Writing as we speak

We really need to update our understanding of written communication. As it is, we’re still behaving as if we were living in the era of the letter, not that of the email – and definitely not that of Twitter. I’ve been thinking about this ever since that poor, unfortunate man in Doncaster was found guilty of threatening to blow up an airport following a mini-rant on Twitter – after he found the airport shut by snow.

The judge is quoted as describing the man’s tweet as

of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.

But this is rubbish, precisely because of that very context. The times in which we live are times in which we often use the written word as would speech – because it’s almost as easy and as quick. We wouldn’t assume that someone who shouts “I’ll kill you!” on discovering that their partner/colleague has done something stupid is actually intending to murder this annoying individual, especially if we could see that the individual supposedly being threatened was not even present.  So why assume that the man from Doncaster was serious when he tweeted that he would “blow you sky high”, addressing the airport but sending the message to his his Followers, i.e. those that subscribe to his feed?

And bear in mind that this was a tweet. Twitter is a sort of virtual blackboard on which people chalk up whatever’s on their mind at that instant. The atmosphere, generally speaking, is rather like you’d find in the kitchen at work: groups of people moaning, gossiping, joking and taking the mickey out of one another. It might be public but it’s experienced as private. The problem is we don’t yet have a model for these public/private virtual spaces.

Probably the most ironic thing about all this is that in venting his frustrations into the wonderful void that is Twitter our friend in Doncaster was dissipating anger that he might otherwise have ended up directing at the airport staff. That aside, the fact is that a man lost his job and ended up in court because of a failure to recognise how deeply the internet has altered the way we communicate. And we’re no safer from terrorist threats.

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These are a few of my favourite tweets

What is the point of Twitter? This is a question i’ve heard asked quite a few times over the past month, most recently by one of my colleagues. ‘What is it for?’ he said, ‘What does it do?’ Like most people all he really knew was that each post to Twitter, or tweet, is restricted to a maximum of 140 characters. ‘What’s the point?’

The best answer i could give him is that Twitter is like a cross between a blog, instant messaging (IM) message service and bookmarking service, the balance between these three aspects depending on each user. To get a flavour of how differently Twitter can be used it may be useful to look at the extremes:

THE MICROBLOGGER

There are some users who stick to the original idea behind Twitter: they blog – or rather microblog – and they do nothing else. In particular, they don’t engage in chat with other users. To observe their timelines is to see a long line of statements radiating out into the universe. I’m reminded of radio broadcasts. Often these people tweet only intermittently and make little attempt to join their tweets together or provide context.

THE INSTANT MESSAGER

The timelines of the IM style users look like conversations. Most tweets are prefixed by the @ symbol which indicates a tweet directed to a specific person – although it can also be read by anyone else who follows both the sender and the addressee. Often the user will have lots of different chats going on at the same time.

THE BOOKMARKER

In the timelines of those who use Twitter primarily as a bookmarking service we see a proliferation not of @ symbols, but of links. Some users focus on particular areas of interest while others are far more eclectic, but with all these users there’s a relative absence of personal statements. There are also often quite a few tweets prefixed with “RT”, which stands for “Re-Tweet”. This is a method of recommending and rebroadcasting other users’ tweets.

These are, as i indicated above, extremes. In reality few people use Twitter exclusively in one way – indeed it’s the variation which makes it such a vibrant social network.

And in case you still can’t see the attraction, here are four of my favourite tweets – perhaps they will convince you:

Rebeckyroberts: We washed the guinea pig today and then wrapped her in a white pillowcase. She looked like a furry faced baby Jesus.

Transguys: I watched two big bucks duke it out outside my bedroom window this evening. The doe continued her meal as she watched them fight for her.

BrianPike: Cat appeared this morning with a ’35p’ price ticket stuck to his bottom. Can’t help feeling he’s undervaluing himself.

Rebeckyroberts: Wilma has been delivered. She is a magnificent bone crushing bitch! She has a conveyor belt even, and farts out diesel fumes! I love her!