One of the better analogies I've ever heard for Twitter is that it's like a really crowded party: there are lots of conversations going on at any one time, and just like at a party one can casually listen in on a number of them simultaneously and choose to engage those that are most interesting. I've been trying to execute that metaphor for the last year or so, gradually following more and more people and accepting that there will be important stuff that I miss as a result. The upside is that I get exposed to more interesting stuff than I might otherwise find. But upon reflection, most of the "interesting stuff" I've been seeing on Twitter is largely ephemera: small time wasters that entertain me for a minute or two, and then fade away forever.
Since my first tweet in late 2007, I have made a pretty conscious choice to limit the number of people I follow on Twitter. I only have so much capacity each day to read what's happening in the world, and the more people I follow the less I can consume from any of them. I regularly stop following people who get really tedious or simply tweet so much as to dominate my feed. And I've resolved for 2012 to further reduce the number of people I follow.
I've decided to retire from the "crowded party" and instead focus on the people about which I really care, or at least those people who have things to say that affect my life. I already have plenty of ephemera in my life (anyone reading Boing Boing has enough ephemera to keep them busy all week long!), so I don't really need to be exposed to more.
Whereas Owen has decided to abandon Twitter, I've purged many from the list of people I follow on Twitter down this morning, and will likely reduce it even further in the days ahead. For the time being, I've elected to keep following a few "noisy" people (Cory Doctorow and William Gibson being the most prolific) because I do get some interesting news of the world from these folks.
This may well reduce the overall utility of Twitter, but I hope that it will improve my sense of connectedness to the people about which I care.
While chatting some time ago with John about high school, I slipped into bitter old man mode for a bit, and railed against FaceSpace and MyBook because they make it too easy to "friend" people online who you might never be friends with in the real world. Surprisingly, this got me thinking about high school reunions. I submit to you that reunions are less relevant today because the kids all have their FaceSpace and MyBook and eleventy billion other social networks, so the graduating class has a much easier time staying informed and connected. The purpose of the high school reunion is to catch up with folks you might not have seen for the last five years. Reunions are an old-school social network, allowing you the opportunity to create new bonds, or find new connections, with people. That opportunity is now being satisfied by new tools. Now the only reason to go to a reunion is to see who got fat. Maybe that was always the reason, anyway. I don't know.
Similarly, John reminisced about the underground newspaper I wrote in high school. I was ultimately expelled for this. I wonder if the kids today would take the time and effort to distribute an underground newspapers through a school. With the increase in easy communication, things like underground newspapers become less relevant. Instead, we're more likely to see unsanctioned reactionary blogs and forums; not to mention an explosion of private direct communication through text messaging and email. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; though I do think kids are missing out by being subversive only online. There's a real thrill to producing and distributing a physical paper as your voice of complaint against the system! To sit in your room and do it all online removes some of the visceral reward.
There is, however, a subtle benefit to the explosion of world-wide communications available to kids today: their sense of community and belonging can easily be greatly expanded. When I was in high school, the population of the school was, for the most part, my community. I didn't have a lot of friends at other schools; most of the kids in my neighborhood went to my school; and I didn't participate in many activities that introduced me to too many new people.
In middle school I was a frequent participant on local BBSes, a few of which were connected upstream to various networks, so I had a glimpse of what it was like to communicate and interact with like-minded folks far away from me. So I grew up taking it for granted that there were people elsewhere in the world who shared my interests and passions, and that I could exchange ideas with them without too much effort. The kids today can easily find online communities that share their interests and passions, and I should hope that that helps alleviate some of the feelings of isolation and exclusion that were all too commonly associated with high school.
Of course, as we all integrate Internet technologies into our daily lives in more and more ways, the Internet stops being a thing we consciously use, and becomes merely a conduit for other activities. I can remember a time -- not all that long ago -- when "getting on the Internet" was a big deal: a task unto itself. It required configuring a SLIP or PPP connection, fiddling with WinSock settings, and a host of other things. Once online, there was always a purpose -- a task -- that directed my actions. Even the now-trivial act of downloading drivers was a big deal. It was a kind of freedom, access to a wealth of information that was in some ways intoxicating. Now we don't think twice about the fact that our computers connect to some server somewhere to automatically fetch the latest driver. We don't marvel at the staggering amount of information available to us.
Instead, we engage in flame wars, post bizarre photos (and more bizarre photos), post links to crazy sites, and generally take for granted the phenomenal conveniences now afforded to us. We don't think twice about making a video call with someone across the globe. As comedian Louis CK says Everything's amazing, but nobody's happy.
As someone who sends and receives dozens of emails a day, I'm kind of fussy when it comes to email composition. I hate top-posted replies, though I've come to grips with the reality that I'm in the extreme minority. I do occasionally top-post a reply when I compose it on my phone, where the interface does not support easy inline replies. Beyond that, though, I always edit my replies to post inline.
I despise long email signatures. There's little more annoying than receiving a one line email followed by a fourteen line email signature. And don't get me started on the confidentiality messages appended to the bottom of emails sent from business accounts! Also annoying are the "sent from my [mobile phone]" email signatures. I don't care if you used your iPhone or your Blackberry to compose your message to me.
But what's really been on my mind of late are subject lines. Writing a good, meaningful subject line seems to be a lost art. One of the users I support never types a subject. Every time I get an email from him, the subject is "<No Subject>", giving me no clue whatsoever as to the relative importance of his message. He could be asking for help, or simply sharing an unrelated picture -- I have no idea until I open his message.
This works to his extreme disadvantage, of course. I often prioritize what messages I'll read in my inbox based on the subject line. If I get a couple messages at the same time, I'll skim the subject lines looking for things that need immediate attention. I'll read and address any such items. Then I'll get around to reading the "<No Subject>" messages, and dealing with them.
Another user I support often describes his entire problem to me using nothing more than the subject line. I've come to appreciate that: it helps me do my job more effectively, and I usually end up providing better, and more timely, support to him. Now if only I could get him to disable his 14 line email signature...
When sending personal emails to friends and family, I usually use a single word or short phrase to provide an indication of the message's contents. I don't want to send a "<No Subject>" message, nor do I want to communicate solely through the subject line. So I try to set the tone of the email through the subject line.
Thinking more about this issue, though, I begin to realize that I almost never use the subject of an email later. I don't browse through my email archive looking for that message with a specific title. Instead, I search for relevant keywords. Only then do I skim the subject lines of the search results to filter for what I'm looking for.
Do you use subject lines? Do you care about their contents?
I finally signed up for Twitter, though I'm not entirely sure why. I'm following on Twitter all of the people I have in my feed reader; I have a few of them as IM contacts; and I see most of them in IRC #habari most of the day, too. The best analogy for Twitter that I can think of is "asynchronous public messaging". It can be used like instant messaging, where you chat back and forth with contacts, except that it's available for everyone to see and it doesn't happen in realtime.
Some folks use Twitter to post short updates about something that they want to share that might not merit a full blog post. Other folks use Twitter to ask the same question of a group of people. For example, ringmaster asks Philly folks about where to dine: rather than send the same IM or email to all of his contacts, he can put it on Twitter and the folks who follow his Twitter account can reply as they see fit: IM, email, Twitter response, etc. Ringmaster's use of twitter is one of the best that I've seen: he has several groups of online acquaintances and he communicates with them quickly and succinctly through Twitter. I'm not sure that I'll use it nearly as aggressively or effectively, but I'll give it a shot.
Looking around, I see that there are tons of similar ways to support ad-hoc communication for various purposes. In addition to Twitter, there's Tumblr. Some folks use Flickr for quick group chats. Then there are the bigger institutions like Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, etc.
I have a blog, a Flickr account, and now a Twitter account. I'm also on several IM networks. I'm left scratching my head at why I should pursue any of these other channels for connecting with my friends. I'm not interested in meeting new people, particularly, and I'm not a compulsive signer-upper for new online services. What do these new services offer me -- the user -- that is of substantial value over what I already have?
Perhaps I'm overly skeptical: I recognize that most of these online services are commercial ventures, and their driving motivator is to earn money. Some are more commercial than others; some aren't yet as commercial as they're likely to become. Are they truly offering me a new, valuable service, or are they merely offering me something in order to make money off of me, whether that's through paid upgrades, or my eyeballs on their partner's advertisements?