The inaugural Media140 conference in Australia is on in November in Sydney. As a totally Twitterised wannabe journalist, I’m looking forward to attending. There will be lots of great speakers and good discussions there, I'm sure. Interestingly, the event’s flyer barely mentions Twitter, the technology that inspired the 140 idea. That’s a pity in some respect because sometimes a little technological determinism doesn’t hurt. No matter what it is called, Twitter is a reforming technology.
Its name may be for the birds, but Twitter is usually imagined as a stream. Right now, it is a raging current rushing towards some eventual ocean of communication. The channel is known but it might be more difficult to work out who is saying what to whom and for what effect.
At first glance Twitter seems anchored and orderly with a precise naming system. There are hashtags denoting issues and an honest sounding at-sign denoting voices - My voice is @DerekBarry. But the information in the sign may not be reliable as it seems it is at.
Fakes about on Twitter. The real fakes acquire a fixity over time channelling other personalities. Tiny Buddha spreads 140 character wisdom, Marcel Marceau spreads a similar amount of silence. Nietzsche may have killed God but he cannot stop him/her from tweeting.
If there is genuine in the fake, there is also as much fakery in the genuine. Last week, “Media-more-than-140” gleefully published research that headlined 40 percent of Tweets are pointless babble. They were wrong to call it Twitter twaddle; the figure grossly underestimates the need for phatic conversation as a part of social bridge-building. But whatever the true ratio of signal to noise, the question has validity. It implies there is a discrete judgement about each individual communication.
Discrete communication Twitter may be, but discreet it ain’t. Yes, there are backchannels where you can sometimes privately engage in conversation via the deep and meaningful DM. But most of Twitter’s output is in the public sphere where followers can see directly and a network of others can indirectly. Twitter is a 21st century agora and a marketplace of ideas. It exists in mostly equal fashion across the Internet though there is manipulation. China and other countries can switch it off from time to time and the US can keep it on the air in an attempt to update Mohammad Mossadegh's Iranian fail whale story.
As the State Department found out, Twitter is useful. It is a vibrant source of news, stories, information, jokes, links, music, arguments, gossip and goofs. There are leads, information, signposts, arguments, diary entries, story, contact, and laughing. There are many expressions of boredom. It is how taste is transferred; a sort of Bourdieu on Big Brother.
Much of this milieu is familiar to other modes of communication. But there is also joy in the technology itself. Like Google, it is simple. Unlike Google there is a restriction. The 140 character limit concentrates the mind. Twitter's most ingenuous factor is the creative motif of denial. The need for brevity is paramount. Every letter of every word must be scrutinised to ensure it is working for the cause. Driven by the limit, Twitter is a 21st century telegraph on steroids. But what goes on in this digital Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there.
Digital data is easily replicable and there is also a wonderfully organic search engine. Twitter search has its faults as it doesn’t keep a great history, but it is right up to date with the present. Anything new, interesting, informative or important will cascade quickly through its networks in the form of an accelerating power law. It can go from 0 to 140 in under ten seconds. Google might be able to tell you what something is, but Twitter can tell you what it is right now.