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August 24, 2009

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The Twitter Valve

Henry Jenkins has a solid post on the value and limitations of Twitter. It has two parts, descriptive and normative. Here’s the descriptive part:

Someone recently asked me, “If McCluhan is right and the medium is the message, what is the message of Twitter?” My response: “Here It Is and Here I Am.”

And the normative:

My first impressions were correct that Twitter is no substitute for Blogs or Live Journal. And in so far as people are using it to take on functions once played on blogs, there is a serious loss to digital culture.

I think you can find a lot to talk about in the descriptive part of Jenkins’s account even if you quibble with the normative part. But there are also descriptive claims contained in the normative account. I want to look at just one slice of this:

Three years ago, when I started this blog, if people wanted to direct attention to one of my blog posts, they would write about it in their blog and often feel compelled to spell out more fully why they found it a valuable resource. I got a deeper insight into their thinking and often the posts would spark larger debate. As the function of link sharing has moved into Twitter, much of this additional commentary has dropped off. Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of “Awesome” or “Inspiring” or “Interesting.” So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.

In other words, Twitter acts as a kind of valve, where the energy that would go into 1) writing extended comments and 2) signing a blog of your own gets siphoned off into minimalist links.

I’ll hold off on explaining what I think about this — I’m still formulating it — but I want to note that you could apply this logic to a lot of other kinds of contemporary web discourse, from Facebook “Likes” to Diggs — maybe even things like Instapaper.

There is clearly demand for a minimalist approach to reading and commenting. We like the option of doing “less” and doing it later. Why is this? And what does it change about the way we communicate ideas online?

Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:42 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Technosnark


On the most basic level, I think that lack of energy you mention pretty much equates to lack of attention span. We read less, and sometimes, think less, when we have the option to do so. Technology has made us feel less guilty about that because it gives us the impression that having the ability to filter articles or quickly scan Twitter links and review more information is *better* than spending quality time on less information.

However, there's also a flip-side to this...if this phenonmenon didn't happen, and everyone took the time to write extended comments and read and write more, we wouldn't have time to take it all in anyway. We would still have to filter and choose. Is there even such thing as a happy medium?

Well, one question is whether the blogs-to-twitter comparison is even the right one to make. Twitter could be a valve for energies from a lot of different sources - comments, social bookmarks, honest-to-goodness link-blogs, emailed links (it's been a while since someone direct-emailed me a link - how about you?)...

The other question is whether this is a zero-sum system, or dynamic -- whether Twitter (and other ways of pointing to information generated from blogs) drains energy/value from blogs themselves, or potentially acts as a catalyst for more stuff.

I'm generally skeptical of the idea that writing OUGHT to generate more writing - that lurking readers ought to be commenters, that commenters ought to be writing their own posts, etc... It's nice when this happens, but it's not a necessary thing, from the point of view of... whatever the point of view ought to be.

But -- this is an empirical question to be resolved. Are there fewer blogs or comments? Are the comments more shallow, less useful? Or does Twitter add to blogging in ways that Jenkins misses or discounts?

No one had to post a "first" because twitter took care of the urge?

On a *personal* empirical level, I can say that Twitter has absolutely provided an outlet -- indeed, a valve! -- for links or micro-ideas that I might otherwise have taken the time to develop, even just a bit, for Snarkmarket.

But yeah, I think your broader view is right. We're not a bunch of Enlightenment scholars just waiting to be prodded into effusive letter-writing. And Twitter's ease and simplicity has doubtless drawn lots of NEW people into this system (whatever this system is) -- people who would never have contributed 140 characters at all, let alone 1400 or 14,000. People who would never have blogged anyway.

Filed away for use in the future: "...from the point of view of... whatever the point of view ought to be."

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