Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brave New Twitter

I attended a Twitter chat last night. It was both difficult and fascinating - and not because of what we were talking about, but how we were talking about it.

Let me give you some context. I'm not a big producer of tweets, because I don't have the best mobile phone tech, and I don't tend to narrate my life in quite that manner. But this time I was invited to #scribechat and I figured I'd attend. It took me a while to figure out how to attend, given that I never had, and I'm still not entirely convinced that I did it in the easiest way. But I learned a lot about Twitter interactions.

New technologies don't always allow for established conventions. That's certainly the case with email, texting, and instant messaging, but even more so with Twitter. Sometimes when conventions of communication fail to be translated between media, it can become socially problematic or even dangerous. Let's trace through some developments.

Take email first. It's considered to be a much less formal medium than actual letter-writing. I remember when people first started learning that writing in all capitals meant shouting in the email format. Some people still have trouble grasping this convention. It worked fine for telegrams, because those were usually sent only in emergencies anyway. I know of many cases where people have offended others by going too far into the realm of the informal with emails. It's a medium that resembles letters, but doesn't follow their rules in the area of politeness.

Then there's texting, and instant messaging. Like telegrams, texts are restricted in length by price. It's interesting to note that the conventions for shortening a telegram - which involved leaving out words but not usually shortening the words themselves - more resembled writing headlines for newspapers. Texting conventions took this shortening trend and combined it with the more recent trend for creating acronyms (from company names etc.), resulting in "ROFL" and all sorts of fascinating new expressions. Instant messaging is restricted by a different kind of shortening influence - the desire to get the messages back and forth as quickly as possible. Texting conventions translate easily to this environment, but for those who aren't well-versed in the texting acronyms, you tend to see missed capitals, abbreviations and dropped punctuation. Interestingly though, when you're dealing with a medium of high-speed back-and-forth, misunderstandings can be cleared up much more easily than with email, because the members of the conversation can simply ask questions immediately to clear things up. There's another convention that gets altered too - turn-taking. The high speed of messages means that cross-posting happens, and one person will start a new topic while the other is still about to make a comment. Generally in my experience, that can lead to the situation (more unusual, but not unheard of, in verbal conversation) of two topics being maintained at once.

Twitter is something different. You've got lots of people involved in a chat at once, but here more distinctly, turn-taking rules don't apply well. In Twitter many of the contributions aren't actually replies to any particular person's statement. I figure if a two-person conversation is ping pong, and a multi-person conversation resembles hacky-sack (even in an online chatroom), a Twitter conversation is more like trying to play tennis against a ball machine. I felt like I was in a room with lots of different conversations going on, but even once I chose one to belong to, I still was required to eavesdrop on all the others at the same time.

So here's a summary of some conventions of conversation and letter-writing that get altered by new technologies:

1. turn taking (and topic switches)
2. the link between information and identity
3. conventions of politeness
4. availability of context for disambiguation of message

This is not to say that technology only causes trouble. It has some great advantages. The funniest one I've heard lately was yesterday, when my friend told me that "today in rehearsal, I had to ask kids to text instead of whisper. Crazy thing is, it actually worked."

I'm not about to condemn these new forms of communication. They're actually very interesting as inspirations for the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise in different contexts - and for different modes of narrative. More and more these days I've seen stories take the form of chatroom logs. It works pretty well! There's also the example of the Google ad about the boy and the French girl that was shown during the Superbowl. I'd call that an unusual sort of flash fiction video.

I had a flash of inspiration after the Twitter chat that I'd like to share because in the moment I had it, it felt so true. Being in a room with multiple conversations and having to listen to all of them is precisely the reality that many people describe when they work with species or groups that communicate by telepathy. Our imaginations can give us a lot of insight into how it would "feel" to be in a place where you could hear everything that everyone said - or thought - but if you want insight into the kind of conversation that would occur, or the kind of processing load that would be put on a person unfamiliar with such a context, follow Twitter chats for a while.

I don't think that was my last Twitter chat, though I know that I prefer instant messaging. I'm definitely going to be keeping my eyes open for inspiration - and I hope you can too.


  1. And that's why I raely use Twitter. I'm there, but sort of i invisible mode.

    1. I don'tcarewhat you ate for breakfast, and what I ate is borngandnon of anyone's businss anyway.

    2. Can't keep track of all that back and forth. I have a had enough time with chatrooms

  2. What a fascinating analysis of the various methods of communication now available to us! I really enjoyed reading this, particularly your hypothesis that a twitter chat must feel similar to being telepathic and having to hear many conversations or thoughts at once! That feels right to me.

    There IS an easy way to follow a twitter chat, which is to use It allows you to pause the stream and also to adjust the speed of the page refresh.

    But if it's really too much for you to experience in real time you can read the transcripts at later. A much calmer experience, if a more removed one.

    I found my first few Twitter chats overwhelming, too. But I've quickly become adjusted to the pace and the multiple threads. Now I'm a wee bit addicted to them!

    It's a great way to make new friends on Twitter, and I see a surge in my follower numbers during and after each chat I attend. The great thing about that is that the followers aren't marketing gurus or people hawking a product, they're WRITERS! And agents, and editors...

    Thank you for joining us - I hope it won't be the only time we see you.

  3. I signed up for Twitter a while ago, but almost never post or read anything.

    How did the Twitter-chat differ from an AOL chat room?

    *** Like telegrams, texts are restricted in length by price ***

    Not always. There are telecoms like Metro which charge a flat rate. The restriction is more from the tiny screens and awkward 'thumb tap' buttons on many cell phones.

    BTW, how r u ?

  4. Lia,

    Thanks for coming by! No, I don't think that will be my only visit - but I will be trying to arrive right when it starts to keep the chaos down a little until I get used to it.

    I'm glad you enjoyed my observations about communication.

  5. I love Twitter because I can't follow over a hundred blogs easily in my reader, but a hundred twitters makes life easy. Connection is quick, easy, and pithy. Plus it's the bar-none easiest way to share good links. :grins:

    But chats have floored me. I couldn't follow one if my life depended on it. Have simply avoided the crazy pingpong chamber.

    But Juliette, I didn't know you HAD a twitter! I've been hunting and hunting to see if you did, but never saw one. Can we follow you?

  6. Megs, my Twitter handle is JulietteWade.

    I think my statement about price for texts was more relevant at the inception of this technology - but I do think that had influence on the way people communicated (and continues to have such influence).

    Twitter for me was much less easy to follow than a chatroom discussion such as the ones I had with your group. The major issue is lack of continuity. In your chatroom, the operating assumption was that everyone had come to talk to me, or at least that we were all contributing to the same conversation. This meant that all contributions were interpreted as turns in one joint venture. In the Twitter chat, there was no such unifying assumption. People rarely were replied to; I was only replied to twice in twenty minutes. I never witnessed an exchange between people that lasted for more than three turns. If I wanted to continue to contribute, as opposed to just lurking, I had either to latch onto another conversation, or as often as not, to come up with topic-initiating turns of my own which would usually not be taken up by anyone.

    I hope that gives you a sense of the difference.