Twitter has been described as perhaps one of the greatest technological innovations since the telegraph. It will better connect us. Perhaps. But what will it undo?
Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the 12th century to remind workers to take periodic Sabbath breaks. They never imagined someone like Frederick Taylor, known as the Father of Scientific Management, would use clocks to time workers in order to increase productivity.
William Farish (a Cambridge University tutor) never imagined his idea of numerical grading—unheard of before his time—would eventually marginalize mentoring. Before 1792, students were evaluated through dialogue, not digits. This conversation required a tutor. Numerical grading has wiped out mentoring.
Now consider Twitter—a wonderful new technology promising us the world. It can do a lot. What might it undo? How about paying attention?
This idea [of concise communication] certainly isn't new. How about the book of Proverbs? "When words are many, sin is not absent, / but he who holds his tongue is wise" (10:19). At seventy-eight characters, including spaces and punctuation, eminently tweetable. What about memorable speeches? We don't remember the whole speech. But the short quotes are bite-sized, so they stick. "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" (seventy-nine characters). Long? No. Meaningful? Yes. Or how about song lyrics? "I have run, I have crawled, I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for"--128 characters. Tweet it, baby.
This highly lauded poem by William Carlos Williams could be tweeted with 51 characters to spare:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Or this Japanese Haiku:
old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
Simple. Beautiful. Tweet-worthy.
Some young pastors want to posts tweets on a screen where everyone can see them during worship, I guess to connect by knowing what others are thinking. One said, “You know our generation. We want our voices heard.”
Now, I have learned a few things along the way and one is this: We all want our voices heard. But self-expression is what happens when we tweet. Being heard happens when we listen. It’s not the same thing.
Where once homegrown recipes were disseminated in Ann Landers columns or Junior League cookbooks, new media have changed — and greatly accelerated — the path to popularity. Few recipes have cruised down this path as fast or as far as the Bacon Explosion, and this turns out to be no accident. One of its inventors works as an Internet marketer, and had a sophisticated understanding of how the latest tools of promotion could be applied to a four-pound roll of pork.
The Bacon Explosion was born shortly before Christmas in Roeland Park, Kan., in Jason Day’s kitchen. He and Aaron Chronister, who anchor a barbecue team called Burnt Finger BBQ, were discussing a challenge from a bacon lover they received on their Twitter text-messaging service: What could the barbecuers do with bacon? . . .
Mr. Chronister explained that the Bacon Explosion “got so much traction on the Web because it seems so over the top.” But Mr. Chronister, an Internet marketer from Kansas City, Mo., did what he could to help it along. He first used Twitter to send short text messages about the recipe to his 1,200 Twitter followers, many of them fellow Internet marketers with extensive social networks. He also posted links on social networking sites. “I used a lot of my connections to get it out there and to push it,” he said.
Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet, noticed that communication networks tend to increase exponentially with each single addition, a logic that today is called Metcalfe’s Law. Think of a fax machine sitting alone and unplugged in your office; it has little value by itself. But plug it into a network of fax machines around the world, and suddenly that communications tool has huge potential. . . .
But Metcalfe’s concept doesn’t apply to Twitter. The explanation why comes from two fellows named Zipf and Dunbar. Back in 1935, linguist George Zipf noticed that words in the English language are used in an interesting pattern. “The” is spoken most commonly, making up 7% of all utterances; “of” is the second-most common word, used exactly one-half as often as “the”…and the pattern continues with the 100th word in popularity being used only 1/100th as often. Zipf’s Law suggests that each subsequent thing in any series (such as your Twitter contacts) has predictable diminishing value. Your spouse is more important than your best friend, who outranks your boss, colleague, and that guy you met on a plane from Chicago. Inside the 2.3 million-strong Twitter network, not all connections are equal, and some will never be used at all. You will probably never send tweets to ice skaters in Finland.
Further depressing Twitter’s internal value is a concept from British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who noted in 1992 that humans—like other primates—can handle only 150 relationships. If we try to add many more connections, our little brains get overloaded.
These are just theories, but they point out that Twitter is not a vast communications network of 2.3 million users squared. Rather, it consists of small pools of people with gaps and limits on how they interact. This is important to marketers and investors, because it puts big brakes on how internal communications could propagate inside any social media network.