12 Responses to SXSW 2007: Twitter & Social Cyborgs

  1. SXSW 2007: Twitter & Social Cyborgs

    Twitter was easily the most buzzed product at SXSW 2007. It seemed like almost every other person was using it religiously to announce to their friends, to the rest of SXSW, and to the world exactly what it was that they were doing at any given moment (and, based on the public feed at the Twitter site, it looks like about 10% of Twitter’s total user base was actually at SXSW!).

    I’ve had other opinions about Twitter — basically that it brings more of an ego boost to the sender than it brings anything useful to the recipients, and as such it’s basically a tool of personal vanity — but seeing it in action at SXSW, where the problem of rapid coordination of information between people in an informal way is actually quite useful, has tempered my admittedly slightly luddite view.

    Essentially, Twitter permits large and disparate groups of people to synchronize their activities with one another without there being any obligation to actually engage in real planning. When you announce where you are and what you’re doing, there is no “deal” in place that any action will be taken on the information you’ve shared, unlike the kind of expectation that you might have in a face-to-face conversation, a phone call, or even an instant message. This is good when, as at a conference, you want to see people but you don’t want to oblige them to come see you — or, conversely, if you want to check out what other people are doing without actually asking them and thus obliging you to join them.

    In short, it saves people from engaging in the following two types of uncomfortable conversations:

    Jack: Where are you guys?
    Jill: We are at Club de Ville and it’s awesome.

    Jack: I think I will go somewhere else.


    Jack: I’m at Club de Ville. Wanna come join me?
    Jill: No.

    I see Twitter as a kind of tool for making certain kinds of communication easier. Easier than what? Easier than actually having an honest, if potentially rude, conversation with someone, as Jack and Jill were having above.

    • It gives people more information about what other people are doing without obliging those people to respond or take action on that information.
    • It allows people to share information about what they are doing without obliging anyone to take any particular action based on that information.

    Watching people talking on their mobile phones, sending text messages, Twitter-ing, blogging, Dodgeball-ing, and using all sorts of technologies to help facilitate their social planning, I couldn’t help but think that many of us are turning into “social cyborgs”: These technologies act as technological enhancements to our natural social communication toolkit (talking, gesturing), and as such they are cybernetic in the same sense that a hearing aid might be.

    Moreover, those people who most effectively use these cybernetic tools can, in theory, gain a palpable social advantage over those that don’t. I write “in theory” because the jury is still out, I think, on whether or not many of these tools are really that effective… but in the case of something as basic as the telephone, I think it’s inescapable that one is better off with it than without it if one wants to have a social life in today’s busy world. The telephone is basically a cybernetic organ all first-world humans posess nowadays, permitting us to converse with each other over long distances. Will we all someday also have a “twitter organ”, something that allows us to tell the world, or our friends, or whomever we wish, no-obligation information anytime anywhere?

  2. I’ve a twitter account, and it’s the All ADD/OCD All the Time Network.

    I use it similarly to status messages in IMs. The nice thing about Twitter is that not everyone needs to be on, in order to get the information, unlike a group-chat in IM. The publicly available history is invaluable.

  3. @David: Yes — but it’s just as bad, I think, when people make early positive judgements, too. I can’t count how often initial praise for a new product didn’t pan out after people started using it for real.

    In all, I’ve been very bad at predicting how new technologies will be adopted. To one degree or another I have in the past been a naysayer on folksonomies, instant messaging, text messaging, social networks, social bookmarking, and even blogging. If I were correct, satellite radio, DRM, PowerPoint, and Internet Explorer would all be long dead by now, too.

    @CM: I think that someday we will collectively work out the social protocols around Twittering, the same way most of us worked out the same thing for IM (for example, it took a while for everyone to reach the same understanding that you don’t have to answer someone’s IM right away, or even ever — that it’s far, far more informal than email).

  4. Judgement works both ways right? I usually reserve full judgement till I’ve tried something for myself. Not to be confused with having opinions—I have opinions about Second Life but I make no predictions about it either way becuase I haven’t used it.

  5. @David: I feel so surreal right now — twitter-blog-realworld crossover craziness!

    Also: Love your article on Twitter. It’s remarkable how much meta-twitter is being generated by Twitter.

    Also: Judgement, opinions, predictions — interesting distinctions, I’ll have to think about those.

    Also: I was also just thinking about how Second Life is yet another item on my list of tech products that struck me upon initial review as something doomed to fail. My predictions are often wrong, but that’s often because other factors come into play beyond my evaluation of the product itself. In the case of Second Life, their PR department should be commended, as it seems to me like there are more people writing about Second Life than there are actual users. :-) We shall see.

  6. My good friend Todd Levin has an article at The Morning News that includes the most amazing insight into how Twitter actually worked at SXSW:

    Even normal dinner conversation is enveloped in Twitter membrane. Sometimes the person you’re talking to will drop out in mid-sentence to attend to his or her blinking mobile device. Twitter provides a never-ending stream of messages communicating some additional later of information—about a party, a panel, the impending arrival of another dinner guest, an inside joke—outside of your experience in that physical moment. It’s frustrating to lose the concept of “undivided attention” but not as frustrating as being unaware of the secret Twitter metaconversation happening around you. If you’re not part of it, you’re out of it. I ended up feeling very much like the kid whose classmate invites everyone else to his birthday party, and then demands they not tell you about it. The great effort required to keep the party a secret from you is somehow still preferable to having your gluten- and dairy-allergic ass seated at the birthday table.

    He’s not exaggerating. There is a dark side to this stuff, too.

  7. There’s a dark side for sure. So many people use (and talk about) Twitter in ways that the designers didn’t originally think of: @-replying came out of usage, not design, for example.

    It reminds me of that study a while ago that tied intelligence to the ability to scan & filter information, in that Twitter for some people isn’t about reading every item, but selectively reading & pattern-hunting. Where it falls apart is when people treat it like IM or chat rooms, where they feel compelled to read and respond to every item. I follow Winer’s philosophy of Rivers in a way; I’m allowed to skip or scan quickly, since if something is important, it will come back around somehow. Someone else will talk about it or reply to it. Besides, if it is specifically for me, I’m all wired up for direct messages. I think sirens go off and my phone bites me.

    When there is a new form to get these messages (which is why I love Twitterrific and the dedicated-app forms of the service) that presents a new way of digesting these signals, it helps immensely. The fact that Twitter comes in SMS and IM windows makes replies seem like necessities, and is why the service can become disruptive or potentially addictive. Kathy Sierra’s “Is Twitter TOO Good?” post was perfect in analyzing this factor.

    In any case, humans are opportunistic by nature — I see no reason not to believe that those who add Twitter in addition to all other current forms of communication won’t have an advantage over others. It’s not about the communication itself, but the efficiency the communication can create. (I like Iqbal Quadir’s speech at TedTalks on this point, tho’ it is focused on his efforts on bringing cell phones to villages).

  8. well, yes, but it is also possible to adopt habits and technologies that prove ultimately debilitating (such as, I don’t know, lead-based drinking vessels?)

    with sxsw and iasummit over i’ve turned off the sms feature but still follow twitter via twitterific or the website, much as i watch im statuses.

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