Saturday, March 07, 2009

Crossing The Streams of Online Culture

When Twitter started getting noticed, I got an account. No idea what it was really for and what to do with it, I just didn't get it, but it was hot and it was there and now I had signed up. I decided I would be a modern day Jenny Holzer instead, except I could never think of anything as deep to say (and that is saying something) and besides, she has her own Twitter feed already. Twitter's IM gateway still worked so it would nudge me to update, and since I would never be at my desk my IM would respond with my IM away message, which therefore got tweeted a number of times early on until I shut that off. Yeah, I didn't exactly ramp up the followers with that.

I also had a personal blog, and quickly decided that making my readers have to follow me in two places was just not what I wanted. I auto-post my flickr feed onto my blog, so why not my Twitter feed too? After all, it was all my stuff, right? I didn't like any of the tools to crosspost Twitter onto blogs, so I rolled my own at the end of 2007, AutoPostBot, just for me, (and jokingly defined Web 3.0 in its manifesto). I wasn't sure if I was hurting my blog community (which in this case is very tight-knit, almost insular) with these very short updates that were so different from the long-form updates blog communities are used to -- other bloggers posted very short updates to their blogs too after all -- but bloggers in that community were already complaining about Twitter gateways like LoudTweet.

The problem I had with Twitter was its lack of dialog. It seemed so one-way, a tweet, with no way to comment or respond to them, and thus very unsatisfying. My re-posted Tweets actually got comments on my blog, just like every other entry, so clearly people wanted to talk about these updates. Humans like to talk to each other, not just shout into the larger voids (unless they actually are Jenny Holzer). So of course the Twitter community created its own dialog style with the @ tweets and topcis with # keywords to create structure, and thus the tweets themselves became a dialog with threads. The website supported it, and suddenly Twitter clicked for me: it was one big 140-character chaotic chat party, with the odd celebrity thrown in to converge around, that one could use to get some attention and give some props.

Getting deeper into Twitter culture meant that my Tweets were becoming more tailored towards Twitter culture in a way I cannot define, but saw happen. Suddenly having them appear in my personal journal made those entries seem disembodied and off. Even though AutoPostBot did not repost @ Tweets -- those are tweets directed to someone else -- and only reposted my general tweets, I started using # keywords and abbreviations that made them look really off in my standard journal that did not have 140 character constraints. Kinda stupid, actually.

I learned from this that to manage your own personal feed reader to be a mix of different streams and dialog groups and cultures for yourself to follow is do-able, but creating your public feed to be such a mix makes it difficult for the readers of that feed to keep track of who will say and see what and where, who people are, and why you are writing like you do. The narrative of the feed becomes very disjointed with regards to the primal human need to communicate and socialize. We tailor how we listen and talk to the medium we are using and who expect to be participating as well, after all. Putting the odd picture on my blog from Flickr is not a big issue, but grabbing an outtake from a whole other set of conversations and only showing my side during another public conversation, well, it turned out for my readers to be veering into the territory of having to sit next to someone talking into a mobile phone on a bus. ("Uh huh. Uh huh. Like, so, like, she used the big knife? Uh huh. She clean up the blood, right? Uh huh. Uh huh.") You sign up for that experience when you follow people on Twitter, and Twitter makes it easy to follow the @ comments to see who the tweet response is too. But readers of my personal blog did not sign up for that kind of conversation.

I shut down AutoPostBot, and shelved all plans to develop it further. I did keep Facebook set to repost my Tweets as Facebook status updates, and that works just fine: the format is also very short for status updates just like Tweets, the gateway does not repost @tweets in Facebook so only stand-alone Tweets get shown, they are exactly what people expect from a status update, they still get to comment, and the stream of updates go so fast that a tweet quickly moves from view. Some dialogs cross well.

PS: @blinker : you are just too kind.