Thursday, July 16, 2009

... or not to twitter

A research note written by Matthew Robson, a 15-year-old Morgan Stanley intern, that described his friends' media habits has generated a flurry of interest from media executives and investors. There are many reported observations about how teenagers make use of various media. with all the flurry about twitter, the most explosive point was that Robson observed that his peers regard twitter as "pointless". (see e.g.

In terms of media consumption we live in an economy of attention (see e.g. and it turns out that twitter as a medium fares low in this system, while -until now- the company that runs it was "hot stuff". Probably no longer.

To me, the hype and fall of twitter is yet another example of disregard of patterns of social interaction. Does anybody remember "Second Life"? The way we conduct science is a real world social network, too. It has its own economy of attention (i.e. citation) and its interactions among network members are governed by trust. Therefore, any Web 2.0 approach to science must be in line with the cultural practices of the community it is designed to serve. Otherwise it will fail. Or, as I said at the AGU Fall Meeting 2007: "Beware of Geeks bearing gifts".

PhD Comic recently featured two nice comic strips on Web 2.0 in science:
To Tweet or not to Tweet
If research papers had a comment section

Enjoy! And get a FirstLife first. ;-)


Rod Page said...

The funniest thing about this story is that people take the comments of one 15 year old as seriously as they do. It suggests most media companies have not the faintest clue as to what is going on. As for Twitter, the Guardian article notes:

"Teenagers do not use Twitter," he wrote. "Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting Twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit). They realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless."

Note the emphasis on the cost of texts. This is an issue for cash-strapped teenagers using phones, but many Twitter uses will use their computer, or wifi-enabled device (such as an iPhone), hence this argument won't apply. Note also the emphasis on contacting friends. Teenagers are more focussed on their immediate social circle, hence a broadcast medium such as Twitter is likely to be less useful.

Personally, Twitter has become my major source of news on trends in computing, social media, and even major world events. I follow a wide range of people, and learn a lot. It's also a great forum for debates (some of the most interesting one are those between people that I follow).

The cliche is that Twitter is narcism ("look at me, this is what I'm doing"). The fact that a 15 year-old doesn't "get it" suggests that, actually, Twitter isn't so much about narcism. It's about being interested in what other people are doing. That's something very different.

Jim said...

Agree absolutely with Rod on this. To much surprise, Twitter has overtaken email lists and rss as the primary source of meaningful communication on new and developing trends in my fields of technical interest, with an added layer of immediate personal social connection. Used as an opt-in broadcast medium with others who 'get it', twitter has increased the inward flow of relevant information and contextual awareness by at least an order of magnitude. I elect to follow people who are interested in the same things that I am and they let me know what they are doing, what they are thinking and what they have found. It is like a team of people doing your background research for you.

This is not without its downside - I now have to run flat out to keep up with the collective thought.

Twitter is immediate and transient. But so is a conversation at a conference. Twitter colleagues let each other know where they think the action is. What to do with this information is up to us as individuals.

Twitter has a place in my internet arsenal not to let people know what is going on in my life (which, like most other people's, is crushingly mundane, actually) but to find out what is going on in theirs, and to let them know that I think of it.

[full disclosure: I follow @rdmpage and a bunch of other eccentric biodiversity informatics 'geeks who get it'.]

Tim Entwisle said...

All of the above it true but it’s a little bit too conversational to work perfectly for me at the moment. A little too much ‘how was your weekend’ (even in a scientific context). That’s all fine but it’s not my natural state on or off the web.

I get some music stuff from US public radio, some daily trivia interspersed with gems from someone like Henry Gee and of course unadulterated wisdom from the likes of Dr Croft, but the noise is almost too much. With podcasts and surfing I can find what I want when I want, but twit chatter is difficult, for me.

Not saying it doesn’t work, just that it works better if you are a social scientist (i.e. a scientist who is social rather than a ‘social scientist’…).

So how to solve? Dunno. I agree it opens up whole new ways to communicate actively and interactively, but as it flourishes, how do I filter out the junk mail or more importantly the interesting but stuff I don’t have time for. I know that’s part of the appeal and I can pick and chose, but it only works, just, because I follow very few people and don’t post much myself.

It works best with alerts to ideas and connections to websites but I wouldn’t risk following too many people – I just don’t have that trust and that time.

That all said, it might work better if colleagues in my area of direct research interest (e.g. systematics of freshwater red algae) opted-in and we could chat actively on matters of world importance (i.e. freshwater red algae…). I’d love to separate it off the other stuff I’m enjoying following and I know I can do that with #, which is fun for a while….maybe I just need to get it more.