To Twitter Or Not to Twitter?

Reflections

PHOTO: greg mably

Twitter, the social-networking Web site that allows users to broadcast short text messages to a group of friends, has burst into popularity with millions of subscribers. I’m a confirmed e-mail user, but that’s so 20th century. I feel a certain pressure to get with it. So, to Twitter or not to Twitter? I view it as a question for the ages—the ages of the users, that is.

It was my generation of engineers that created the Internet, but it is largely today’s youth who are molding the social connectedness that is coming to characterize cyberspace. These are the so-called digital natives, who grew up with the Internet already a part of everyday life. They’re always online, inhabiting multiple identities, living a culture of sharing and peer collaboration. For them, multitasking is just the way it is. We older engineers built cyberspace, but our kids live in it, and for many of them the technology is transparent and almost irrelevant.

So as a digital immigrant, already an adult as the new culture was forming, I am amazed at what I see. At a recent meeting a young speaker casually mentioned that every morning he Twitters that he has just woken up. Alarm bells went off in my head. I thought about the fact that several scores of people are going to read a message that this guy has awakened. Isn’t this is an incredible waste of time for everyone involved? But a more unpleasant thought also formed in the back of my head—the worry that no one would care that I myself had just arisen. There must be some social consequence that I’m missing. An older acquaintance told me that he had been using Twitter and that after a week he had begun to feel a sense of connectedness.

At this same meeting, another young speaker berated the whole audience of industry leaders. ”I was told this was a conference of executives, so I’m going to talk slow and use big slides,” he began. ”You are living in a bubble. You come here to find out what kids do. You guys are pencil pushers. You’re forced to make money.” I shrank in my seat, blanking out the rest of this tirade while testing unspoken counterarguments. And I wonder: years from now will this young person adopt the ways of us older workers, or are we seeing the rise of an entirely new social fabric?

Later, I discussed a forthcoming meeting with other organizers. Should we encourage the audience to Twitter during the next meeting? On the one hand, we felt this would distract from our speakers. Moreover, we had reviewed the unsolicited Twitters during a previous meeting and concluded that they were largely vacuous. On the other hand, perhaps the Twitters encouraged engagement. And anyway, how could we deny a growing use of that technology in a technology meeting? Alas, we could draw no rational conclusion other than to designate a ”tag” for that particular meeting for Twitters to congregate around. We’re in the middle of something happening around us, and we don’t really understand the consequences.

I am constantly fascinated with the development of the sociology of the Web. Perhaps two insightful cartoons from The New Yorker illustrate the evolution. In 1993, the magazine published Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon of two dogs at a computer, one saying to the other, ”On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” At that time the Internet was relatively young, and we all rejoiced in the unbridled freedom the cartoon embraced.

By 2005, in the same magazine, Alex Gregory had a cartoon with two dogs (I’m thinking the same dogs!) at a computer. One says to the other, ”I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking.”

So is the networking phenomenon a great revolution in social consciousness, or is this just a lot of pointless, incessant barking? If you get a message that I’ve just awakened, you’ll know what I’ve decided.

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