You Just Don’t Get Twitter!

welcome-to-south-by-southwest-2009-sxswcomAt the South by Southwest Interactive conference this past weekend I attended a number of sessions that dealt with the sociological effects of our new suite of social networking tools including twitter, facebook, online dating sites, blogs, and news and tech forums.  At each talk during the five-day conference, a twitter hash tag was used to coordinate a background discussion on the topic being presented.  This twitter stream was often used to steer the direction of the presentation and was used for questions during the Q & A period.

In “Change Your World in 50 Minutes: Making Breakthroughs Happen,” Kathy Sierra talked about how she had famously avoided using twitter for years.  People would insist, however, that, “You just don’t get twitter!”  and in this talk she finally conceded to the mysterious genius of twitter—something no one seems to be able to really explain except by presenting a series of anecdotes about how twitter has changed their life.

Right after her talk Bruce Sterling took the stage for his meandering poetic monologue on the state of cyberspace.  About half-way through the talk he got to the topic of twitter and looked out upon a sea of twittering audience members, paused a moment to listen to the tap-tap-tap of keyboards, before saying something like, “you listen to what’s being said for 2 minutes and then have to let everyone know what you heard so you twitter about it and then miss the part where I talk about dogs fucking horses… Don’t fool yourself–you are losing out here!”

The topic of using twitter during presentations was directly addressed in “Presenting Straight to the Brain.”  One panelist stated, “in board meetings, when I see people put their hands into a prayer position and look down at the blackberries, I know that I’ve failed them as a presenter.”   Another panelist countered, “I think having a background twitter conversation in parallel to the presentation can be useful.”

Personally, I didn’t use twitter during talks.  You’ll see on my feed that the last of my 6 updates was a message to Sonali asking which conference room she was in.  Wow that’s lame!  That probably should have been a direct message.  But I did witness people summarizing a presentation in a blog post while tweeting highlights, reading a steady flow of incoming tweets, and still paying enough attention to ask questions.  It was pretty impressive!

But is that it?  Were they losing out on anything?  In “Brave New Dating” on the first night of the conference someone said that, “in a conversation between two people, 80% of what is communicated is not in the words.”  Rather it is in the tone of voice, the body language, and perhaps, the silent pauses.  Is this true too for technical talks?  In “Can Social Media End Racism?” how important is it to see the glimmer of emotion in the eye of a presenter, to see the way a particular person stands as they ask a question.  Are these subtle signals important to us?

On the last day of the conference I attended “Therapy 2.0: Mental Health for Geeks.”  This was hosted by a Stanford psychotherapist and played out as a support group to air out grievances with the new technology.  One woman summed it up nicely as she talked about her numerous streams of information and communication from facebook, twitter, text messages, voicemail, personal email, company email, personal blog comments, RSS, etc. being constantly delivered to her computers and iPhone and her addiction and anxiety related to them.  She spoke about her loss of solitude, overall dis-enpowerment, and the loss of a feeling of wholeness in her life.

Another person described the mixed feelings on seeing 10 new message in his inbox as both a relief at being validated as a person and also irritation at the obligation to read and respond to the emails.  And there were the coping mechanisms: One woman admitted that she had about 500 messages in her facebook inbox which she would probably never read.  Another person said that they don’t check their voicemail anymore and say so in their voicemail message.

I posed the question, “are these neurosis really new forms of suffering or are they just new ways of manifesting the age-old dis-ease with our lives?”  Perhaps thirty years ago we suffered just as much but it was based around different things, like television or UFO attacks.  What I was trying to get at is whether the problem was in the technology or in the person using the technology (or both).  There were no easy answers here.

Of course, throughout this conversation, someone’s phone buzzed loudly at least once a minute, perhaps as they received new tweets from their friends.  At one point a woman held her head wincing and with all seriousness said, “Whoever’s phone keeps buzzing throughout this last hour, it is really affecting my peace of mind.”  There were a few muffled laughs, an awkward silence, and then an other buzz.

Towards the end of the session, the facilitator directed the conversation to the ways that our Web 2.0 tools were helping us.  People spoke about things like online support groups,, accessible medical information, and airline status updates.  It was a relief to direct our attention to the positive side of things.

So I left South by Southwest with more questions than answers and an increased awareness of the issues with designing technology to really help us live our lives.

3 Responses to “You Just Don’t Get Twitter!”

  1. Seb Says:

    Fascinating post, Chris. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Chris Abraham Says:

  3. Sonali Says:

    I was very amused by how seriously people get involved with their online worlds. It is fascinating to me that people stress out by social media, obligations and such. I am very loyal to the set of tools I use but at the end of the day they are only tools they are not filling any void in ones personality or life. The therapy piece was funny!