Neal Ford  |
  • Author, Thoughtworker, & Meme Wrangler

Why Twitter Matters

Lots of people just Don’t Get(tm) social networking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, and especially Twitter. On the face of it, Twitter doesn’t seem to make much sense: 140 character updates. But those of us who use Twitter a lot (I’m @neal4d, BTW) know that it’s much more than that. Twitter engenders so much puzzlement because it’s so restrictive, but the restriction is the genius of Twitter.

Andrew McAfee of Harvard has done a lot of research on how social networking intersects with the enterprise (soon to be captured in a book I can’t wait to read, Enterprise 2.0). I saw him talk recently about why social networking is a valuable resource left barren by most companies. He defines 3 kinds of social links: strong, weak, and potential, shown in a bulls-eye layout:

bulleye diagram

Your strong links are the people you see regularly, either at the office or during the normal course of your life. There’s a good chance you know what these people had for lunch, or at least one of their meals in the last week. The next layer represents your weak links. These are people you see intermittently (perhaps once a year). They are your friends that you don’t get to see on a regular basis (because of geography, for example). A good example for me is my friend Hadi Hariri, who lives in Malaga, Spain. He & I see each other perhaps once a year (generally at conferences) and always have good fun & conversation. It’s this group that social networking sites support. This is a valuable link because you are more likely to get novel ideas from this group than from your strong group. Before social networks, how did you keep up with your weak links? The Christmas Letter, summarizing a year’s events? You are wasting an important link if you can’t reach out to your weak links sometimes. You see your strong group all the time, so they hold few surprises. However, your larger and more diverse weak links provide novelty. The potential links are those who you’ll form weak & strong links with, but you haven’t met them yet. You’re also more likely to be introduced to a potential links through your weak links.

Twitter provides a strong connectivity to your weak link. Here’s an example of how weak links can lead down interesting paths. I met someone at the erubycon conference last year who’s a well known figure in the Rails world and subsequently started follow his Twitter feed. He had very recently gone vegan for health reasons, and he tweeted a reference to an astounding book called The China Study. I read this book (and several other referenced in it) and have since been strictly vegetarian, at least for the time being. It’s worth reading: it lays out the case against animal protein in your diet, and backs up the claims with real science. It’s a profound book, enough to convince me to change my eating habits. I don’t know if I’ll stay this way forever, but I’ve been there for about 6 weeks and it has been quite pleasant. He was very much a weak link; I would have a hard time spotting him in a room. Yet we share enough context in the Ruby community for me to use him as a source of ideas, which sometimes lead to interesting places. In this case, I wouldn’t currently be vegetarian if it wasn’t for Twitter.

Finding a good mechanism for maintaining weak links and finding (and exploring) potential links allows you to work smarter because you have a broader arena for ideation. The combination of links, constraint, and meme ooze make Twitter very useful to me. I explore these other two aspects in upcoming posts.

Conversations vs. Monologues

The 140 character limit is perhaps the most distinctive characteristics of Twitter. Some of my Twitter friends have commented that conversations on Twitter tend to be more civil: you just can’t cram much message and bile into a 140-character message. This has happened to me: carrying on a debate on Twitter is an interesting exercise in conciseness. Tight constraint is a forcing function on creativity: sensibility, lucidity, and articularity in just 140 characters is tough. You would think that all discussions on Twitter are either about trivial subjects (so that you can fit it into the built-in limit) or quickly degrade into multi-part messages. While the latter happens sometimes, it is rare in my experience, and the former doesn’t occur as much as you might think.

An example is in order. I recently posted a message in response to Jim Weirich that I thought that cyclomatic complexity wasn’t as useful a metric in Ruby because so much of the things that normally require loops and branches are so handily encapsulated in powerful libraries. Thus, this effect causes cyclomatic complexity numbers to be lower when comparing apples-to-apples code in Java & Ruby. Jim correctly pointed out that that does in fact make the Ruby code simpler, and therefore cyclomatic complexity is measuring exactly what it is supposed to measure. During this same discussion, Glenn Vanderburg weighed in on a related subject, and then so did Ola Bini. The conversation quickly turned to the Sapir-Whorf Hyphothesis and how viable it is for spoken languages (not much) and computer languages (much more so). Along they way, I learned the distinction between the strong and weak versions of Sapir-Whorf. All this took place over about 20 minutes, 140 characters at a time. Yet at the end, I knew a lot more than when I started. The combination of (shortened) links to external sources and brief forays kept the conversation focused, covering just a few topics and exploring the implications between them.

How would the conversation work without Twitter? It could only work if all the interested parties (myself, Jim, Glenn, and Ola) were somehow on the same email mailing list or happened to be at the same place at the same time. While our location does coincide occasionally, it’s rare (we’re based in Atlanta (sometimes), Cincinnati, Dallas, and Stockholm). Even so, the topic would have to come up in conversation. If we were on the same mailing list, the conversation would proceed differently. Because there is no character limit on email (I’ll let you immerse yourself in the fantasy of a limitimg function on email for just a second), it’s no longer a conversation, it’s a series of monologues.

A tricky balance exists between constraint and creativity. Obviously you can cram more information and context into a sonnet than a Haiku (I explored this idea in a blog series about the expressiveness of the Ruby language back in 2007). 140 characters seems to be a bit of a sweet spot: enough to convey some thought but not enough to go overboard. Composing a good Twitter update is different from composing an entire blog but they aren’t as far apart as you might think. I certainly have noticed that the people who both Twitter and blog have cut down on the number of blog entries they write. I’m certainly that way. It used to be that I would blog for 2 types of messages: short announcement type blogs (“I’m speaking at Random City Users Group next week”) and essays. Now, all the short announcements happen on Twitter, leaving my blog for more formal essays. I like this distinction because I find that the blogs I read tend to be more substantive.

There is no question that most of what comes through Twitter aren’t deep thoughts (many think that Twitter is just for food and travel). I find that people who only post obvious messages, too much information, or too much that I either don’t care about or I find offensive don’t stay on my list of people I follow long. There is at least one prominent technologist who mixes his interesting posts with right-wing bile, and I dropped him like a hot potato because I don’t need a subscription to a channel for mis-informed dogma. Managing your user list becomes important in Twitter so that you filter out stuff you don’t want or need.

Twitter creates a new communication stream for those who contribute and consume Tweets (conversations vs. monologues). By creating a new specifically constrained communication channel, it moves conversations that used to occupy other spaces to a more appropriate space. This combination of a new conversational outlet between people with who I maintain weak links and the built-in constraints mean that I have a new source of ideas (both raw ideas and refinements of my ideas) to keep my brain percolating. In the next post, I explore the idea that Twitter can be a form of meme generator.

The Meme Abiogenesis of the Internet

Abiogenesis, the study of how a primordial soup of chemicals eventually lead to amino acids and life, is an area of fascinating study by biologists. This spontaneous generation of life happened here a long time ago, and its study obviously interests those investigating life on other planets because this primordial soup seems to be the first prerequisite for life as we know it.

You can think of the Internet as a free-form gathering place for memes, an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed on from one individual to another by non-genetic means. Examples of memes include hit songs, water-cooler conversations about hit TV shows, and things like communism. If you are in the idea business (meaning that you are always looking for new sources of ideas and how to apply them to a broad subject like software development), you are always on the lookout for primordial meme pools. Twitter meets that goal admirably. As I mentioned in the first installment, weak social links are your best source for “outside the box” ideas. That makes Twitter a great place to harvest and generate new ideas. New ideas frequently start from seeds of an idea that are nourished into full-formed thoughts. Twitter now only delivers these seeds to your door, you can use them as an incubator for your own seeds.

Here’s an example. One of my recent blog entries was called the Suck - Rock Dichotomy. That particular turn of phrase came from a quick one-off Twitter entry where I was responding to a Tweet from someone that combined rock and suck. I mentioned that the entire argument was really part of the pervasive suck/rock dichotomy in the software world. That worked nicely in a 140 character Twitter post, and it was modestly re-tweeted. But it started more serious thinking on why that phenomena exists, which further lead me to an entire blog post (i.e., essay) on the subject. The turn of phrase came from me, but in response to some other stimuli. Would I have ended up writing a blog post on that subject if it hadn’t come up in a virtual conversation? Probably eventually, but having a conversational medium close by encouraged the original Tweet, which lead to more fully formed thoughts about the subject.

Finding new sources of in-context ideas is a gold mine because you can never tell what fruit those idea seedlings will bear. Yes, 99% of Twitter is mindless trivia, but discovering or creating a new idea that you wouldn’t have had otherwise? Priceless. People complain that most of Twitter is drivel, and I won’t dispute that against overwhelming evidence, but the remaining usefulness is an artifact of the volume of memes present. Here’s an analogy. Numbers vary, but some sources suggest that up to 95% of the human genome is “junk DNA”, DNA that isn’t used (or at least its use hasn’t been determined). That’s how nature tries out new ideas, and the really good ones survive. Most of Twitter is junk, but good ideas do lurk in these murky meme pools.

Twitter has evolved to fill a niche that didn’t exist before. Just like any social environment, users have to figure out a way that it can provide value. I’ve certainly found that for me. The combination of keeping up with my weak social links, having terse conversations vs. email monologues, the enforced constraint to keep ideas atomic, and the new medium of ideas forms a completely unanticipated but welcome enhancement to the way I work. Rather than cast stones at new technologies like social networks, ask yourself why people find it useful and how can it be useful to you. The answer may be “no”, but you need to understand why it matters before dismissing it.

Empowering Sinookas using Social Networks to Maintain a Durass

One of the recommendations I frequently give at conferences when asked about “What books are you reading” is to get out of the purely technical realm often so that you can communicate more effectively with the other humanoids. One of the common recommendations is to read all of the books by Kurt Vonnegut. One of his books I recently re-read (for probably the 15th time) is Cat’s Cradle. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut defines a new religion called Bokononism (one of the first lines of the novel states that if you have a hard time believing that a perfectly useful religion can’t be based entirely on lies, you won’t like the book). Bokononism defines a bunch of new terms, which relates to the point of this blog.

First, some definitions from Bokononism:

OK, so what does this have to do with anything useful? I travel a lot, even for a ThoughtWorker (a little over 200K miles this year). Of course, my wife hates the amount that I travel, but it’s an occupational hazard. One of the things that makes us miss each other are the little unimportant side conversations we have when we are together: little meaningless observations, inside jokes, just the kind of things that people in a duprass do all the time. So I built a sinookas using Twitter.

I created a new GMail account for myself and one for my wife. Using each of those GMail accounts, I created a new Twitter account with protected updates for each of us, and we only subscribe to each other’s Twitter stream. All the good Twitter clients make it easy to change accounts, so I have used this to create a private back channel for ongoing duprass style conversations (in other words, a sinookas). This isn’t the wampeter of our duprass, but it does make the sinookas stronger. It’s been great, and it’s something that I recommend all traveling road warriors set up.

Now, my wife & I can have an ongoing private conversation about stuff that wouldn’t make sense (or would be too politically incorrect) on a public feed. That allows us to miss each other less. Who says that you can’t have a perfectly useful social network with just 2 people?

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Neal Ford  |
  • Author, Thoughtworker, & Meme Wrangler