Monday, September 15, 2008

Twitter Redux

Last month, I stirred up a bit of controversy on this blog by posting an op-ed piece on Twitter that had appeared in the Boston Globe. The author of the article, Alex Beam, wondered what was the point of Twitter, and I had been wondering exactly the same thing. The comments that were made about my posting and subsequent postings on this blog about Twitter and other social networking sites have opened up my mind on this subject, but I still wonder how anyone has time to be on Twitter and Facebook, do their job, and still have a life.

Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine carried an article that addresses this question. The article traces the development of Facebook and describes the uproar over the News Feed feature when it was first introduced. Users were initially concerned about their privacy, but ultimately embraced the feature because they were "so much more connected to their friends." In fact, "Facebook users didn't think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive." I was surprised to learn that there is " name for this sort of incessant online contact. ... "ambient awareness." Of course, Facebook is not alone in offering this kind of contact. This is the sort of thing that Twitter offers its users. "This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update--each individual bit of social information--is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible... The ambient information becomes like 'a type of E.S.P.' invisible dimension floating over everyday life."

One Twitter user was interviewed for the article. She is following 677 people on Twitter and 442 people on Facebook. This woman has two small children and travels a lot on business. How does she manage to follow so many people? Her take on this dilemma is that "[A]wareness tools aren't as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It's personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they're not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you'll read them all, maybe you'll skip some."

Of course, the reason she can do this is because many of the people she "knows" on Twitter and Facebook are "weak ties," which the article defines as "loose acquaintances." Here's what I found fascinating--these "'weak ties' greatly expand your ability to solve problems." Your friends--the real kind, not the virtual kind--probably have the same contacts you have and thus won't know anything you don't know. Your remote acquaintances, however, "will be much more useful, because they're farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out." One woman said that she "'can solve any problem on Twitter in six minutes.'"

The other insight I gained from the article was that social networking tools may be fostering "a culture of people who know much more about themselves" because the "act of stopping several times a day to observe what you're feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It's like the Greek dictum to 'know thyself,' or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness.'" As the article concludes, "In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself."


Betsy McKenzie said...

Awesome post, Marie! Are you joining Twitter? Facebook? I'll friend you.

Marie S. Newman said...

My library is on Twitter, and you and I are already Friends on Facebook.

Laurie said...

This was an interesting explanation for some of the appeal for Twitter. I think there are many other benefits to it as well (recently read about its use as a semi-immediate gauge of customer service issues). What can I say though - I am a dedicated Twitterer!