Friday, June 17, 2011

Twitter, I am.

Part 1

Reading time ~ 15 minutes
(A non-chronological sequence is this)
Not too long ago, I said something funny to my audience of one. Then the thought of bettering my dues in laughs pulled me to Twitter. I opened an account. My remark is now saved virtually, in my favorites. But not before Twitter-I-am1 came knocking, looking for me.

Twitter is not the trend at the walls where our holes are. There is some disdain. What? Something wrong with you? is the look one can get at the mention of a Twitter account. It is quite natural. Why, the sun shines everyday. And most of our i's and t's have well-laid avenues and pavements for the dots and crosses. The air is crisp and drinking water is from a spring.  We have no need to expend extra excitable energy in the virtual world.
So I went back to my audience of one, praised Twitter and viola! the husbn had an account and I had a follower. It took some convincing though. Convincing myself. Twitter-I-am had to come knocking again.

  Would you like to tweet
    in a house?
     Would you like to tweet
       with a mouse?

First, I followed some organizations, columnists and people reporting on politics, arts, sports, cultural satire, science and some friends. For an organization or a new person, a short trial period gave a better idea of what to expect. My timeline (where incoming tweets sit) seemed to have the full spectrum of information, refreshed constantly. Within a week there was enough information to fill my cup and a mason jar to last an entire year. I had to learn to live/tweet in the moment, each one made of 140 characters.

Twitter is happy haunt in circles tied with a common interest. School, mountaineering, entertainment industry, sports, news, bodybuilding, social commentary, philanthropy, quail-egg counting and so many more, like stars in the sky. Apart from basic communication, the general aim in a tweet is to say something profound, funny, silly, sarcastic, wise, smart and the list goes on. The followers of a person can Retweet (RT – resend a tweet to their followers) and the loop continues. 

(The following is a conversation between the animated, 2ft tall Twitter-I-am and myself)
                     That Twitter-I-am
                     I do not like that Twitter-I-am.
         Would you like to be on Twitter?
                     I do not like it, Twitter-I-am
                     I do not want to be on Twitter.
 (Twitter-I-am runs off and comes back)
         Will you like it Here or There?
                    I would not like it here or there
                    I would not like it anywhere
                    I do not like Twitter, Twitter-I-am
                    I do not like it, Twitter-I-am.

Celebrity tweeters can get a sizable follower count even from the word go2. We feel like we are part of their success just by following.

Consider CR7:
578 Tweets - 51 Following - 3,254,395 Followers – 34,718 Lists
His tweets are no sweat- Hala Madrid!, Match tomorrow, Good Game today, Watch us today....  He doesn't really need to do anything more, his talking is on the field. For one Hala Madrid! he got a few thousand Likes on his Facebook linked to Twitter.  Interesting.

Stephen Colbert. His numbers are:
1679 Tweets – 0 Following – 2,393,338 Followers – 41,046 Lists
He follows nobody. How funny.  Colbert received the Golden Tweet Award for 2010 (For a Tweet most Retweeted within a time frame).  Nice.

President Obama works harder in Twitterdom (or his staff):
1,374 Tweets – 695,689 Following – 8,678,662 Followers – 145,530 Lists
He follows so many people? Say, if an upstart warlord in Ghazni starts following him, is he obliged to follow back?
Celebrity Twitter avatars however are one-way streets. Their tweets are usually outgoing. Response to incoming tweets is limited and understandably so. Their Twitter use is more like mass emailing.
    You may like it.
      You will see.
        You may like it
          in a tree!

The 140 character limitation sets Twitter apart: the social interaction is set in a pulse mode. But the heart of Twitter lies in the followers. If a person has a small group of well-meaning followers and they are networked (they follow each other to a degree), we then have a system that creates an interesting audience voice. Any conversation one has with another can be followed by all others who follow both, in real-time or otherwise. To add to it, anyone can chirp in.

Doesn't this feel like the culmination for civilization? An audience for everything! Our egos desire acceptance, praise and all such glorious perks and here is an audience for any idea, banter or witticism however trivial or thoughtful it may be. The audience echo can turn drivel into wisdom and lack of the echo can make dust of either. We can take our audience with us wherever we go. We are the heroines and heroes of stories of our making. Move over, reality shows and staid entertainment.

But there is a catch. The nature of virtual communication is inherently limited, especially if the other person is known only via Twitter. We only have the typed words and the mood that the typed words convey with the contextual history of the person and the topic. The complexity inherent in non-verbal interaction as in face to face communication is absent, as is the full range of possibilities in feelings, from glee to grief.
Then there is the attention span: using a small screen size of a gadget on the go can constrain extent of focus. The 140 character limitation goes both ways, while it discourages a discourse, it forces succinctness. Lastly but most importantly, there can be a loss of mindfulness in daily living if our thoughts are occupied by what to say in the next tweet, propelled by the desire to feed and be fed by the Twitter audience. 
These are not entirely new issues. Addiction to the high of something intoxicating has always been with us and self regulation is still the mantra (along with lifestyle and genes).

My DP (display picture) is where my picture gets displayed. For all to see. Ayyo! I wanted a real photo, not a cartoon or anonymity. I felt having my picture can help being just me, especially in a high wit and information flux zone as a Twitter-field.
I could not settle on a DP and even on a handle ID (account name). Too many choices, too much Gemini (...not!). Expectations were off.  For example, I expected Seth Meyers to respond with a Thank You to my tweet that he did well at the White House Correspondents Dinner.  

According to Wikipedia3, Twitter Inc., a private company for mobile social networking was founded in 2006 and is headquartered at 795 Folsom Street, San Francisco, Ca. It now has 450 employees.
One of the co-founders is Jack Dorsey, born in 1976 and brought up in St. Louis, Missouri. Dorsey mentioned he had the basic idea of Twitter while writing computer programs for taxis, couriers and 911 while working for a dispatch company during his schooling at NYU. Much later, he introduced the idea of using SMS to communicate with a small group during a day-long brainstorming session held at a playground. Issac Stone, a co-founder and Jack Dorsey apparently wrote Twitter's prototype in two weeks.
Evan Williams, a co-founder, was earlier involved with Blogger, which was bought by Google in 2003. The terms blogger and blog were devised by him. Listed as a businessman, Evan Williams grew up in a farm in Nebraska. He left the University of Nebraska after a year and a half to pursue a career. Noah Glass, an entrepreneur, was revealed as another key figure in the creation of Twitter.

A major break was in 2007, during the South by Southwest festival (a music and film festival, spread over a few days) in Austin, Texas. Plasma boards were setup and guests used Twitter to communicate with each other. The user range increased from 20,000 to 60,000 tweets/day during the event.
The company started selling ads in mid 2010 and generated an annual revenue of $45 million. Twitter's valuation following selling of some shares in March 2011 was at $7.8 billion. An IPO is expected sometime in the next few years.
An estimated number of 65 million tweets are generated by 200 million users everyday. User retention rate was estimated at 40%.

    You do not like it
      So you say
        Try it! Try it!
          And you may.
           Try it and you may, I say

               If you will let me be,
                 I will try it
                  You will see.

Two days after I opened my account I had a second follower. A stranger. I went in to see who it was and realized to my dismay that the follower had an agenda. He was from marketing&sales and most likely expected me to follow him back. Other than that he could not have been interested in my tweets. Sorry, Jose, I don't need to shop. It turned out that many come that way, though their camping time varies.
Public Radio International became a mutual follower (they followed me back). It is very heartwarming to see PRI's DP on the screen and I don't want to ever unfollow. Sometimes I feel like it though, when the tweet levels increase. But I don't want to get a call from Ira Glass asking why I unfollowed PRI. I would love a call from him anytime but not for a misdemeanor. 

The statistics of Twitter users are interesting. Wikipedia3 cites from a number of sources the following- New York City has the highest number of Twitter users, 5% of Twitter users account for 75% of all activity (Sysomos, 2009), women use Twitter more than men and so on.
San Antonio based market-research firm Pear Analytics analyzed 2,000 tweets over a two-week period in August 2009 into:
  • Pointless babble – 40%
  • Conversational – 38%
  • Pass-along value – 9%
  • Self-promotion – 6%
  • Spam – 4%
  • News – 4%
Pointless babble was re-termed as social grooming by Danah Boyd, a social networking researcher.  Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet law at Harvard said (and I concur) that “The qualities that make Twitter so inane and half-baked are what make it so powerful”. Social impact studies are underway (see Part 2).

Consider this tweet or a micro-blog: Today my cereal is crunchy
Depending on context, the above tweet can be considered pedestrian or philosophical. Context rules over content. Trite or Tao. Your choice...

While the statistics above are interesting, I will ask another question  -
Who would most likely not use Twitter? And why?

One would not be interested in Twitter if there is no pressing need to take a business/marketing/sales agenda to a larger base. Then there are those who are not in the need or not able to seek out a virtual group for interaction. For example, if a woman comes home to a evening of beer&TV after working 7-4 in a taxing construction job or the farm, or a man comes home to children, homework and dinner after working 8-5 in an office, he and she can possibly have no space left or the need to seek a virtual audience. Their energies have been challenged for the day and the evening is the time to slowly wind down. Even otherwise, a person may have a personally rich life: work, family, social and spiritual that gives fulfillment enough to not seek a virtual audience.
There are also people with no access to wireless, with bare or no literacy skills, or busy making ends meet while handling 2-3 part-time jobs, in poverty or even homeless. They are rooted in the real world.
Lastly there is the matter of privacy. If unprotected, our tweets are visible to all. Even though they can be deleted from our end and we can close our account, privacy may be an issue for some.

Overall, in any location, when three qualities- Access, Literacy and Personal Need for a virtual audience are all high, Twitter user rate can be high.  The point I take away is that a certain section of us are most likely to use Twitter. The cross-section of this likely-Tweeter group has many similarities: mostly urban or urbanized suburban, educated, above average moneyed, with time and energy to want to spare.  The locations and cultural backdrops vary.

At the end of the day, however, I would prefer a conversation with a like-minded friend or the occasional stranger in a sunny living room, rather than Tweet. Why then, are you on Twitter, you may ask. The quick answer is perhaps in the adventure and curiosity for information 140 characters at a time. There is no time to suit up in layers. One has to say what one means.
But honestly I really don't know, it is more like this- Twitter is new for me. So I got into the pool. Or was it the work of Twitter-I-am?

   I like Twitter
    I think I like it, Twitter-I-am
     And I would tweet in a boat.
      And I would tweet with a goat....

         I will tweet almost ANYWHERE
           I do like Twitter, for now for sure
            Thank you,
              Thank you,

  1. Twitter-I-am is a character based on Sam-I-am of Green Eggs and Ham of Dr. Seuss.
  2. The Twitter data is as of June, 2011 
  3. Twitter on Wikipedia 

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