The Noisy Channel

 

It’s OK To Tweet

February 25th, 2009 · 31 Comments · General

The other day, Owen Thomas at Valleywag smirked about the audience at Times Open that “sat and Twittered instead of listening to the speaker”. To which I say, take a look at our tweets and you’ll see that people were listening intently.

I’m glad that Congress isn’t reading Valleywag: CNN reports that members of Congress twittered through Obama’s big speech:

Members of Congress twittered their way through President Obama’s nationally televised speech Tuesday night, providing a first-of-its-kind running commentary that took users of the social networking site inside the packed House chamber.

I hope this mainstream use of Twitter inspires audiences to play a more active role not only as listeners but also contributors to the conversations that good speeches are designed to inspire.

Of course, there remains the question of establishing social norms for live audiences who are torn between looking at the speaker and typing. Ironically, I remember being yelled at in class for *not* taking notes! Perhaps the people who most need coaching at the speakers who have to face live-tweeting audiences. Here’s some advice on the subject from speaking expert Olivia Mitchell.

31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erica Naone // Feb 25, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks for the post. I read a snarky Washington Post article this morning on this subject that tried to make it look like Congress was full of a bunch of teenagers. I think that, though there may still be etiquette to work out, it’s good to have people in Congress trying to communicate in an open way.

    BTW, it looks to me like your advice link is broken–I got a 403 error trying to follow it.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 25, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    You’re welcome, thank than you for warning me about the 403. I’ve replaced the link with a working one.

  • 3 jeremy // Feb 25, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Daniel, could you explain to me the difference between Twitter, especially when used in this fashion, and IRC? I used to do a lot of IRC in the early to mid 90s.

    It seems like if the goal was to have a real-time back channel between audience members during a live event (e.g. conference talk), we already had tools to do this 20 years ago. You simply create an IRC channel, and everyone joins that channel. When the event is done, the channel goes away.

    What is it specifically about Twitter that is better than what we’ve already had?

    What I’m trying to say is that I do not doubt the effectiveness of using Twitter in this very specific manner you describe. What I doubt is the usefulness of Twitter in general, non-specific, non-focused, daily situations. Because it seems that’s where you get all the “this is what I had for breakfast this morning” useless Tweets.

    And again, if the usefulness really only is for specifically-gathered tasks, what does Twitter add that we don’t already have with IRC?

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 25, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    I doubt that Twitter brings anything new to the table technically. Indeed, I believe that you can even use IRC on mobile devices. The real benefit of Twitter is that so many people are using it–people who never used IRC. Community trumps technology.

    As for the use of Twitter for banalities, I don’t see the value. But I once dismissed blogging because I thought blogs were simply “exhibitionist diaries” for similarly banal ends. This time I’m not making the same mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • 5 jeremy // Feb 26, 2009 at 2:35 am

    Isn’t this the point where I’m supposed to start pounding my fist on the table, and shouting for open standards, so that everything’s not just locked on the Twitter network, and the whole world can participate in group chat, the same way they do with email and http?

    I’m not really serious, but I’m kinda left scratching my head. I keep hearing about how Twitter is this fantastic new platform, enabling all kinds of real-time services.. much different and much better than anything that came before. But what you’re saying is that it really is just IRC, but with a larger user base? I respect the idea of following a large user base. But.. the rest of it?

    Check out this commentary-via-mashup from Nick Carr. Great stuff:

    http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2009/02/the_free_arts_a.php

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 26, 2009 at 8:32 am

    From my perspective, the large user base is really Twitter’s accomplishment, and no small one. Moreover, there’s value in their centralization–namely that conversations are logged and publicly searchable.

    For comparison, what was eBay’s great technical accomplishment? User adoption is a big deal.

  • 7 jeremy // Feb 26, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Oh, as I think I implied above, I’m not dismissing the user adoption accomplishment. I just wanted to make sure that I understood that’s what the real accomplishment was. Because Twitter has all this other functionality and form.. the asymmetry of “follows”, etc. And what I’m seeing or understanding is that none of that other stuff really has any sort of impact. The way the rest of it gets used is people just talking about what they had for breakfast. The only part with impact is the “join the group chat room” part. (And again, that becomes more useful than in the days of IRC, because of user adoption).

    Is that a fair assessment? Or is there something even more to Twitter that I am missing?

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 26, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Wait a sec–the asymmetry of follows is a big deal. If IRC doesn’t support that, then it’s a really big difference that I shouldn’t have glossed over.

  • 9 John B. Lee // Feb 26, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Isn’t the presence of lurkers the IRC analogue of assymetric following?

  • 10 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Seems a lot coarser-grained. I pick exactly whom I follow, plus I use search.twitter.com to find messages based on their content. Sounds like IRC doesn’t support that model very well.

  • 11 jeremy // Feb 26, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Yes, I’ve been saying that Twitter and IRC are not exactly the same. What prompted my original comment was the fact that the way you were using Twitter — as a conference discussion backchannel — is exactly what IRC does.

    And so what I was trying to understand is whether, in addition to IRC-like functionality, what it was you get out of Twitter. What do the asymmetric follows really do for you? And is there anything else that Twitter does for you, conceptually?

    When you are in a conference, using Twitter as an IRC channel, you are in a focused, tasked oriented, explicitly collaborative situation with your fellow Tweeters.

    However, when you’re walking down the street in Manhattan, with no specific goal, no focused task, no explicitly collaborative environment, getting random messages from your hundreds of people, what are you really getting from that? That’s what I’m trying to find out.

  • 12 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 26, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    What I get out of Twitter is an on-going, informal conversation with people I’m reasonably close to (I follow less than 80 people) and people that transiently catch my attention by tweeting at me personally, or because people I do follow tweet at them.

    You can get a taste of how I use Twitter by looking at the stream I post on the blog, which I’m pretty sure you’re subjected to when you post comments. :-)

  • 13 jeremy // Feb 26, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    I do see your Twitter feed. Maybe the interface is different on Twitter directly, but I’ve tried to read that feed and it kinda hurts my brain. The text is very.. oh how would one describe it.. noisy? Lots of slashes and colons and @s. And there don’t seem to be a lot of full sentences, which makes it even harder for me to parse/follow. It feels like very low signal to noise ratio.

    But maybe that’s just me. That is why I was asking you. :-)

  • 14 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 26, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Fair enough–I suppose that seeing snippets of someone else’s conversation isn’t quite the same as participating in it.

    The embedded URLs aren’t so ugly if you use a desktop Twitter client–or even the web client. The @s simply indicate users and are also hot links. The only pain about the syntax is that the 140-character limit leads to artificial terseness.

    Low signal to noise? That’s subjective, but you can see from my frequency of tweets that I find the conversation I experience interesting enough to engage at least daily.

  • 15 Otis Gospodnetic // Feb 26, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    I’ve used IRC 15 years ago, too…
    In my mind IRC and Twitter are quite different. With IRC you are locked into a single channel and if one is not there when you are “saying” something in that particular channel, one will not “hear” it (there may be IRC archives nowadays, which could help with this problem). There is no “native” archive, whereas with Twitter there is one’s stream. IRC also has no notion of followers.
    The fact that Twitter is a lot closer to the Web (browser) also helps with adoption. Perhaps there are browser-based IRC clients now, but I think most people use a desktop client app, so you have to know about IRC in order to get such an app and start using it.

  • 16 jeremy // Feb 26, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    With IRC you are locked into a single channel and if one is not there when you are “saying” something in that particular channel, one will not “hear” it

    It’s six of one, half dozen of the other. If I’m at a conference, and Tweeting away between attendees, if I’m not following someone, then I won’t hear them, either. So rather than have everyone follow everyone, if you’re all at a conference together, just join the IRC channel for that conference. That way you won’t miss anything.

    As for any other conversation that happens outside that channel.. you can have an interface that lets you stream multiple channels, side-by-side (a trivial engineering solution). Assuming you even want to. My main question was: Do you want to.

    Is there enough of a coherence in the dozens of people that you follow, that it ready does feel like a group conversation? Or does the asymmetry of the following make the whole experience disjointed, with sudden point-to-point (1 on 1) interesting random conversations that break out, when someone says something that sparks your interest?

    Daniel feels that the experience as a whole does enable conversation. I would be interested, if you would, Otis, in hearing your perspective as well. I don’t have a position. I just don’t get it.

    And I suppose I could join Twitter, but I can’t think of more than 2-3 people that’d I’d follow.

  • 17 Christopher // Feb 26, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I think like many other communication tools the 2 (IRC & Twitter) should be used together taking a more holistic approach to communications.

    I see Twitter as a starting or jumping off point for conversations & as a public communication platform (more on this below). Once the conversation needs to go deep I would jump off into an IRC channel to have a more interactive chat.

    Also Twitter has a broad content spectrum where IRC channels seem to be more single topic based.

    Apart from IRC vs. Twitter, I see Twitter as a superior information sharing/communication platform compared to things like Facebook. Facebook and it’s ilk really haven’t got beyond the “I’m doing X” type status updates where with Twitter I am seeing many conversational updates which lead to much fuller interactions.

    Twitter is also superior in meeting new people who share similar interests. A case in point, last night someone I follow pointed out a thread on the corpora listserv that I had not seen but held a very interesting bit of information and a link which I fed back into Twitter and it was picked up by the friend who had pointed me to the thread originally, I don’t see this happening as readily or easily on other services including IRC & Facebook.

    Twitter can be used for a lot of things which is why I deem it worthy of designation as a sharing “platform” and this is unlike most other services.

  • 18 Gene Golovchinsky // Feb 27, 2009 at 12:39 am

    Twitter is interesting in part because it seems to support a range of communication types in the same medium. There are life bloggers, digestors, amplifiers, and chatters. There may be other personality types as well, and of course many people exhibit combinations of these traits.

    As to group conversations, twitter offers the ability to filter by arbitrary keywords, which allows participation in conversations without the commitment of following someone.

    Although I was initially quite skeptical about its utility, I’ve become quite a fan.

  • 19 Otis Gospodnetic // Feb 27, 2009 at 1:04 am

    Jeremy:
    I suppose another difference might be that, like with blogs, you have to deal with “off-topic” (“off-interest) tweets/blogs, whereas in an IRC channel presumably all discussion is of interest.
    I don’t use Twitter, though, as that would be yet another source of information (overload). I do read blogs and have just subscribed to yours.

  • 20 Sérgio Nunes // Feb 27, 2009 at 4:07 am

    I think that the parallel between Twitter and IRC is a good one. However, and contrary to IRC, Twitter is asynchronous, which is a big difference – I receive the last items when I want, not when they are published. Also, while IRC is focused on the notion of “rooms”, Twitter’s emphasis is on people .

    I have seen Twitter compared to a bar or a hallway, where people chat in an ad-hoc manner. I think this captures well the type of interaction that you find in Twitter.

  • 21 jeremy // Feb 27, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Ok, so this is what I don’t get: Since Twitter follows are asymmetric, if you follow someone, and they don’t follow you, how does any of this happen?

  • 22 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 27, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    A few ways:

    – Even if you’re not following someone you can see comments they specifically address to you–in fact, if you want to get my attention, it’s easy to do so by starting a Tweet with @dtunkelang.

    – You might not be following person Y, but if you’re following person X and person X refers to person Y, you might decide to follow–or at least check out–person Y.

    – You don’t need to follow someone to see their tweets–that is, unless they “protect” their messages so that only followers can see them. By default, all posts are publicly accessible–and searchable.

    – You can not only search posts by their content, but you can set up alerts via RSS.

    Finally, some people just like to listen, so they are passive members of the ongoing conversation / chatter.

  • 23 jeremy // Feb 27, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Christopher writes: I see Twitter as a starting or jumping off point for conversations & as a public communication platform (more on this below). Once the conversation needs to go deep I would jump off into an IRC channel to have a more interactive chat.

    So to me, I’m hearing two distinct collaboration and search tools. (1) Twitter is an “expert finder”, that old idea in search about finding people with the knowledge you need to get something done, and (2) Twitter is then an IRC chatroom, for explicit collaboration about the topic that you want to work on, once you’ve found the person(s) you want to work on it with.

    So (1) is an old idea. You attach to a person all the (textual) information related to that person.. the papers they write, the talks they give, etc. And then you can use all that text in a search engine, with the goal of finding good/relevant people, rather than documents. That’s what it sounds like Twitter partially is.

    BTW, Daniel, I don’t mean to take up all the comment space — stop me if I’m asking too many questions.

  • 24 jeremy // Feb 27, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Even if you’re not following someone you can see comments they specifically address to you–in fact, if you want to get my attention, it’s easy to do so by starting a Tweet with @dtunkelang.

    Ok, Twitter is not completely asymmetric. It’s a combination strong pull (follow) mechanism, weak push (@person) mechanism. So Twitter really is two-ways.. it’s just unbalanced? Is that a fair characterization?

    Gene says: As to group conversations, twitter offers the ability to filter by arbitrary keywords, which allows participation in conversations without the commitment of following someone.

    Yes, but in conversations that I have, I don’t use the same relevant keyword in every single comment that I make. So by keyword filtering, you’ll only get a subset of the conversation, right? Or are Twitter conversations threaded?

    Daniel says: You don’t need to follow someone to see their tweets–that is, unless they “protect” their messages so that only followers can see them. By default, all posts are publicly accessible–and searchable.

    This is the same issue. So I search the public Twitter stream for the keyphrase “music information retrieval”. I only get those posts containing the term. I don’t actually get the full threads, the full backs-and-forths, do I?

  • 25 Josh Young // Feb 27, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Even if you’re not following someone you can see comments they specifically address to you–in fact, if you want to get my attention, it’s easy to do so by starting a Tweet with @dtunkelang.

    I think it’s important to remember that, as of now at least, this can only be the case for the crowd of applications built on twitter’s API. The UX at twitter.com does not expose @replies from users whom one doesn’t follow.

    This is important because the user who might want Daniel’s attention may not know whether Daniel will see the tweet just because it starts @dtunkelang. To the extent that the user is uncertain about whether Daniel will see the tweet, he’s less likely likely to send it in the first place.

    As more and more users switch from the UX at twitter.com to more powerful applications that are more likely to expose @replies, this will probably change. Then, of course, it’s important to remember that the design of the more powerful applications may change in turn.

    The guiding intuition here is that we’re pretty sure we don’t want strong push in applications like this, but we’re not sure exactly how weakly we want to be able to push. Too weak, as twitter.com probably is, and it’s too difficult to start up conversations with users who are new to us. Too strong, and spam becomes our worry. My sense is that many individual users and the broader ecosystem are still trying to find an equilibrium.

  • 26 Daniel Tunkelang // Feb 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I think it’s safe to say that Twitter is something of a hybrid, and that it is asymmetric but not quite to the extreme suggested by the follower graph.

    And the support for conversation threading is weak. Replies to indicate which post they reply to, but I don’t know if any of the Twitter clients expose conversation threads particularly well. I also don’t know if the reply-to relationships are really enough for such threading.

    Josh, your point about the behavior incentives is an important one. I think that many users know that starting a tweet with @X is likely to get X’s attention. But eventually this may lead to a spam problem–it may already for celebrity users.

    As I’ve said before, the social norms are still a work in progress.

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  • 28 Christopher // Feb 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    The neatest thing about Twitter is it is a true hybrid that fits a lot of usage & communication patterns. It’s still very young and as people start thinking about other ways to use the platform I think we will see very interesting implementations.

    Right now it’s not the best tool to have a real-time ongoing threaded conversation (IMO) like a dedicated IRC channel but I think that could change.

    For me it has become the premiere tool for communicating small bits of information, giving and soliciting information and meeting new people who you can have real interactions with. The structure of twitter allows you to find people of similar interests and once you do it enables each person to start participating. I would not be surprised if I was looking for a job that my Twitter circle would be the most efficient mechanism to find an interesting position that fits both parties.

    Because you have finite control who you follow, you have more control over the noise to signal ratio making what could be a very noisy channel not bad at all – this is quite different than most other communication tools.

  • 29 jeremy // Feb 27, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks, all, for the discussion!

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