On Twitter

So, there’s this thing called Twitter. If you’re not familiar with it, you can check Wikipedia (it’s a “microblogging and social networking service”), or read Wired’s article (“proprioception for the web”). Or you can check out the nay-sayers; Mat Balez says Twitter has “no substance”, “no deep content, and nothing to learn”. Or you can look for balanced analysis, like danah boyd’s. There’s more, of course — the good, the bad, the fanboys, and the haters — check the Technorati tag for Twitter, and you’ll find lots, LOTS more of all stripes of commentary.

I heard about Twitter on library blogs, and I was disinterested. I didn’t get it, didn’t see why it was going to be useful, why I would want to be involved.

And then I went to Computers in Libraries.

I signed up for a Twitter account rapid-quick-fast-hooboy. I used it to track where my friends were at the conference, to see what presentations were hot, which were boring, where the big news was coming out. I watched colleagues with better phones than I have use Twitter to mobile-ly gather the party at the restaurant. I watched as a colleague in Wisconsin answered a (slightly off-color, tongue-in-cheek) Twittered reference question for a group of librarians laughing at a bar in Virginia. And when I got home from the conference, I was able to keep in passive contact — a passive awareness, like the proprioception referred to in the Wired piece — with all of those scattered friends, colleagues, and peers.

I also get Tweets from Captain Mal of the Serenity, and from Darth Vader. That just tickles my geek bone.

Beyond the geek, though, Twitter does have a use for me, it turns out. I know that Dorothea has a headache today, and was able to extend some sympathy and caring to a very far-away friend. I gently whined this afternoon that I had forgotten a CD I wanted to listen to, and a friend pointed me to a source for the song I was craving. Librarians regularly ask questions of (and get answers from) their friends on IT issues, job searches, reference queries, conference details, and, of course, the generally trivial like “what kind of tea should I have with lunch?”

Regardless of the trivial — and maybe because of it — it’s working for me, on a lot of levels.

The analysis that resonates most for me is Dorothea’s. Using a lovely passage from Le Guin’s Tehanu as a starting point, she writes,

“…something is lurking in that, something that indeed concerns the care and feeding—and just plain awareness—of where our social connections are… in time, in space, in mental-space, in okay-space. … For those of us, like Tenar, who do or must pay attention, Twitter … simplifies the task of maintaining that awareness. Who’s up, who’s down, who needs help, who can give it, who’s traveling, who’s bored at home, who’s in crisis, who’s out to lunch.”

Yes. I feel more connected to my group of Twitter Friends (and my IM friends, and my email friends, and my forum friends, and my Meebo friends) because of the blend of professional, unprofessional, pointless, pointed, and generally all-over-the-map communications that Twitter (IM, email, etc) provides. I’m learning things. I’m getting support when I need it. I’m having a good time. I’ve asked for troubleshooting help with databases having real-time connection errors, have solicited and provided links on a whole slew of subjects, and generally felt like Twitter was one of the professional resources in my toolbelt. For a group of natural helpers like academics and librarians, Twitter offers the opportunity to ask and to assist, without directly intruding, without forcing a response, without requiring attention. When Twitterers are able, they pay attention. When they’re not, they don’t. The community continues on, the conversations ebb and flow.

And all of that is good enough for me. Even if it is a pointless web fad.


  1. Double Word! I even blogged that I didn’t think I’d like Twitter precisely because I thought it wouldn’t make me feel closer to my friends and colleagues. And it absolutely has. I think mostly because Twitter is set up to do “micro-blogging,” but where it really shines is in “micro-conversations.” I was proven wrong, and I’m big enough to admit it.


  2. Totally. I love that I have a sense of what’s going on with this huge, diverse group of people — most of whom I’ve met once or not at all, but who I feel connected to — without needing the structured (relative) formality of an email, IM, or phone call. It’s the micro-conversations that make it work for me. But I suspect that people who have a hard time with the concept of Continuous Partial Attention will never find that same value in it — it resides in a particular technology niche that requires CPA.


  3. Yeah, you’ve nailed it. I’m not sure that anything I’ve encountered in librarianship is both as useful and as fun as Twitter and the LSW Meebo room.


  4. Jenica, It’s not that some of us have a hard time with the concept of CPA–it’s that we have a hard time with CPA itself, at least if we’re trying to get really good work done. There’s a difference.

    For me, Twitter was somewhere between a failure and a disaster. For you and for Josh, the reverse. As long as neither of you start posting directly from Twitter to your blog, that’s as it should be: Different tools for different people.


  5. Walt, smart correction. You’re right — I was typing faster than I was thinking. (another problem altogether…)

    I wonder how many conversations reach an impasse, face to face or otherwise, because the technology evangelist doesn’t realize that the tool in question requires CPA, and the audience isn’t on board with, comfortable with, or capable of effectively employing CPA.

    I suspect I’ve been guilty of just that, myself.

    And, also, different tools for different purposes. I’d never try to have this conversation over Twitter, for example.


  6. Amen to the posts and the comments. I also wrote one of those “what *is* this thing” posts, and now I love having the option of keeping up with professionals I enjoy, care about, and learn from. But I’d also say that there are a couple of things that make this (and the Meebo room) work that have nothing to do with the tools. It’s full of a self-selecting group of fun/smart/engaged people, and it lets me tune in or tune out according to my schedule. (And of course, it’s better if you don’t have way more “friends” than you can comfortably follow.) It’s incredibly satisfying to get to know people in this less formal context, people whom I might otherwise only see if they were presenting at conferences.


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