Microblogging: the graffiti of cyberspace?

13.05.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
The FatDUX site is overdue for an overhaul. Microblogging will be one of the new features. Our Duckmaster, Andrea Resmini, has asked that I work out some guidelines for the FatDUX family.

As practiced today, I think microblogging is being abused by self-promoters and debased by people who have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say. This is a shame - microblogging has great potential as a communicative concept.

What is microblogging?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with “microblogging,” it’s based on short (max. 140 character) text messages, sent to a group of predetermined subscribers, often via a mobile phone. Twitter is the application of choice (but Jaiku, Qaiku, and Plurk are also popular). Facebook and other social networking sites have similar functionality, generally termed “status updates.”

“Eric doesn’t get it”
I’ve been accused of not understanding the value of Twitter. And perhaps my critics are justified. On the other hand, let’s not confuse my personal dislike for the way Twitter is used and for the application itself, which I think is great.

Here’s my situation – I generally keep pretty busy and don't need microblogging to combat boredom. But most “tweets” add little value to my life. For example, travel is stressful enough without having to hear folks on Twitter announce “In a taxi on the way to the airport.”, “TSA folks can be such pricks” or “My flight is delayed”.

I’m not very interested in the doings of one’s brood either: “What’s suddenly wrong with Cheerios for breakfast?” “Just picked up the kids from school”, “Little Sarah won’t go to bed.”

On the other hand, I enjoy the backchat (backchannel chatter – and I don't necessarily mean negative remarks) at conferences. This is the kind of stuff that does provide me with vicarious value. The blow-by-blow reporting from presentations-in-progress is particularly useful. (Even so, I dislike the behind-your-back sniping, “This panel just crashed and burned. I’m outta here.”)

I realize these are my own views and that other folks probably love gossipy tweets. (Hmm…did Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” just get reduced to 15 seconds?) But please give me better mechanisms to filter out the chirpchaff and give me the warblewheat. Happily, Qaiku is doing this by encouraging thread-based conversations. Twitter lags sadly behind in this regard.

Signal to noise
Let’s face it, some folks take pride in posting 5,000 - 20,000 updates (tweets) a year. But do you really want to receive all of them? Some come from twitterholics who feel the urge to make noise. Others are incorrigible self-promoters who think noise somehow equates with thought leadership. Please, work to improve your signal-to-noise ratio. The medium is NOT the message - don’t confuse the two.

There are also the self-promoters who are merely people collectors, such as actor Ashton Kutcher (first to gain a million Twitter followers). But with fairly little to say, I can’t imagine his following will last; if there is any long-term impact, it will probably be because he was able to get new users to sign up for the Twitter service. Oprah Winfrey falls kind of in the same category - I guess followers get a lift from Oprah's deep philosophical missives like "Hey tweeters, hope you're loving your Sunday as much as I am."

Twitter as a debate forum?
The news media, CNN in particular, have been good about using microblogging as a debate forum. Since many full-scale blogs are also debate fora, this activity would seem to be part of a natural evolution. (CNN competed with Kutcher in the race to 1 million followers).

The problem is that like all politically heated environments, microbloggers are already subject to bullying, online threats – and offline violence. The debate rages as to whether user-based moderation of such discussions works.

In the recent South African election, the ANC used Twitter fairly effectively as a debate forum – a good gimmick in a country where text messaging has exploded in recent years. For an excellent account of the election activities and some good discussion of the pros and cons of political twittering, check out the superb Voice Of Africa blog.

One of the more interesting points related to the limits to message size:
“But, does [Twitter] add value in this case?  Most people in South Africa are probably familiar with the ANC’s policy positions already.  A 140 character recap of the standard positions (140 characters is about 1 sentence) can’t really tell you anything deeper.”

Nevertheless, the medium does seem to lend itself nicely to discussions of current events – even on a very local level (a conference, for example).

Keep it short
Keeping messages to under 140 characters does have one key advantage: it forces people to get to the point. This assumes they actually have something to say.

The French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (of triangle fame) once remarked, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.)

If people want to be true thought leaders, my advice would be to tweet less and think more.

So, when the FatDUXlings start to microblog, our guidelines will be simple: say something relevant to our fields of interest, say it gracefully, say it in as few words as possible. And stop.

Don’t tweet when you’re mad or drunk or…
At a conference recently, someone Twittered “I think Eric Reiss just lied to me during his presentation.” Since I hadn’t lied, I was momentarily offended by this tweetshot until I realized it was juvenile self-promotion. But, I’m both thick-skinned and ethical, which helps me ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous Twitterers.

Rule Number One of Twittering: Don’t tweet when you’re mad, drunk, or under the influence of your own ego. Stupid comments live forever. And although microblogging can be fantastic, reducing this elegant concept to that of mere electronic graffiti is truly a waste.

Diamonds…and tweets…are forever
Here are some publicly available musings:

“On April 19th, I made bread.”

“XX got me pregnant.”

Today, almost identical comments can be found in two places: on Twitter and the walls of Pompeii. (the name of the purported father-to-be changed from Atimetus to Dave.)

Caveat Twitterati: you never know when or by whom your musings will be seen. So say something worthwhile.


Graffiti at Pompeii.

A visit to the Reichstag in Berlin
Sir Norman Foster, the British architect, reworked the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin, which reopened in 1999. It had been abandoned since 1933 - the Nazis burned it as an excuse to arrest Communists and other political opponents.

After the Battle of Berlin in April/May 1945, Soviet soldiers “decorated” the surviving walls of the burned and bombed hulk. Sir Norman felt the graffiti was significant in terms of the building’s history and preserved it (after translators censored the obscene comments).

Twitteren erwachen: do you want to go down in history as a social commentator or as a vandal? Stealing my time is vandalism.


Graffiti at the Reichstag.

A visit to Charlottenlund Station outside Copenhagen
The train station in Charlottenlund, Denmark, just north of Copenhagen, features a lot of graffiti. Not gang-tags or spray-painted innertube script. Rather, these are names and dates written in pencil, which have surprisingly survived for many decades.

Charlottenlund Station in Denmark, built in 1895.


Graffiti at Charlottenlund Station


Ms. Nielsen's message has survived an entire century.

In the last photo, you’ll see a young lady’s tag from October 1909. It is slightly obscured by a modern billboard. In a few weeks, the advertisement will have changed. But Ms. Nielsen’s tag will live on. I wonder if she could have imagined that her spontaneous scrawl would survive an entire century? Or be blogbeamed around the world?

Twitter-folk: if you want your name to live forever, choose a resilient medium. Although pencil on brick sometimes works, ideas are truly immortal.

More ideas, please.