Monday, February 23, 2009

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet

We have discussed the technology developed by before (here), with a particular emphasis on the information that can be generated from the search tool (using applications from Summize Labs). Since then Summize Labs was acquired by Twitter (see the story from the Twitter blog here). One used to be able to enter a topic in the Summize Labs search engine to find up-to-the-second "tweets" about that topic, then automatically analyze the tweeted attitudes. According to the story on the Twitter blog, they said they would add search and its related features to their core offering. So far, all I can see available is a limited search application (here), which also shows some trending topics. if anyone is aware of other features that are currently available, I would be interseted to hear about them.

Besides using Twitter data in novel applications, we have also discussed offline how Twitter might be a useful tool at academic (and other types of) conferences. The essence of Twitter is not to provide data for social scientists; rather - it is about sending a series of thoughts - each of 140 characters or less - to a network of friends (using a laptop or mobile phone). Importantly, anyone can listen in - you can send a universal text message to the whole planet - as James Harkin describes it in a recent Times article. The article also covers an apparent backlash against the use of Twitter. The criticism is "why would anyone want to dedicate time informing everyone in the world what he or she is up to at any given moment?" The answer, is the idea of “being in the loop”.

A Sunday Times article from yesterday (by Andy Pemberton) further develops the criticisms that are being made about the use of Twitter. According to Pemberton, it’s a fair question to ask "what kind of person shares information with the world the minute they get it? And just who are the “followers” willing to tune into this rolling news service of the ego?" Pemberton mentions the suggestion by clinical psychologist Oliver James that “twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.” According to Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex, “using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist."

The criticisms above may seem somewhat extreme to avid Twitter users - and maybe Twitter is just an added layer of online social capital, or a bit of fun, for most users. I've blogged recently (here and here) about personality and usage of online social networks such as Bebo or Facebook; a similar study on Twitter usage could be illuminating. Alain de Botton (author of Status Anxiety) offers the most sanguine comment in the article by Andy Pemberton: “Perhaps closeness is not always possible, or desirable. Twitter gives us another option. It says: I want to be in contact with you, but not too much. It’s the equivalent of sending a postcard.”

Finally, in terms of how Twitter may be useful for conferences and other activities, the Pemberton artcile mentions that companies such as Starbucks have been quick to recognise the marketing potential of Twitter; even think tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research have begun using twitter to publicise their activities.
Despite the criticism from some quarters, Twitter boasts 6m users — small compared to Facebook’s 150m — but its audience has surged by more than 1,000% in the past year. Right now, the San Francisco-based company that owns Twitter is valued at $250m, its inventors recently rejected an offer from Facebook to buy their company for $500m. The article by James Harkin is followed with a short piece by Mike Harvey, which contains five tips for those who wanted to start tweeting.


Gerard O'Neill said...

Having tried twitter for a few months I have decided to give it up. Partly due to time (too much information/life's busy enough with rss feeds and what have you), and partly because it felt like I was listening to other people's telephone conversations, and only hearing their halves of them.

That and an email inbox that kept filling up with not very interesting not usually relevant tweets.

And - deep inhalation - I actually, er, got bored with it. There, I said it.

Martin Ryan said...


Its interesting to get feedback like this from someone who's used the service for a few months. I'm also aware of somebody who stopped using Facebook recently for similar reasons.

Liam Delaney said...

I made only small attempts to use it - my surface impression is that it is a great technology searching for good uses - rapid dissemination among a team of people working together on a task seems one use.

Gerard O'Neill said...

BTW: I use twilerts to keep an eye on what's happening in the twittersphere - much more manageable, and you don't need to be on twitter:

Last comment - this from the always delightful Ad Contrarian:

"I have summed up my opinion of Twitter in the following way: It's how the narcissistic keep in touch with the feckless."