Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brave New Twitter

I attended a Twitter chat last night. It was both difficult and fascinating - and not because of what we were talking about, but how we were talking about it.

Let me give you some context. I'm not a big producer of tweets, because I don't have the best mobile phone tech, and I don't tend to narrate my life in quite that manner. But this time I was invited to #scribechat and I figured I'd attend. It took me a while to figure out how to attend, given that I never had, and I'm still not entirely convinced that I did it in the easiest way. But I learned a lot about Twitter interactions.

New technologies don't always allow for established conventions. That's certainly the case with email, texting, and instant messaging, but even more so with Twitter. Sometimes when conventions of communication fail to be translated between media, it can become socially problematic or even dangerous. Let's trace through some developments.

Take email first. It's considered to be a much less formal medium than actual letter-writing. I remember when people first started learning that writing in all capitals meant shouting in the email format. Some people still have trouble grasping this convention. It worked fine for telegrams, because those were usually sent only in emergencies anyway. I know of many cases where people have offended others by going too far into the realm of the informal with emails. It's a medium that resembles letters, but doesn't follow their rules in the area of politeness.

Then there's texting, and instant messaging. Like telegrams, texts are restricted in length by price. It's interesting to note that the conventions for shortening a telegram - which involved leaving out words but not usually shortening the words themselves - more resembled writing headlines for newspapers. Texting conventions took this shortening trend and combined it with the more recent trend for creating acronyms (from company names etc.), resulting in "ROFL" and all sorts of fascinating new expressions. Instant messaging is restricted by a different kind of shortening influence - the desire to get the messages back and forth as quickly as possible. Texting conventions translate easily to this environment, but for those who aren't well-versed in the texting acronyms, you tend to see missed capitals, abbreviations and dropped punctuation. Interestingly though, when you're dealing with a medium of high-speed back-and-forth, misunderstandings can be cleared up much more easily than with email, because the members of the conversation can simply ask questions immediately to clear things up. There's another convention that gets altered too - turn-taking. The high speed of messages means that cross-posting happens, and one person will start a new topic while the other is still about to make a comment. Generally in my experience, that can lead to the situation (more unusual, but not unheard of, in verbal conversation) of two topics being maintained at once.

Twitter is something different. You've got lots of people involved in a chat at once, but here more distinctly, turn-taking rules don't apply well. In Twitter many of the contributions aren't actually replies to any particular person's statement. I figure if a two-person conversation is ping pong, and a multi-person conversation resembles hacky-sack (even in an online chatroom), a Twitter conversation is more like trying to play tennis against a ball machine. I felt like I was in a room with lots of different conversations going on, but even once I chose one to belong to, I still was required to eavesdrop on all the others at the same time.

So here's a summary of some conventions of conversation and letter-writing that get altered by new technologies:

1. turn taking (and topic switches)
2. the link between information and identity
3. conventions of politeness
4. availability of context for disambiguation of message

This is not to say that technology only causes trouble. It has some great advantages. The funniest one I've heard lately was yesterday, when my friend told me that "today in rehearsal, I had to ask kids to text instead of whisper. Crazy thing is, it actually worked."

I'm not about to condemn these new forms of communication. They're actually very interesting as inspirations for the kinds of misunderstandings that can arise in different contexts - and for different modes of narrative. More and more these days I've seen stories take the form of chatroom logs. It works pretty well! There's also the example of the Google ad about the boy and the French girl that was shown during the Superbowl. I'd call that an unusual sort of flash fiction video.

I had a flash of inspiration after the Twitter chat that I'd like to share because in the moment I had it, it felt so true. Being in a room with multiple conversations and having to listen to all of them is precisely the reality that many people describe when they work with species or groups that communicate by telepathy. Our imaginations can give us a lot of insight into how it would "feel" to be in a place where you could hear everything that everyone said - or thought - but if you want insight into the kind of conversation that would occur, or the kind of processing load that would be put on a person unfamiliar with such a context, follow Twitter chats for a while.

I don't think that was my last Twitter chat, though I know that I prefer instant messaging. I'm definitely going to be keeping my eyes open for inspiration - and I hope you can too.