Friday, August 8, 2008

Is Twitter a sign that the world has finally gone ‘Twitty’?

Twitter is one of a number of microblogging tools that ask users to tell friends what they’re doing in 140 characters or less. It's a social networking service that allows users to send updates (known as ‘tweets’) that are text-based posts to their friends or strangers for that matter.

Updates are displayed on the user's profile page and are delivered to other users who sign up to receive them. You can restrict delivery to a set of friends if you like (or let the whole world see it by default). You can receive updates via the Twitter website, instant messaging, SMS, RSS, email or through an application such as Facebook. Other similar tools include Plurk, Jaiku and Pownce.

Twitter messages might seem unusual to the uninitiated:
  • Trying to talk e into joining me on LIVE for some BF:BC. We have to get ready for Conquest Mode.
  • Want in on the Madden tickets? Watch my blog tomorrow for detail
  • Eating lunch at my desk to try and get ahead of my Inbox
  • After I hard reset my touch, installed AF...still no worky. After the splash screen, I get a blank screen. This app needs an update
  • Having a hell-uva time getting Aurora Feint (free download from the iTunes app store) to run on my Touch. Crashy Crashy 08
No doubt the above selection of tweets from one random person twittering on the web over a 24-hour period made sense to someone. And I assume that the constant tweets kept him and others in touch. But....

Well before I get to the 'but', and this Baby Boomer dumps on Twitter (and I will), I need to point out that others (mostly in America) see it as a great thing. In a ‘Wired’ article, ‘How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense’, Clive Thompson argues that:
“It's like proprioception, your body's ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.”
Dr Alice Robison who teaches in the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT also argues strongly for the educational benefits of Twitter in an article for NCTE. She suggests that there might be benefits in microblogging and that it “….might be used to teach students about concise messages. By limiting students to 140 characters to make their point, teachers can move students learn ways to cut their messages down to the cleanest expressions of their ideas.”

Mmmmm. Now, I’m prepared to accept that it might just be a useful networking tool for some people but I'm prepared to say that it will do more harm to writing, reading and maybe even our well being, than it will do good. I have four concerns:
First, what does it say about us if we are so self-absorbed that we'd think that the world wants to read random snippets about our daily lives (well maybe my wife would)?
Second, why are we prepared to spend time reading this stuff constantly; and what might be lost from relationships by reducing them to this? (And yes I know this wouldn't be the only way people are communicating).
Third, from what other activities in life do we steal the time to 'tweet' all day long? Work? Reading? Talking to our kids?
Fourth, could this be frying our brains; or at the very least scrambling them a little?
I'll comment just on the last point (maybe I'll return to the others at another time).

Mokoto Rich (Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?) points to evidence from Neurological studies that show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. As well, there is more recent speculation that reading on the Internet may also affect the brain’s hard wiring in a way that is different from book reading.

Dr Guinevere Eden director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University acknowledges that this is probably occurring and suggests that:

“The question is, does it change your brain in some beneficial way? The brain is malleable and adapts to its environment. Whatever the pressures are on us to succeed, our brain will try and deal with it.

Nicholas Carr (author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google) recently wrote a piece titled "Is Google Making US Stupid" in which he shares his own concerns about the impact of the Internet (in more general terms on him personally):
"For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."
Carr puts his finger on one of my greatest concerns about the downside of the Internet (and I write this as an active user of the Internet - I love its benefits), it can be so consuming and it is changing the things we read, write and live - both adults and children. We can argue about the many ways the Internet opens up a world of texts and knowledge, but what might be lost if increasingly we read less extended texts and write less extended texts and lose the richness of varied textual forms that we've known in the past. I hope that the essays of my grandchildren's children are not 140 characters long.

The Carr article is worth a read.

I'll probably blog about this again, but you'll also find a range of useful links to New York Times articles that link to a variety of pieces of research here.

I've also blogged previously about the broad topic of the Internet and its impact here, here, and here. And I have a more extended paper on my website here.

Would love your thoughts on this topic.

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