To Twitter or not to Twitter?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2009, the social networking site that allows users to broadcast short text messages to a group of friends through various media, has suddenly burst into popularity with millions of subscribers.  For a confirmed email user like myself, 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 the youth that is molding the social connectedness that is characterizing much of cyberspace today.  These are the so-called “digital natives”, who grew up when the Internet was already a part of everyday life.  These natives are always on-line, have multiple identities, and have a culture of sharing and peer collaboration.  For them, “multi-tasking” is adult-talk; this is just the way it is.  We older engineers created the technology, but the youth live in it, and for many of them the technology is transparent and almost irrelevant.

So, as a digital immigrant myself, adopting the new culture as it was forming when I was an adult, I am amazed at what I see happening.  At a recent meeting a young speaker mentioned casually that he twitters his group every morning that he has just woken up.  Alarm bells went off in my head at this revelation.  Several scores of people are going take the time to read a message that this guy has just awoken.  I’m thinking that this is an incredible waste of time for everyone involved.  But there is another thought unpleasantly forming 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 what kids do from adults.  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’m wondering: 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?  It’s an interesting question that brings out some of the issues.  On the one hand, we felt this would be a big distraction from attention to our speakers.  Moreover, we had reviewed the unsolicited twitters that had occurred during the previous meeting, and had concluded that they were largely vacuous.  On the other hand, perhaps the twitters encouraged engagement and provided a kind of activation effect.  In a technology meeting, how could we deny a growing use of that technology?  Alas, we could draw no rational conclusion from our discussion, other than to designate a “tag” for that particular meeting as a place for twitters to congregate.  We’re in the middle of something that is happening around us for which 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 Magazine illustrate the evolution that is occurring.  In 1993 Peter Schneider published a famous cartoon showing two dogs at a computer.  “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” one is saying to the other.  At that time the Internet was relatively young, and we all rejoiced in the unbridled freedom embraced in that cartoon.

But this year, in that magazine, Alex Gregory has a cartoon with two dogs (I’m thinking the same dogs!) at a computer.  One is saying 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?  I’m not sure, but if you get a message that I’ve just awoken, you’ll know that I’ve decided.

Robert Lucky