Tag Archives: twitter

An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media

In the days that followed Andrew Watts’ “A Teenager’s View on Social Media written by an actual teen” post, dozens of people sent me a link. I found myself getting uncomfortable and angry by the folks who are pointing me to this. I feel the need to offer my perspective as someone who is not a teenager but who has thought about these issues extensively for years.

Almost all of them work in the tech industry and many of them are tech executives or venture capitalists. The general sentiment has been: “Look! Here’s an interesting kid who’s captured what kids these days are doing with social media!” Most don’t even ask for my interpretation, sending it to me as though it is gospel.

We’ve been down this path before. Andrew is not the first teen to speak as an “actual” teen and have his story picked up. Every few years, a (typically white male) teen with an interest in technology writes about technology among his peers on a popular tech platform and gets traction. Tons of conferences host teen panels, usually drawing on privileged teens in the community or related to the organizers. I’m not bothered by these teens’ comments; I’m bothered by the way they are interpreted and treated by the tech press and the digerati.

I’m a researcher. I’ve been studying American teens’ engagement with social media for over a decade. I wrote a book on the topic. I don’t speak on behalf of teens, but I do amplify their voices and try to make sense of the diversity of experiences teens have. I work hard to account for the biases in whose voices I have access to because I’m painfully aware that it’s hard to generalize about a population that’s roughly 16 million people strong. They are very diverse and, yet, journalists and entrepreneurs want to label them under one category and describe them as one thing.

Andrew is a very lucid writer and I completely trust his depiction of his peer group’s use of social media. He wrote a brilliant post about his life, his experiences, and his interpretations. His voice should be heard. And his candor is delightful to read. But his analysis cannot and should not be used to make claims about all teenagers. I don’t blame Andrew for this; I blame the readers — and especially tech elites and journalists — for their interpretation of Andrew’s post because they should know better by now. What he’s sharing is not indicative of all teens. More significantly, what he’s sharing reinforces existing biases in the tech industry and journalism that worry me tremendously.

His coverage of Twitter should raise a big red flag to anyone who has spent an iota of time paying attention to the news. Over the last six months, we’ve seen a phenomenal uptick in serious US-based activism by many youth in light of what took place in Ferguson. It’s hard to ignore Twitter’s role in this phenomenon, with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown not only flowing from Twitter onto other social media platforms, but also getting serious coverage from major media. Andrew’s statement that “a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter” should raise eyebrows, but it’s the rest of his description of Twitter that should serve as a stark reminder of Andrew’s position within the social media landscape.

Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background. Let me repeat that for emphasis.

Teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background.

The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth. For starters, their Twitter feed doesn’t have links; this is often shocking to journalists and digerati whose entire stream is filled with URLs. But I’m also bothered by Andrew’s depiction of Twitter users as first and foremost doing so to “complain/express themselves.” While he offers other professional categorizations, it’s hard not to read this depiction in light of what I see in low-status communities and the ways that privileged folks interpret the types of expression that exists in these communities. When black and brown teens offer their perspective on the world using the language of their community, it is often derided as a complaint or dismissed as self-expression. I doubt that Andrew is trying to make an explicitly racist comment here, but I want to caution every reader out there that critiques of youth use of Twitter are often seen in a negative light because of the heavy use by low-status black and brown youth.

Andrew’s depiction of his peers’ use of social media is a depiction of a segment of the population, notably the segment most like those in the tech industry. In other words, what the tech elite are seeing and sharing is what people like them would’ve been doing with social media X years ago. It resonates. But it is not a full portrait of today’s youth. And its uptake and interpretation by journalists and the tech elite whitewashes teens practices in deeply problematic ways.

I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m saying his story is incomplete and the incompleteness is important. His commentary on Facebook is probably the most generalizable, if we’re talking about urban and suburban American youth. Of course, his comments shouldn’t be shocking to anyone at this point (as Andrew himself points out). Somehow, though, declarations of Facebook’s lack of emotional weight with teens continues to be front page news. All that said, this does render invisible the cultural work of Facebook in rural areas and outside of the US.

Andrew is very visible about where he stands. He’s very clear about his passion for technology (and his love of blogging on Medium should be a big ole hint to anyone who missed his byline). He’s also a college student and talks about his peers as being obviously on path to college. But as readers, let’s not forget that only about half of US 19-year-olds are in college. He talks about WhatsApp being interesting when you go abroad, the practice of “going abroad” is itself privileged, with less than 1/3 of US citizens even holding passports. Furthermore, this renders invisible the ways in which many US-based youth use WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends who live outside of the US. Immigration isn’t part of his narrative.

I don’t for a second fault Andrew for not having a perspective beyond his peer group. But I do fault both the tech elite and journalists for not thinking critically through what he posted and presuming that a single person’s experience can speak on behalf of an entire generation. There’s a reason why researchers and organizations like Pew Research are doing the work that they do — they do so to make sure that we don’t forget about the populations that aren’t already in our networks. The fact that professionals prefer anecdotes from people like us over concerted efforts to understand a demographic as a whole is shameful. More importantly, it’s downright dangerous. It shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in, what gets promoted by journalists, and what gets legitimized by institutions of power. This is precisely why and how the tech industry is complicit in the increasing structural inequality that is plaguing our society.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on January 12, 2015

“Pep Rally” – a truly exogenous trending topic on Twitter

Logging onto Twitter to check out a few things quickly before running off to a homecoming football game, I couldn’t help but notice something important: “Pep Rally” was trending as a US trending topic. I immediately clicked on through and found countless teens commenting on their school pep rallies. These teens were posting about pep rallies that were happening at different schools across the east coast. The fact that teens are on Twitter still comes as a surprise to some but what surprised me about this trending topic is that it’s the first truly exogenous trending topic I’ve seen teenagers produce.

There are two types of trending topics on Twitter: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous TTs happen when a topic has a viral spread. Once it becomes a TT, everyone jumps onto it to spread it even further. So when we see a hashtag like #intenyears we know it didn’t happen naturally. It spread by a group of people until it became a TT and then off it went. Most highly visible teen participation centers on endogenous TTs. Sure, there are lots of tweens who like Justin Bieber but he trends on Twitter because people actively work to make that topic (or a related hashtag) trend. Exogenous TTs happen when everyone is talking about the same thing simultaneously, not really responding to each other or to the trending topic per say but responding to a cultural moment. This often happens when there are major new events or TV shows that are broadcasting something of great interest. For example, when Michael Jackson died, Twitter users were talking about MJ not because the topic was hott on Twitter but because it was simply of great public interest. Same with teens responding to events happening at the Teen Choice Awards.

So then why am I so enamored with “pep rally” as a trending topic? It’s Friday in the middle of October. A lot of high schools will have homecoming games tonight. Whenever there’s a homecoming game in the States (and often for other games too), there are pep rallies at the end of the school day. Schools typically let out around 2.30PM. So around 3PM, I login to Twitter and voila, Pep Rally is a trending topic. Click on through and there are thousands of teens from all over the east coast (because time zones haven’t shifted yet) talking about having just gotten out of the pep rally. Some were talking about it being lame; others were talking about it being awesome. But they weren’t talking about the same pep rally. They were talking about their individual schools’ pep rallies. Collectively, many teenagers are experiencing pep rallies right now, but it’s not the same event that they’re experiencing. They’re talking about pep rallies, but what they’re referring to isn’t a shared event. Collectively, their discussions are trending. It’s a fascinating exogenous trending topic that isn’t even about the same event but rather about an activity that teens across EST (and now CST) are experiencing simultaneously but not coherently. Thus, the TT is more about marking a pattern of day (like “good night”) than a particular event. And, in this case, an event that is wholly teen-centric. And now, as I finish this post, I can see the pep rallies finish in CST and start in MST. Amazing. And delightful.

OK… enough talking about pep rallies. It’s time to go get ready for the homecoming games of the night. Hopefully I’ll wear the right colors this time. (I’m really not good at color coordinating for football games.)

spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective

Last week, I gave a talk at Web2.0 Expo. From my perspective, I did a dreadful job at delivering my message. Yet, the context around my talk sparked a broad conversation about the implications of turning the backchannel into part of the frontchannel. In the last week, I’ve seen all sorts of blog posts and tweets and news articles about what went down. At this point, the sting has worn off and I feel that it would be responsible to offer my own perspective of what happened.

First, context. Web2.0 Expo is an expensive conference filled with all sorts of webby types, entrepreneurs, and business folks interested in technological development. It’s a conference known for great talks by high profile people. Most of the talks are pretty conversational in nature – there are plenty of staged interviews and casual presentations.

Because of the high profile nature of Web2.0 Expo, I decided to write a brand new talk. Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again. Of course, the stump speech is much more fluid, much more guaranteed. But new talks force folks to think differently and guarantee that I target those who hear me talk often and those who have never seen me talk before.

A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn’t actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn’t look like I’m reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn’t going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I’ve learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn’t know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn’t get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn’t know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the “audience” was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.

Now, normally, I get into a flow with my talks after about 2 minutes. The first two minutes are usually painfully rushed and have no rhythm as I work out my nerves, but then I start to flow. I’ve adjusted to this over the years by giving myself 2 minutes of fluff text to begin with, content that sets the stage but can be ignored. And then once I’m into a talk, I gel with the audience. But this assumes one critical thing: that I can see the audience. I’m used to audiences who are staring at their laptops, but I’m not used to being completely blinded.

Well, I started out rough, but I was also totally off-kilter. And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn’t even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with. I didn’t know what was going on but I kept hearing sounds that made it very clear that something was happening behind me that was the focus of everyone’s attention. The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way. Rather than the audience pushing me to become a better speaker, it was pushing me to get worse. I hated the audience. I hated myself. I hated the situation. I wanted off. And so I talked through my talk, finishing greater than 2 minutes ahead of schedule because all I wanted was to be finished. And then I felt guilty so I made shit up for a whole minute and left the stage with 1 minute to spare.

I walked off stage and immediately went to Brady and asked what on earth was happening. And he gave me a brief rundown. The Twitter stream was initially upset that I was talking too fast. My first response to this was: OMG, seriously? That was it? Cuz that’s not how I read the situation on stage. So rather than getting through to me that I should slow down, I was hearing the audience as saying that I sucked. And responding the exact opposite way the audience wanted me to. This pushed the audience to actually start critiquing me in the way that I was imagining it was. And as Brady went on, he said that it started to get really rude so they pulled it to figure out what to do. But this distracted the audience and explains one set of outbursts that I didn’t understand from the stage. And then they put it back up and people immediately started swearing. More outbursts and laughter. The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me.

Yes, I cried. Yes, I left Web2.0 Expo devastated. I hate giving a bad talk but I also felt like I was being laughed at. People tried to smooth it over, to tell me that I was OK, that it wouldn’t matter, that they liked the talk. But no amount of niceness from friends or strangers could make up for the 20 minutes in which I was misinterpreting the audience and berating myself. Nothing the audience could say could make up for what I was thinking about myself while on stage. So I went for a massage. And I spent 90 minutes trying to tell myself that I am a lovable creature. And when that wasn’t working, I told myself to suck it up and deal. I knew that if I could convince myself to look like everything was OK that eventually I would believe it. Or at least that it would all go away.

Being on stage involves raw emotions. I have never gotten over the rawness of it all. I no longer vomit before every talk (although I used to) but my stomach does try to do the macarena. Or, more likely, the ridiculous dance done by 80s hair bands as they thrash about. I can’t eat before I give a talk. And I visit the bathroom a bazillion times. Even when I’m brilliant on stage, I’m nervous as hell. But it’s also emotionally and physically exhausting. I walk off the stage high as a kite and then, two hours later, crash. Giving talks drains me. It’s brutal to try to publicly convey information, to be the center of attention. I much much much prefer to be the one observing than the one speaking. But I feel like giving talks is important. So I speak. But it ain’t easy. And so when I walk off a stage not feeling invigorated, all I get is the raw drain, the gut-wrenching, nauseating feeling of pure misery. 20 minutes of being punched in the face, kicked in the stomach, and the shameful sensations one gets when one is forced to watch a Lars von Trier film. That’s how I felt at Web2.0 Expo.

So…. the Backchannel?

Now that you’ve been forced to read my inner neuroses on public display, let’s talk about making the backchannel the frontchannel. First off, let’s be clear: I could not and did not see the Twitter stream from stage. Nothing was conveyed to me until the end. The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself. Lots of folks have talked about making the stream available to the speaker. Have any of you seen ustream? This is filled with “speakers” reading the stream and it’s very choppy. There’s no way that a speaker can simultaneously consume a stream and convey a message. Sure, a message every 30 seconds or so, no problem. But a stream? No way. And certainly not a long message… and, on stage, 140 characters is long.

Let me highlight a comment that Dan from HonestlyKid.net left on my blog earlier this week:

It seems that the more subtle the speaker’s point, the more impatient and nasty the audience became. While it’s easy enough to blame the new tech in the room for this shoddy behavior, I’m not sure we’re seeing anything new at all here. It certainly didn’t feel new to me from where I sat. Consider the recent Town Hall meetings around health care – substantive discussions of important issues were subsumed in cat calls and shouted rumors.

That said, having participated in this bad behavior, I noticed something else about the way it felt to put something on that wall. The twitterwall subverted twitter’s more symmetric conversation model of communication. Posting to the wall was like creating and sharing a public secret about the speaker (a little like political grafiti except it wasn’t anonymous).

The wall made a spectacle of the crowd’s impatience and anxiety feeding on the speaker’s inability to respond. That spectacle united us not as a single group receiving challenging ideas from a thoughtful orator but as quite separate individuals struggling to listen, read, respond, and make sense of the event. We moved from web conference to twitter circus.

I think that Dan nailed it. I think that the backchannel is perfectly reasonable as a frontchannel when the speaker is trying to entertain, but when the goal is to convey something with depth, it encourages people to be impatient and frustrated, to feed on the speaker. There’s a least common denominator element to it. I was not at Web2.0 Expo to entertain, but to inform. Yes, I can be an entertaining informant, but there’s a huge gap between the kind of information that Baratunde tries to convey in his comedic format and what I’m trying to convey in a more standard one. And there’s no doubt I packed too much information into a 20 minute talk, but my role is fundamentally to challenge audiences to think. That’s the whole point of bringing a scholar to the stage. But if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over.

The problem with a public-facing Twitter stream in events like this is that it FORCES the audience to pay attention the backchannel. So even audience members who want to focus on the content get distracted. Most folks can’t multitask that well. And even if I had been slower and less dense, my talks are notoriously too content-filled to make multi-tasking possible for the multi-tasking challenged. This is precisely why I use very simplistic slides that evokes images for the visual types in the room without adding another layer of content. But the Twitter stream fundamentally adds another layer of content that the audience can’t ignore, that I can’t control. And that I cannot even see.

Now, I’m AOK with not having complete control of the audience during a talk, but it requires a fundamentally different kind of talk. That was not what I prepared for at all. Had I known about the Twitter stream, I would’ve given a more pop-y talk that would’ve bored anyone who has heard me speak before and provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information for folks to chew on. It would’ve been funny and quotable but it wouldn’t have been content-wise memorable. Perhaps that would’ve made more sense? Realistically though, those kinds of talks bore me at this point. So I probably would’ve opted not to give a talk at all. Perhaps I’m not the kind of speaker you want if you want a Twitter stream? But regardless, what I do know is that certain kinds of talks do not lend themselves to that kind of dynamic. I would *NEVER* have given my talk on race and class in such a setting. I shudder to think about how the racist language people used when I gave that talk would’ve been perceived on the big screen.

Speaking of which… what’s with the folks who think it’s cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny… if you’re 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

Now, I don’t mind being critiqued. I think that being a public figure automatically involves that. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years, but there are still things that get to me. And the situation at Web2.0 Expo was one of those. Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it’s not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that’s what public speaking is going to be like, I’m out.

I don’t want to be objectified when I’m speaking – either as a talking head or a sexual toy. I want to inspire, to invite you to think, to spark creative thoughts in your head. At Web2.0 Expo, I failed. And I failed publicly. I’m still licking my wounds. But I can take the fall. I can’t take the idea that this is the future.

So I have a favor to ask… I am going to be giving a bunch of public speaking performances at web conferences in the next couple of months: Supernova and Le Web in December, SXSW in March, WWW in April. I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I’m ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don’t want to listen, fine, don’t. But please don’t distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form. Maybe that’s too much to ask for, but really, I need to feel like it’s worth it again.

For those looking for the text of my Web2.0 Expo talk, it’s here: “Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media.”

Some thoughts on Twitter vs. Facebook Status Updates

The functional act of constructing a tweet or a status update is very similar. Produce text in roughly 140 characters or less inside a single line text box and click a button. Voila! Even the stream based ways in which the text gets consumed look awfully similar. Yet, the more I talk with people engaged in practices around Twitter and Facebook, the more I’m convinced these two things are not actually the same practice. Why? Audience.

There are two critical structural differences between Facebook and Twitter that are essential to understand before discussing the practices: 1) social graph directionality; 2) conversational mechanisms.

Facebook’s social graph is undirected. What this means is that if I want to be Friends with you on Facebook, you have to agree that we are indeed Friends. Reciprocity is an essential cultural practice in Facebook (although they are trying to rip out the functional requirement as it relates to status updates, arguably to compete with Twitter). Twitter, on the other hand, is fundamentally set up to support directionality. I can follow you without you following me. Sure, I can’t DM you in this case, but I’m still consuming your updates. Yes, yes, yes, privacy settings complicate both of these statements. But for the majority of users of each site, this is the way it goes. Stemming from this are a whole lot of social norms about who’s following who and who’s consuming who’s content. It’s pretty clear that the Celebrity will get followed without reciprocating on Twitter, but there’s also a tremendous opportunity for everyday individuals to develop a following. It’s not just the Celebrities who are following different people than the people who follow them; it’s nearly everyone (except for those who think that auto-follow bots relieve social tensions).

On Facebook, status updates are placed on one’s Wall. This allows anyone else (among those with permission) to comment on the update. This creates a conversational space as it is quite common for people to leave comments on updates. Conversely, on Twitter, to reply to someone’s tweet, one produces an at-reply on their own stream. Sure, the interlocutor can read it in their stream of at-replies, but it doesn’t actually get seen or produced on their own page. Thus, a person’s Twitter page is truly the product of their self-representation, not the amalgamation of them and their cohort.

So, practices.. how does this affect practices?

Those using Facebook are primarily concerned with connecting with those that they know (or knew in high school). The status updates are an invitation to conversation, a way of maintaining social peripheral awareness among friends and acquaintances. They’re about revealing life as it happens so as to be part of a “keeping up” community.

Arguably, Twitter began this way, if only because the geeks and bloggers who were among the early adopters were a socially cohesive group. Yet, as the site has matured, the practices have changed (and I’ve watched a whole lot of early adopters who weren’t part of the professional cohort leave). For the most visible, Twitter is a way of producing identity in a public setting. This is where you see personal branding as central to the identity production going on there. It’s still about living in public, but these folks are aware of being seen, of having an audience if you will. Twitter also enables a modern incarnation of parasocial relations. Sure, there are one-sided relationships on Facebook too, but they are far more the norm on Twitter. I can follow the details of a Celebrity’s life without them ever knowing I exist. At the same time, there’s the remote possibility of them responding which is what complicates traditional parasocial constructs. Angelina Jolie could never see me reading about her in the gossip mags and commenting on her latest escapades, but, if she were on Twitter, she could sense my watching her and see my discussion of her. That’s part of what is so delightfully tempting for Celebs.

In short, the difference between the two has to do with the brokering of status. With Facebook, the dominant norm is about people at a similar level of status interacting. On Twitter, there’s all sorts of complicated ways in which status is brokered. People are following others that they respect or worship and there’s a kind of fandom at all levels. This is what Terri Senft has long called “micro-celebrity.” Alice Marwick has been extending Terri’s ideas to think about how audience is brokered on Twitter (paper coming soon). But I think that they’re really critical. What makes Twitter work differently than Facebook has to do with the ways in which people can navigate status and power, follow people who don’t follow them, at-reply strangers and begin conversations that are fundamentally about two individuals owning their outreach as part of who they are. It’s not about entering another’s more private sphere (e.g., their Facebook profile). It’s about speaking in public with a targeted audience explicitly stated.

As you can see, I’m not quite there with my words on this just yet, but I feel the need to push back against the tendency to collapse both practices into one. How audience and status is brokered really matters and differentiates these two sites and the way people see and navigate this.

One way to really see this is when people on Twitter auto-update their Facebook (guilty as charged). The experiences and feedback on Twitter feel very different than the experiences and feedback on Facebook. On Twitter, I feel like I’m part of an ocean of people, catching certain waves and creating my own. Things whirl past and I add stuff to the mix. When I post the same messages to Facebook, I’m consistently shocked by the people who take the time to leave comments about them, to favorite them, to ask questions in response, to start a conversation. (Note: I’m terrible about using social media for conversation and so I’m a terrible respondent on Facebook.) Many of the people following me are the same, but the entire experience is different.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched a bunch of self-sorting. Folks who started out updating on Twitter and moved to Facebook and vice versa. The voices they take on don’t change that much, but they tend to find one medium or the other more appropriate for the kinds of messaging they’re doing. One or the other just “fits” better. When I ask them why, they can’t really tell me. Sometimes, they talk about people; sometimes they talk about privacy issues. But most of the time, one just clicks better for reasons they can’t fully articulate.

Different social media spaces have different norms. You may not be able to describe them, but you sure can feel them. Finding the space the clicks with you is often tricky, just as finding a voice in a new setting can be. This is not to say that one space is better than the other. I don’t believe that at all. But I do believe that Facebook and Twitter are actually quite culturally distinct and that trying to create features to bridge them won’t actually resolve the cultural differences. And boy is it fun to watch these spaces evolve.

Twitter: “pointless babble” or peripheral awareness + social grooming?

Studies like this one by Pear Analytics drive me batty. They concluded that 40.55% of the tweets they coded are pointless babble; 37.55% are conversational; 8.7% have “pass along value”; 5.85% are self-promotional; 3.75% are spam; and ::gasp:: only 3.6% are news.

I challenge each and every one of you to record every utterance that comes out of your mouth (and that of everyone you interact with) for an entire day. And then record every facial expression and gesture. You will most likely find what communications scholars found long ago – people are social creatures and a whole lot of what they express is phatic communication. (Phatic expressions do social work rather than conveying information… think “Hi” or “Thank you”.)

Now, turn all of your utterances over to an analytics firm so that they can code everything that you’ve said. I think that you’ll be lucky if only 40% of what you say constitutes “pointless babble” to a third party ear.

Twitter – like many emergent genres of social media – is structured around networks of people interacting with people they know or find interesting. Those who are truly performing to broad audiences (e.g., “celebs”, corporations, news entities, and high-profile blogger types) are consciously crafting consumable content that doesn’t require actually having an intimate engagement with the person to appreciate. Yet, the vast majority of Twitter users are there to maintain social relations, keep up with friends and acquaintances, follow high-profile users, and otherwise connect. It’s all about shared intimacy that is of no value to a third-party ear who doesn’t know the person babbling. Of course, as Alice Marwick has argued, some celebs are also very invested in giving off a performance of intimacy and access; this is part of the appeal. This is why you can read what they ate for breakfast.

Far too many tech junkies and marketers are obsessed with Twitter becoming the next news outlet source. As a result, the press are doing what they did with blogging: hyping Twitter us as this amazing source of current events and dismissing it as pointless babble. Haven’t we been there, done that? Scott Rosenberg even wrote the book on it!

I vote that we stop dismissing Twitter just because the majority of people who are joining its ranks are there to be social. We like the fact that humans are social. It’s good for society. And what they’re doing online is fundamentally a mix of social grooming and maintaining peripheral social awareness. They want to know what the people around them are thinking and doing and feeling, even when co-presence isn’t viable. They want to share their state of mind and status so that others who care about them feel connected. It’s a back-and-forth that makes sense if only we didn’t look down at it from outter space. Of course it looks alien. Walk into any typical social encounter between people you don’t know and it’s bound to look a wee bit alien, especially if those people are demographically different than you.

Conversation is also more than the explicit back and forth between individuals asking questions and directly referencing one another. It’s about the more subtle back and forth that allow us to keep our connections going. It’s about the phatic communication and the gestures, the little updates and the awareness of what’s happening in space. We take the implicit nature of this for granted in physical environments yet, online, we have to perform each and every aspect of our interactions. What comes out may look valueless, but, often, it’s embedded in this broader ecology of social connectivity. What’s so wrong about that?

Now, I began this rant by noting that these kinds of studies drive me batty. Truthfully, I also have a sick and twisted appreciation for them. They let frustration build up inside me so that I can spout off on my blog and on Twitter, providing commentary that some might find useful and others might code as pointless babble.

(Tx Lior for giving me something to get worked up about this morning.)

obsessively recording and sharing our vacations

At Blogher yesterday, the issue of “addiction” emerged in the keynote. A woman in the audience noted that she twitched for the first day of vacation because she desperately wanted to tweet the things she was seeing and witnessing, like the bald eagle flying by. On stage, the conversation turned so that we talked more generally about being able to take a technology free vacation, but I want to address the tendency to tweet the things we see directly for a moment.

It seems as though humans absolutely LOVE to 1) record the minutia of their lives; 2) (over-) share the details of their experiences. And for some reason, each new technology seems to get used by people to do precisely this. I really wouldn’t be surprised if we found a cave painting that outlined what the dwellers ate for breakfast. So why are we so offended when people use the internet to do this?

Let’s talk about that vacation for a second. Why is it so wrong that people tweet their experiences when it seems to be so right that they spend their vacations stuck behind their fancy new camera recording every moment? Personally, I’m more frustrated by those trying to capture the perfect shot than those who mull over the perfect 140 character version of the event before quickly pumping it into their iPhone. Those behind the camera are far less present than those mulling over the language to express the moment. Yet, somehow, we accept one as the epitome of the vacation while the other is a rupture of it. Why is this?

Then there’s sharing. Sharing recordings of vacation events is also not particularly new. Sure, usually those who were vacationing waited until AFTER the vacation to share, but that was more a matter of practicalities. If you needed to get the film processed, you had to wait till you got home. But sharing events is a part of bonding, whether its an oral accounting of those events or a sharing of the recordings of it. One value of sharing records is the ability to share in a way that goes back to that time period.

For example, my grandfather has this brilliant album from the early 1940s when he first came to the States to train American pilots for the war. I’m fascinated by what he recorded – and what he didn’t. The album is filled with images of 1940s Georgia and Texas, young British men goofing off before facing their most harrowing hour back in Europe. (My grandfather was a bomber pilot; he lost most of his friends and was shot down himself.) What I particularly love about this album is his little drawings, the white pencil on black background that makes it clear that he put this album together to really record this period in time, a period that he thought would be his only trip to America. I can page through this album forever.

We like when people share their records. Until we don’t. Cuz we also know that there is the notion of Too Much. There are only so many baby photos you can take of a baby that’s not related to you before you scream Too Much. There are only so many home videos that you can take until you scream Too Much. And there are only so many vacation photos you can take until you scream Too Much.

Y’see… the ease with which we can record and share today means that there are too many people around us who push our Too Much limits. There was something beautiful about only being able to photograph 24/36 images on the entire vacation. I can stomach 24/36 images of anyone’s vacation. But who in their right mind thinks that I want to sift through 1000s of photos just because they were able to take them? Hrmfpt I say.

Can we please have a moment of silence for the power of constraint? Kthx. The issue with recording and sharing in contemporary society is that is far far far too easy to go overboard. This is where we struggle to find balance. Just because you can share every detail doesn’t mean you necessarily should. Just because you can record every moment of your day doesn’t mean you should. Part of the problem is that the technology doesn’t force you to think about your audience. When your mother brings out the photographs of your childhood, she can watch you squirm when you’ve had enough (usually after the third photo). She may ignore you, but she knows. But what does it mean that we are unable to see – and thus able to ignore – our audience online? When people bitch about folks sharing what they ate for breakfast, they’re noting that this kind of sharing of minutia is clearly ignorant of the annoyed audience in preference for the ability to record everything.

We keep building technologies that allow us to do what we like to do better, faster, more efficiently. The practices of recording and sharing are not new and we seem to love technologies that aid in these practices. As for vacation… well, recording and sharing vacations are also not new even if the newfangled technology allows us to do this better, faster, more efficiently. And, personally, I’m totally with the audience member who expressed the need to put away the technology (including the camera!) and be in the moment. But I should also take a moment to highlight that there are very good psychological reasons for wanting to record and share our vacations.

The processes of recording and sharing help make things “real” by expanding their significance in our lives. These are tools to aid us in building memories. We forget most moments in our lives, but when we record and share, we take the steps to solidify these memories. Vacation is a luxury and it’s (usually) filled with happy times that we want to remember. So when we record and share, we seek to keep these memories close. I cannot fault people for wanting to do this (especially in a country where people get so little vacation on average). I understand the desire to just be present on vacation, but I also understand why people are so determined to lock down these memories and contribute positive stories to the information flow of their friendships. I can’t fault them for this, even if I’d prefer that we all took a break and just enjoyed the moment. So before we mock those who are documenting their memories through the crazy new technologies, let’s also recognize that this is just one in a long line of recording and sharing tools. And, I would argue, not the most annoying one yet.

Understanding retweeting on Twitter

As we try to work out how Iranian citizens, activists, journalists, new media propagators, and politically conscious folks are using Twitter to converse about the Iranian election, we need to step back and think about some of the practices that are core to what’s taking place. One of these is retweeting, or the act of spreading a message along inside Twitter. Earlier this week, Scott Golder, Gilad Lotan, and I just finished a descriptive paper on retweeting as a conversational practice:

Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter

The purpose of this paper is simple. We wanted to explore retweeting as a conversational practice. In doing so, we highlight just how bloody messy retweeting is. Often, folks who are deeply embedded in the culture think that there are uniform syntax conventions, that everyone knows what they’re doing and agrees on how to do it. We found that this is blatantly untrue. When it comes to retweeting, things get messy. The 140 character constraints introduce new dynamics and people route around a potential limitation is unique ways. But this doesn’t mean that everything is honky dory. There are authorship issues and attribution issues. The fidelity of a message often gets corrupted as it spreads, revealing the ways in which retweeting has become the modern day incarnation of the “Telephone Game.”

This paper is currently under review in an academic setting, but we’re making it available for public commentary and critique. Also, given how confused folks are in the public and mainstream media, we felt that getting this out sooner rather than later might be helpful in clearing up some myths about what’s going on. Retweeting is core to information dissemination on Twitter but how it’s unfolding is more complex than many believe.

Please enjoy! And we welcome any and all feedback!

Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody

I was talking with a friend of mine today who is a senior at a technology-centered high school in California. Dylan Field and his friends are by no means representative of US teens but I always love his perspective on tech practices (in part cuz Dylan works for O’Reilly and really thinks deeply about these things). Noodling around, I asked him if many of his friends from his school used Twitter and his response is priceless:

Dylan: “as for twitter, we are totally not representative, but ya a lot of people use twitter. it’s funny because the way they are using it is not the way most do… they make private accounts and little sub-communities form. like cliques, basically. so they can post stuff they don’t want people on fb to see, since fb is everybody. it’s odd, because the way i see it get used with my friends is totally contradictory to what everyone is saying. people seem to think teens hate twitter because it’s totally public, but the converse is actually true. but it’s not everyone… probably 10-15% at most.”

As someone who has argued about the challenge of Twitter being public (to all who hold power over teens), I find this push-back to be extremely valuable. What Dylan is pointing out is that the issue is that Facebook is public (to everyone who matters) and Twitter can be private because of the combination of tools AND the fact that it’s not broadly popular.

My guess is that if Twitter does take off among teens and Dylan’s friends feel pressured to let peers and parents and everyone else follow them, the same problem will arise and Twitter will become public in the same sense as Facebook. This of course raises a critical question: will teens continue to be passionate about systems that become “public” (to all that matter) simply because there’s social pressure to connect to “everyone”?

Twitter questions (curiosity is killing me…)

Last night, i pinged a handful of friends to ask them about their Twittering. And… of course… since they’re bloggers, they started blogging my questions and their answers. So, of course, i realized that i should just probably blog my questions for any and all to respond because i am a curious little critter.

I’m not sure what i’ll do with others’ thoughts yet – it may turn into a blog entry or an essay or one of those terrifyingly academic articles that i write. Consider this to be exploratory where i poke around to understand some of the dynamics. No one has to answer all of the questions, but any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

First, the practical question. Can i quote you?
[ ] Yes, and you *must* use my real name.
[ ] Yes, but please use a pseudonym and don’t use any identifying information.
[ ] No, please just use this for your own weird thoughts.

1. Why do you use Twitter? What do you like/dislike about it?

2. Who do you think is reading your Tweets? Is this the audience you want? Why/why not? Tell me anything you think of relating to the audience for your Tweets.

3. How do you read others’ Tweets? Do you read all of them? Who do you read/not read and why? Do you know them all?

4. What content do you think is appropriate for a Tweet? What is inappropriate? Have you ever found yourself wanting to Tweet and then deciding against it? Why?

5. Are your Tweets public? Why/why not? How do you feel about people you don’t know coming across them? What about people you do know?

6. What do i need to know about why Twitter is/is not working for you or your friends?

Tweet Tweet (some thoughts on Twitter)

SXSW has come and gone and my phone might never recover. Y’see, last year i received over 500 Dodgeballs. To the best that i can tell, i received something like 3000 Tweets during the few days i was in Austin. My phone was constantly hitting its 100 message cap and i spent more time trying to delete messages than reading them. Still, i think that Twitter and Dodgeball are interesting and i want to take a moment to consider their strengths and weaknesses as applications.

While you can use Dodgeball for a variety of things, it’s primarily a way of announcing presence in a social venue where you’d be willing to interact with other people. Given that i’m a hermit, i primarily use Dodgeball to announce my presence at conference outtings and to sigh in jealousy as people romp around Los Angeles. Dodgeball is culturally linked to place. I’m still pretty peeved with Google over the lack of development of Dodgeball because i still think it would be a brilliant campus-based application where people actually do party-hop on every weekend and want to know if their friends are at the neighboring frat party instead of this one. When it comes to usage at SXSW, Dodgeball is great. I know when 7 of my friends are in one venue and 11 are in another; it helps me decide where to go.

Twitter has taken a different path. It is primarily micro-blogging or group IMing or push away messaging. You write whatever you damn well please and it spams all of the people who agreed to be your friends. The biggest strength AND weakness of Twitter is that it works through your IM client (or Twitterrific) as well as your phone. This means that all of the tech people who spend far too much time bored on their laptops are spamming people at a constant rate. Ah, procrastination devices. If you follow all of your friends on your mobile, you’re in for a hellish (and every expensive) experience. Folks quickly learn to stop following people on their mobile (or, if they don’t, they turn Twitter off altogether). This, unfortunately, kills the mobile value of it, making it far more of a web tool than a mobile tool. Considering how much of a bitch it is to follow/unfollow people, users quickly choose and rarely turn back. Thus, once they stop following someone on their phone, they don’t return just because they are going out with that person that night (unless they run into them and choose to switch it on).

At SXSW, Twitter is fantastic for mobile. Everyone is running around the same town commenting on talks, remarking on venues, bitching about the rain. But dear god did i feel bad for the people who weren’t at SXSW who were getting spammed with that crap. One value of Twitter is that it’s really lightweight and easy. One problem is that this is terrible if your social world is not one giant cluster. While my tech friends who normally attend SXSW moped about how jealous they were upon receiving all of the SXSW messages, my non-tech friends were more of the WTF camp. Without segmentation, i had to choose one audience over the other because there was no way to move seamlessly between the audiences. Of course, groups are much heavier to manage. Still, i think it’s possible and i gave Ev some notes.

I think it’s funny to watch my tech geek friends adopt a social tech. They can’t imagine life without their fingers attached to a keyboard or where they didn’t have all-you-can-eat phone plans. More importantly, the vast majority of their friends are tech geeks too. And their social world is relatively structurally continuous. For most 20/30-somethings, this isn’t so. Work and social are generally separated and there are different friend groups that must be balanced in different ways.

Of course, the population whose social world is most like the tech geeks is the teens. This is why they have no problems with MySpace bulletins (which are quite similar to Twitter in many ways). The biggest challenge with teens is that they do not have all-you-can-eat phone plans. Over and over, the topic of number of text messages in one’s plan comes up. And my favorite pissed off bullying act that teens do involves ganging up to collectively spam someone so that they’ll go over their limit and get into trouble with their parents (phone companies don’t seem to let you block texts from particular numbers and of course you have to pay 10c per text you receive). This is particularly common when a nasty breakup occurs and i was surprised when i found out that switching phone numbers is the only real solution to this. Because most teens are not permanently attached to a computer and because they typically share their computers with other members of the family, Twitterific-like apps wouldn’t really work so well. And Twitter is not a strong enough app to replace IM time.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all teens would actually like Twitter. There are numerous complaints about the lameness of bulletins. People forward surveys just as something to do and others complain that this is a waste of their time. (Of course, then they go on to do it themselves.) Still, bulletin space is like Twitter space. You need to keep posting so that your friends don’t forget you. Or you don’t post at all. Such is the way of Twitter. Certain people i see flowing 5-15 times a day. Others i never hear from (or like once a week).

There’s another issue at play… Like with bulletins, it’s pretty ostentatious to think that your notes are worth pushing to others en masse. It takes a certain kind of personality to think that this kind of spamming is socially appropriate and desirable. Sure, we all love to have a sense of what’s going on, but this is push technology at its most extreme. You’re pushing your views into the attention of others (until they turn it or you off).

The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes who enjoy people responding to them and may wander around to others soap boxes looking for interesting bits of data. By and large, people Twitter to share their experience; only rarely do they expect to receive anything in return. What is returned is typically a kudos or a personal thought or an organizing question. I’d be curious what percentage of Tweets start a genuine back-and-forth dialogue where the parties are on equal ground. It still amazes me that when i respond to someone’s Tweet personally, they often ignore me or respond curtly with an answer to my question. It’s as though the Tweeter wants to be recognized en masse, but doesn’t want to actually start a dialogue with their pronouncements. Of course, this is just my own observation. Maybe there are genuine conversations happening beyond my purview.

Unfortunately, i don’t know how sustainable Twitter is for most people. It’s very easy to burn out on it and once someone does, will they return? It’s also really hard for friend-management. If you add someone, even if you “leave” them, you’ll get Twitteriffic posts from them. This creates a huge disincentive for adding people, even if you welcome them to read your Tweets. Post-SXSW, i’ve seen two things: the most active in Austin are still ridiculously active. The rest have turned it off for all intents and purposes. Personally, i’m trying to see how long i’ll last before i can’t stand the invasion any longer. Given that my non-tech friends can’t really join effectively (for the same reasons as teens – text messaging plan and lack of always-on computerness and hatred of IM interruptions), i don’t think that i can get a good sense of how this would play out beyond the geek crowd. But it sure is entertaining to watch.

PS: I should note that my *favorite* part of Twitter is that when i wander to a non-functioning page, i get this image:

How can that not make you happy?