Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Twitter: the value of constraints

Is there such a thing as information overload? According to notorious Tom-Hanks-alike and general clever bloke Clay Shirky, not really.

In the video below he contends that being overwhelmed by the sheer scope and abundance of information so readily available to us now signifies nothing more than that the filters we've been using to manage it have failed, broken down, need rethinking or need replacing: new methods of information delivery need new filters. Or at least that's the very basic gist. Why I'm posting it here is that this central idea happens to tie in very nicely with my thoughts about the value of Twitter: it's a nice enabler of conversation, but much more than that it's also a great filter for today's info-glut.

(Video from Web 2.0 Expo; found directly or indirectly via Twitter)

The internet is huge. Near limitless. We all know that, and it's incredibly exciting, but that hugeness is also very hard to manage, and somewhat overwhelming: when you pick just one of a million possible avenues to go down, you can't help but wonder about the ones you've rejected; you can't help feeling that there's all manner of interesting stuff going on that you don't know about; you can't help but feel a bit uneasy or dissatisfied, on some level, about what you're missing out on.

Feed-readers and finding the right blogs and news sites can certainly help you get a handle on it all, bring you into a smaller space, but even then the information you want (or might want) is generally delivered in a format that takes a certain amount of wading through, and that isn't without its distractions. What I think Twitter does so well, therefore, is to break the internet down even further - into much tinier chunks, perhaps the tiniest chunks possible without surrendering meaning entirely - and with the very minimum of attendant distractions and reminders of what you might be missing. It's a platform of profoundly limited functionality, but that's its greatest strength, it's why it works.

Let me explain: besides enabling communication, Twitter only really does one thing: it constrains. However, on the Net this is a distinct rarity, one which sets it apart from most other social media. Moreover, Twitter constrains in a number of ways, and as anyone who has had to work within constraints knows, constraints can provoke unexpectedly varied, numerous and creative responses (see Oulipo, Six Words, and Google's homepage doodles, for example). Not only do constraints filter, then, but they practically beg to be overcome with creativity - a killer combination for Twitter.

Firstly, Twitter imposes a character limit: immediately that strips the Net down to a manageable size, and with pretty much every link posted on Twitter necessarily accompanied by the equivalent of the one-line movie pitch, 'click or don't click' is a moment's decision - moreover, an informed one. Especially as there's another constraint at play, that the information you receive comes only from friends and other people who interest you.

The next constraint: an absolute minimum of extraneous clutter. A link in a user's bio and the customisation of their profile wallpaper is really about as distracting as Twitter's main site gets. There aren't even very many user settings and options to adjust. In other words, if you're on the Twitter site, you're there to tweet and read the tweets of the people you're following, and that's about it - communication and information are put front and centre, right in the spotlight.

Everybody else's tweets are available too, of course, but there's nothing at all on your profile page pushing you towards them, or constantly reminding you that they're there. Twitter doesn't shout at you, or nag.

Lastly, Twitter.com (at least at present) offers nothing more and nothing less than somewhere to write, read and reply to postings of 140 characters or less. And this, to me, is the masterstroke: it means the actual value of Twitter is determined almost entirely by its users, by how they choose to use and augment its basic functionality - and how much more simple and effective a method could there be to make your users feel both involved and valuable? To inspire loyalty and community, and to motivate them to make Twitter a success?

In essence: Twitter is its users.

And the things those users have done with Twitter already are amazing: genuinely useful, fun, artistic, silly, social, and frequently ingenious. And it's still early days.

But returning to Twitter as a massively effective information filter. In my short time on Twitter I've found that in the way that its constraints narrow everything down Twitter has in fact opened up the Web for me - and in a more manageable and useful way. I'm learning more from it, and I'm more excited by it than I have been in months. Its constraints seem to have the effect of focusing and more accurately directing inquiries; when I follow a link in Twitter I generally find not only a good site, but one that's well connected for further fruitful inquiry.

And this is before you even tap the knowledge of the wider Twitter community.

Now Twitter's potential as a search engine comes into play. Planning a holiday to San Diego? Type 'San Diego' into Twitter Search, or set up and monitor a search column in Tweet Deck, and you'll soon be seeing all sorts of photos, news, weather reports, and names of restaurants, hotels and bars, and so on. And should you want to know more, you can simply ask one of the people tweeting about them - which certainly isn't an option with a Google search. Arguably, too, the character limit constraint encourages responses, since with only 140 characters available replying couldn't be a lot quicker or easier. And with that initial contact so quick and easy, who knows how the conversation might develop from there - you could even end up with someone to show you the sights.

As for Twitter's potential for breaking news, and discovering breaking news, that's been widely written about already. But it certainly adds to Twitter's attractions and its capabilities as an information filter.

However, this has all been very optimistic so far. There are certainly other views doing the rounds: that Twitter is already peaking (the discussion in the comments is very interesting, btw), that its limitations will ultimately prove its undoing, and that monetising it may lead to user-alienating clutter and noise and/or a dilution of its simplicity (and thus its main strength). But for now, inevitably, that's all speculation: only time - and the inventiveness of Twitter's userbase - will tell. Personally, I hope Twitter keeps things simple and disorganised - for me, that's what makes it work, it's what drives its users to create, to co-operate, and to filter. And as I said above, Twitter is its users. That's why it's so exciting.

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