Saturday, January 17, 2009

Twitter Revisited

A while back I discussed why I don't use Twitter. But despite my disclaimers, my curiosity about the service was unabated. Finally, after yet another friend asked for my Twitter ID, I decided to give it another try.

This time I made a concerted effort to use Twitter. By that I mean there is no driving need to use it, but it might provide benefits to my life and/or work. And there was no way to know without giving it a try.

I conscientiously used Twitter for two months. This took more effort than I would have liked. I had to remind myself to tweet. Occasionally it seemed like I was making things up to post (usually trivia about what I was doing -- cleaning the basement, making dinner, etc). But more often than not, there was something on my mind that seemed it might be remotely interesting to others. And at times I became quite voluble, as thinking and twittering became almost one and the same activity.

Let me just say Twitter is useless without friends -- and I have to thank a number of people, in particular Brian Halligan and John Tropea, for making my Twitter experience successful and enjoyable. In many ways, the two months flew by. They taught me a tremendous amount about what is interesting and what is not on Twitter.

For example, I discovered (as I had expected) that I do not like hearing the minutiae of people's personal lives: what pastry they are eating, how long they had to wait in line at the bank, what they are drinking, where they are drinking, how drunk they are, or who they are making out with while doing it.

On the other hand, it is quite exhilarating to see the breadth and depth of ideas people are pursuing within my fields of interest. A number of times I became engaged in conversations with fellow practitioners around the world re: the pros and cons of various KM concepts or methodologies, poetry, etc.

Finally, the open conversations in Twitter have introduced me to some surprising new members of a constantly expanding circle of friends and associates in the topics that interest me (and some I had not expected to pursue).

The world doesn't need yet another "why/how to use Twitter" blog entry. So I will refrain from that activity. (I think Mr. Tweet's 5 Stages of Twitter Acceptance is perhaps the best and most succinct of that species.) But I have noticed a few commonalities that I find interesting.

The most obvious is the personal/professional tweets dichotomy. There have been many posts arguing against flooding your twitter feed with too much personal trivia (even Tim O'Reilly mentions it as a cause for early pessimism about Twitter). However, this is not a black and white issue. For some people that is exactly what Twitter is for: a personal stage in an ever-expanding virtual social gathering. So it is a matter of personal opinion whether overtly private information is objectionable in tweets or not.

Also, it is not necessarily just a question of personal vs. professional. There were a number of times I found someone's professional tweets trite and almost intrusive. Too many "I'm at the office", "In a meeting with an important client", or "my PC is rebooting" type of tweets can be as uninteresting as what someone is having for lunch. So the personal/professional dichotomy might actually be more accurately a temporal/ideological split.

It is also not black and white because not all temporal tweets are annoying. In fact, I find that the people I am most interested in following tend to tweet a mix of ideas, actions, and questions. There are multiple layers: personal vs. professional, ideas vs. actions, statements vs. questions, theory vs. practice, proposal vs. proclamation... The twitterverse begins to look like one of those medical anatomy diagrams covered in transparencies -- each with its own brightly colored orgains, veins, muscles etc -- you uncover one at a time to understand the different ways in which the body works.

The twitter interface asks "What are you doing?" (It is the naive simplicity and flexibility of that question that imparts much of Twitter's power, allure, and mystery.) But that's not really the question. Just like someone asking "what's up?" at a party, the question is more of an opening for you to use as you see fit than a specific request. A party where everyone is listening and the conversations go on 24 hours a day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

When Memes become Meaningless

I was reading the magazine InformationWeek the other day when I came across the following statement:

"Microsoft's SharePoint is the T. rex of collaboration products: big, fiercely competitive, and standing atop the social computing food chain..."

SharePoint certainly shows signs of being the 800 pound gorilla. And Microsoft is definitely big and fiercely competitive. But what struck me most is the assertion that SharePoint is "sitting atop the social computing food chain".

The problem is that if SharePoint is considered "social computing", then the term no longer has any meaning. Sure, SharePoint wants to be seen as web 2.0-ish. It even mimics wiki and blog functionality (within its own secured, highly structured environment). It may even be top of the heap of the content management/collaboration/intranet/you-name-it-latest-corporate-fad thingies. But SharePoint is anything but social computing.

It's not SharePoint's fault. SharePoint has significant value for corporate customers and serves its specific audience quite well. The problem is that the term "social computing" is being used so broadly it, in effect, has no meaning.

The Wikipedia entry for social computing acknowledges this situation and defines the term in both a "weaker sense " and a "stronger sense". But in its weaker sense, the term encompasses many technologies -- such as email -- that few of the advocates of web 2.0 would recognize as part of the recent social computing phenomenon.

As they spread, memes such as "social computing" and "web 2.0" take on a life of their own. That's what makes them memes. However, on their viral journey from person to person they are often reinterpreted or distorted to make them match each individual's idea of what they want them to mean, rather than what they were originally intended for. A sort of global game of telephone.

The consequence is that as a meme becomes more popular, its meaning tends to be diluted. Of course, if that were the only effect, all memes would eventually blur beyond recognition, which is not what happens. Why not? I believe a large part of the resilience of memes is dependent on the effort put in on their behalf by their advocates, authors, and enthusiasts.

When there is an obvious and recognized author of a meme -- such as Tim O'Reilly and "web 2.0" -- there is a clear source for authoritative definition. Tim's company started it, he defined it, he continues to maintain it. People try redefining it or stretching it, but the meaning can be traced back to an authoritative source which others can reference.

Other memes are not so lucky and do not have a specific moment of conception. Agile software development methodologies are an example. Although there is an agile manifesto, the term itself has no single author and has been used to identify a number of different methodologies. Advocates of one or another of these methodologies argue for or against others being more or less faithful to the tenets of agility, causing some amount of confusion to those outside the fray.

Other memes fall in the middle ground; not having a single starting point, but having well-known advocates who continue to promote the refinement and correct usage of the term. A case in point is folksonomy, which came into being in the course of an online discussion. Many people misappropriate the term to describe things they are doing, but Thomas Vander Wal continues to argue for a more precise definition in his blog, writings, and on Wikipedia. This effort has an effect: the term tends to remain true to its original roots.

However, the effort is somewhat of a thankless task. People like Thomas, for all their valiant efforts, are sometimes seen as pushy or just plain cranky for their adamant stance. However, without it, the term (and possibility the activity itself) would suffer a significant drain on its effectiveness.

So all is not lost for "social computing". Although there is no single advocate that supports it, many in the web 2.0 world and burgeoning social software industry continue to push of a "stricter" interpretation. And fortunately the success of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Songza etc help maintain a focus on that stricter definition.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The week before Christmas, the New England area suffered severe ice storms. Many regions, including my own, lost power. Our neighborhood was blacked out for approximately a day and a half.

Unfortunately, although power was restored to our neighbors, falling branches had ripped the service lines off the side of our house, including power, cable, and phone. Because of the severity of the storm and the amount of damage, services were not restored to our house for eight days.

I am not complaining. In fact, we were amazed to wake up eight days later and find the line crew working on our house during a raging snow storm at 4:30 in the morning. Besides, since we had experienced two extended outages previously, we had bought a generator. So we had enough power to maintain heat, hot water, and lights in a few rooms. We were better off than many.

What was new was the loss of cable, which took with it our phone, TV, and internet connectivity. In previous outages we had lost power, but the phone and internet were available as long as the modem was up.

But even with a generator, no line to the house meant no cable. So I was without phone or internet for eight days.

I had plenty to keep me busy during the blackout. But I expected -- since I have been working with computers for almost 30 years and on the web for the last 10 almost 24 hours a day-- that I would miss the internet. Funny thing was, I didn't.

In fact, since power and cable have been restored, I have only returned occasionally to some blogs and web sites I read religiously pre-blackout. I didn't miss the news, I didn't miss the email and IM's from friends. Well, perhaps a little bit, but not nearly as much as I thought I would.

What I did find myself wanting back was my PC. Each time I walked into the office, I instinctively moved the mouse or pressed the shift key to switch off the power saver and bring the screen back to life. For the first day or two, I was surprised and disappointed when it didn't light up. By the third day, I instinctively reached for them, but stopped myself, realizing the power was off.

It wasn't the content I was missing. I could easily catch up with that later if I wanted to. (I didn't, in many cases.) What I missed was the physical companionship that my computer provides me.

It turns out my computer and keyboard have become a physical manifestation of the many virtual relationships I have with friends and colleagues. Some who I have never met; some who live only a few miles away from me; some who I only know through what they post to their blogs or websites but who I still consider compatriots in a common endeavor.

I would have happily sat in front of a blank screen in the dark. No browser, not email. Just a desktop. Why? What I was nostalgic for was the being connected. The people I knew and the ability to interact, whether I did or not. I didn't miss what they said or posted, because in almost all cases, the relationships are serendipitous. There is no telling in advance what will be said, shared, discussed. But it is the ability to share that my computer represents.

It is the sharing, not the having shared. It is the responding, not the accumulation of responses. It turns out the immediacy you experience in face-to-face interactions also happens online, but in an asynchronous fashion. Blog entries from a year ago are not old -- they are brand new when you encounter them. So your experience of the social network is a constant state of discovery, with each user's experience being unique based on the path they choose, links friends recommend, interests they pursue, etc.

Yes, it is the internet that enables these interactions. But what took me by surprise is that the visceral response is to the PC, the physical endpoint I speak through, the window I see through.

So I didn't miss the internet or the content the internet provides, I missed what the internet enabled and the people I have come to experience it with and who have become my friends.