digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

The future of Twitter Ctd.

May 11, 2009 _ 14:45 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Last week, I wrote why I think a discussion of Twitter's utility and future fits into the larger themes we're exploring at Digital Nation. Basically, I believe it's important to consider how the service might be changing our culture before we continue so far down that path that there's no turning back. A reader counters:

When you ask "how the fast pace of technological change is affecting us," I wonder what you think is driving this thing. I tend to see technology as a set of solutions that people choose to apply to their individual problems. Some may feel peer pressure or be required, as a condition of employment, to use a certain technology. That should hardly be universal for any given technology. I say that as both a geek and a curmudgeon! Of course, when we utilize a technology we also adapt to its constraints, and that's worth discussing.
I don't twitter because I don't personally have a use for it, and the few uses I considered weren't well served by Twitter when I checked it out. I don't fault anyone for finding Twitter useful and even life-enhancing in their particular circumstances. So I wonder if you're too protocol-specific by asking if Twittering is an important skill, since people (myself included) still send short messages by IM, email, and chat in the absence of strict character limits. Conciseness is a useful skill.
Moreover, Twitter's 140-char limit is entirely linked to SMS. SMS, in turn, is limited because it's a technology designed for cellphone networks optimized for voice telephony. I can't find any numbers on how many tweets are distributed as SMS, but as cell networks get upgraded to IP-based broadband technology, the SMS limit would seem headed towards obsolescence. You'll have to ask a network engineer if it's feasible to run all our personal communications over such networks and how long SMS is likely to stick around. There's also the issue of Twitter's long-term profitability. Perhaps, thinking long-term, you should speak of microblogging, not twittering.

I agree that I have over-emphasized Twitter in this discussion, which is relevant to all microblogging, status-updating and digital shorthand. In my previous post, I pointed out that many of the top 15 web companies from 1999 no longer exist. But I should have stressed that the trends and services these companies were pushing generally outlasted the companies themselves. For example, while Yahoo recently nixed GeoCities, the personal Web pages GeoCities established can be seen as a precursor to the Facebook pages of today. It's the same trend of creating personal space on the Web, but evolved significantly to enhance connectivity and usability.

Twitter may ultimately go the way of GeoCities, but the trend of microblogging is likely here to stay. Of course, brief written messages are nothing new. As the reader mentions, many other digital services encouraged them before Twitter came along, and they have been present throughout the long history of pre-digital writing, as well. Writing concisely is a useful skill. What I wonder is: at what point does the embrace of succinctness come at the expense of longer, more contemplative writing? That is the question I think we should be asking before jumping full-on into the microblogging world, of which Twitter is a salient example.

What do I think is pushing us to take that plunge? I, too, see technology as a set of solutions that people choose to apply to their individual problems. But this does not happen in isolation. Technology develops to serve group needs. Without a large market, the technology would have trouble taking off. This market can be seen as the sum of individual needs, but it affects the culture as a whole. Thus, the hype surrounding Twitter makes informal brevity more acceptable in other channels of communication. Its use affects how other media are used. (Just look at CNN.) Communications technologies, I think, have a two-fold influence on culture because they involve both a sender and a receiver.

My point is new technology influences us all, whether or not we choose to adopt it, because it affects our culture. When people choose to use a technology to solve a personal problem, they join the group driving the fast pace of change I have been referring to. I don't think there is anything wrong with this, but it is worth remembering that the consequences are far-reaching.

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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