to be away from Twitter for a while. Unlike email inboxes and RSS readers, there won’t be a huge pile of unread stuff sitting there if you’re away too long, tormenting you and making you feel bad when you have to mass delete everything. With Twitter, you just jump back in the timeline wherever you happen to be. Anything you missed is long gone, and you’re no worse for the wear.
I don’t obsess about reading stuff online as much as I used to, but Jason Kottke’s recent post about how the iPhone’s greatest feature is that it lets you do most computing with one hand got me thinking again about how I process information online. Before I even saw that Wired how-to, the thought crossed my mind that I should just pipe everything through Twitter. Nifty tools like Tweetie and Instapaper make it easy for me to save links for later reading, and if I happen to miss something, so be it. Like I said before, the world won’t end without me knowing it. I’m pretty sure my mom would call.
I know some people think auto-feeds that just push out the latest website updates are the scourge of Twitter, but in this sense they’re useful. There are days I’m so busy at work or with the kids that I don’t get a chance to read the news or look at any feeds but I can glance at Twitter on my phone, and on those days I still feel fairly informed. It’s not in-depth reading, but I at least have an idea of which golfers have backed over fire hydrants and which war the president is escalating. The problem is that not every news source or blog I like to read has a Twitter feed, so I couldn’t subsist on it entirely like Steve Gillmor claims he can do. But as I get busier at work and have fewer hands at home to use a proper computer, it might be the direction I continue to follow.
Last week, BBC Audiobooks America launched a “round-robin interactive storytelling experience” on Twitter with Neil Gaiman, author of “The Graveyard Book” and “Coraline.” Gaiman posted the first sentence of a new story to Twitter, and participants posted their suggestions for subsequent sentences to finish the story. The results were predictably uninspiring, says Salon’s Laura Miller:
The experiment was widely pronounced “cool,” as such things usually are, then promptly forgotten by everyone but the participants — again, as such things usually are …
… Instead of being bombarded with too many ideas, what the twittered story really suffered from was too few. The handful of contributors who could come up with interesting motifs or turns of phrase had no idea how to constructively inject these into the whole, while the ones who were good at moving the plot forward tended to write exclusively in clichés.
Crowdsourcing may be excellent for brainstorming and research, but terrible at generating a singular work of art. The problem is that someone eventually has to weave the many threads of a story back into a satisfying whole, and that will never happen within the short-sighted, attention-seeking world of Twitter, at least as it exists now.
I’m curious about experiments like this because I’m interested in the craft of writing and I’m an avid Twitter user. But in the end I’m afraid they’re no more than gimmicks–good publicity machines (I’m blogging about them after all), but definitely not the “future” of writing.
Scottish author Peter Urpeth is publishing a novel, “MacKenzie’s Issue,” in 140-character snippets on Twitter, similar to what American author John Wray is doing with his “Citizen” story. Oh, to be one of the first people to try a gimmick and get coverage from the BBC. At least he appreciates the good timing:
It is ironic that with – at the time of writing this blog – a little under 280 characters of my novel published – I have received more coverage from the BBC and The Scotsman for my new Twitter book than I did for the entirety of my (traditionally published) first novel, Far Inland (Birlinn Polygon), and that is no through no fault of my publisher.
Via The Book Bench
Again, I just have to ask: why?
Facebook is a good match for FriendFeed, insofar as I’ve never understood why I’d want to use either of them.
– John Gruber, on Facebook’s acquisition of FriendFeed
Knowing that Gruber is a big Twitter user, the implied ending to that sentence is surely, “… instead of Twitter.” I understand the sentiment. I’ve been using Facebook for about seven months now after a long holdout, and I still don’t quite know what to do with it. Unlike Gruber, I can see why people use it: it’s a whole online ecosystem, a one-stop shop for people to communicate and waste time online. Nevertheless, I still prefer Twitter, which I’v been using for over a year longer. I can point to three reasons why:
- As a seasoned internet nerd, I had already filled all those needs that Facebook fills for most people. I had a blog for writing, Twitter for status updates, Flickr for photos, etc. Facebook strikes me as the place where people who don’t want to bother juggling all those accounts go to set up shop online. As time goes by and Facebook becomes the only social media some people ever use this will be less so, and people like me will sound like those old boys talking about their punch card computers and programming in COBOL. For now though, I’m willing to bet Twitter skews heavily toward long-time internet creators.
- Twitter is made for my iPhone. Honestly, that could be the only reason. It’s the perfect application for a smartphone, which makes sense for a service originally intended for text messaging only. Facebook, on the other hand, is a mess in mobile form. There’s just too much there. It’s not fair to try shoehorning all of its features into an iPhone app, but it probably never will achieve the kind of device independence of Twitter, by its very definition.
- And finally, there’s no nice way to say this, but the people I follow on Twitter are just more fun than my Facebook contacts. This is definitely a result of #1: people who adopted Twitter early, before the Great Oprah/Ashton/Anderson Cooper influx, are most likely internet pros who know how to carry a tune online, so to speak. They’re in it to express opinions, share links, make jokes and entertain, whereas most people I see on Facebook are quite content posting goopy love messages to their spouses and posting pictures of their kids. If that’s what you want, more power to you, I’m just not as likely to spend my spare time reading about it.
Here is the best analogy I can come up with for the way I think of Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is like family. You don’t choose them, but if you want to have a semi-normal life you have to put up with them. Facebook has achieved this kind of necessary evil status. You pretty much have to join these days to stay in the loop, even if it means seeing what some random high school classmate scored on Bejeweled Blitz (the social network equivalent of listening to your brother-in-law talk about his fantasy football team). Twitter on the other hand, is like friends and colleagues. You get to pick who you hang out with, mostly later in life, based on shared interests and experiences. You like talking to them and sharing inside jokes. You prefer hanging out with them most of the time, but you still have to check in with the family every now and then.
Granted, this view stems from the fact that a vast majority of my Facebook contacts are my actual family and people I knew growing up. I want to keep in touch with them, sure, but the people I’ve met more recently, i.e. the ones I follow on Twitter, are more relevant to my daily life. This may just be my own special use case and irrelevant to the increasing number of people who funnel every acquaintance into Facebook, but I’m guessing there are more people out there with similar experiences.
Count this among the things the world doesn’t need: 10 Ways to Archive Your Tweets. As someone who spent far more time than I care to admit curating DEVONthink and Evernote databases that I’ve never used after the fact, I can think of no more waste of time than archiving Twitter. Granted, academics, social scientists, or market researchers might have an interest in saving and slicing and dicing every last letter typed on a particular topic long-term, but for the average users this would be a massive time sink.
Maybe I’m just recoiling against my own obsessive tendencies because I know I would waste too much time if I went down this path, but isn’t the point of Twitter that it’s ephemeral? Do we record every face-to-face conversation we have? What’s the point of saving data if we can’t remember that we’ve saved it? Recall needs a certain context–i.e., you need to remember that you remembered something, and when–for it to make any sense. The more important bits you’re likely to capture outside the standard Twitter stream anyway. Just counting on a magical archive to record it all, and for it all to make sense six months later, is a red herring.
I mean really, saving your tweets on a calendar?
From today’s New York Times, No Twittering Allowed:
In an era, when a stray gripe about your boss can land you on an industry blog, when waking up hung over can frantically send you to Facebook to untag your name from photos of the previous night’s frosting-wrestling contest, when shots of you in unflattering jeans become part of your permanent Google search results, there are signs that some are tired of living their lives on the Web …
… there is an electronic evolution of manners, with still-developing rules about when using social media is appropriate and when it isn’t. In the early days, posting photos of adults in funny hats seemed harmless — everyone could be an Internet star. Now, six years after the start of Friendster, one of the first social networks, friends can feel like the new paparazzi.
It’s funny, as someone who’s written about myself online for almost nine years now, I’ve never had that moment of complete embarrassment or regret at something I posted online (or someone posted about me). I’ve made poor arguments and stuck my foot in my mouth maybe, but in terms of privacy, I’ve never had a line crossed.
Then again, most of my party days ended before everyone had a camera phone and a Twitter account, and my real world friends weren’t hardcore internet types either. Maybe I just dodged a bullet–I can sure think of a few things I did (or things that people told me I did) that I’m glad aren’t forever preserved in the ether.