I Twitter, Therefore I Am

Months ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of space in information design. The moral of the post was pretty simple: if you’ve got a finite amount of canvas to work with (e.g. a web browser), don’t cram all kinds of information tightly together. If there’s too much stuff all packed together, the amount of “cognitive overhead” increases dramatically for the user. Instead, space out your elements and let people think. Eliminate clutter. Let people focus.
Well, “space” is not only important in web pages and print materials filled with information. Space is important in life as well. And we’ve got less and less of it these days. Instant messaging. Cell phones. Blackberries (is it plural with an “ies” or a “ys”?). We have very little cognitive “space” these days. Instead, we’re constantly getting pinged from all directions.
And now we have…Twitter. It’s essentially a status monitor for people. People, all day long, update their “status” (things like “eating cereal” or “ugh, gotta do tax forms!”) and their friends can keep up to date on them.
Well, like it or not, it’s starting to take off. At this point, people are probably just curious. It’s already become in vogue to bash twitter. And rightfully so. It’s inherently evil. It combines two things I despise: unnecessary noise and people who need to be acknowledged every three minutes. It’s as if we didn’t exist unless we twittered.
And so, for now at least, we continue to embrace clutter. And we continue to drift farther away from the virtues of giving each other space. With space comes opportunities for reflection, ideas, beyond shallow thinking.

9 Comments I Twitter, Therefore I Am

  1. John Dowdell

    Well, I despise people jumping on a bandwagon. A-list lamers, ugh. ;-)
    But this type of cross-device, text-constrained, status-oriented interface does seem it could be useful for groups of people. Right now you only have one group, “my friends”, and everyone else is “not my friends”. It could be handy to have separate group status pages for the people you work tightly with, people you might like to see in the evening, people you know who are far away.
    I agree with you that filling every waking moment with trivia poses a danger. But it seems like this type of approach provides a way to harvest useful status information from different groups of friends…?

  2. Rich Ziade

    It just badly feels like a solution in search of a problem. What do we gain? Why do I need to track even a narrower group? Or why do they need to track me? Unless we’re coordinating fighting a brush fire or something…I just don’t see it.

  3. John Dowdell

    Yes, if you’re not in a tight workgroup or other affinity group then it may not matter as much. And instant-messaging gave us “presence” or status alerts before.
    But unlike IM, an interface which focuses on the current status of a select group of people could be very useful, if you’re trying to figure how to get a group task done at the current moment. Just faith on my part at this point, though. ;-)

  4. JesterXL

    So, I waited all day to see if someone had responded to you. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people take the “either you get Twitter or you don’t” stance.
    For me, Twitter is cool because:
    – I like reading blogs. Twitters are mini-blog posts.
    – I like to know what others are doing. I like being around people. Although I don’t live in the city, I dig groups.
    – Additionally, and this is key, if I want to know what someone is doing, I have to ask them. In this case, I don’t ask; they give. Big difference, the volunteering of what someone is doing or thinking about. Again, like blogging, only smaller, requiring less thought. The only reason it requires SOME thought from me is that I don’t know how to be verbose. This bullet point is an example.
    – Finally, I can post about ME, what I’M doing without having to bother anyone. If they care, they can read at their leisure; if they don’t, they don’t. So, I’m not necessarely contributing to the noise; rather, my noise is sequestered in an area where people can choose to hear it.
    Blogs populate aggregators; twitter populates your list. People choose to have you on their list or not, unlike aggregators where you try your best not to rock the boat.
    IM’s, phones, and emails require single people on the other end; Twitter requires no one; I can just post, even if no one reads them.
    In the case of Chatrooms, the flow of Twitter is TONS slower. I know some IRC rooms do have a slower influx of conversations, but the big difference here is that I control the people in the room (sort of… Twitter needs some new features in that arena) and 2, the “theme” is around “What are you doing?”. The 3rd person here is key.
    To your credit, a lot of effective people shy away from Twitter because they already have too much to do. For those of us that are easily distracted, and want a social life WHILE we are doing other things like working, or even having a social life (yes, you can twitter about your social events).
    *whew* Hope that helps. Maybe not. :: shrugs ::
    :: goes to Twitter that he’s trying to convince Rich Twitter is h@wt ::

  5. Ryan Stewart

    Aww Rich, come on! It’s not about noise becuase Twitter is low maintenance. You add as many (or few) friends as you want and then you can follow them when you want how you want. Maybe when you wake up in the morning, you want to browse to Twitter and see what they’re up to. Otherwise, you never interact with Twitter during the rest o the day. That’s fine.
    For me, because I work from home, Twitter has become a great way for me to interact with people. It’s also a chance to let people know what I’ve accomplished during the day or even have some impromptu brainstorming sessions. I like to think of it as a virtual office space.

  6. tim

    The value proposition you hear most about Twitter is “to know what everyone is doing when working on small teams”… but is that true? This implies, by definition, it’s always current and reliable. Half measures won’t work, or it loses its value. I need to know every time you go for a Pop-Tart, or never know (guess which I favor.) Knowing half the time does me no good.
    And since when is a binary status not good enough for a work group, such as “I am available” or “I’m unavailable”?
    I’ve been pretty well served while working with remote teams with two forms of communication – phone or IM for synchronous, email or IM for asynchronous, not sure how I’d work a one-way status broadcaster into that mix to make it more effective… perhaps “hmm, I’d like to talk to him synchronously, but since his Twitter says he’s walking his dog, I should email him”.
    …but wait, he Twittered that an hour ago, does that mean he’s back??

  7. Rachel

    Tim, nothing in life is binary except for code. There’s a lot more subtleness, especially in work group dynamics – one can also be ‘available for short interruptions from nice coworkers etc.’. ;)
    I can see that some people have found some interesting uses for Twitter, but I think Rich has nailed it – that it’s inherently a bad (and sad) thing, and that the virtues of space, aloneness and (dare I say it) silence or non-connectivity are once again lost on people who feel the need to constantly BE connected, HEAR their friends, be immersed in a social life. What about the mental equivalent of white space on a page? Don’t people feel the need to just…pause? At some point, it’s cute, and fun, and interesting to ‘play’ with these kind of ubicomp technologies; at another point I hope we do analyze if we necessarily *want* that technology, or if we should. Solutions for solutions sake don’t make us the best designers, especially in a world which has no shortage of real problems…


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