Twitter, Transience, Time, And Tempo

Anil Dash does a great job of framing the transience of Twitter, characterizing it as a ‘lossy’ system, where we don’t necessarily see every item and finding old tweets can be difficult if not impossible:

Anil Dash, If You Didn’t Blog It, It Didn’t Happen


Now, Twitter and other stream-based flows of information provide an important role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won’t see every message that comes along. There’s no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.

However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there’s also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.


So, if most tweets are too ephemeral to reach their full potential as ideas, what do we do about it? Well, obviously, one big step would be to simply make sure to blog any idea that’s worth preserving. It’s perfectly fine to tweet about trivialities — I do it all the time! But if you’re tweeting about your work, your passion, or something meaningful to you, you owe it to your ideas to actually preserve them somewhere more persistent.

And, of course, I should make a pitch that this is part of the reason I am so enamored of the work the ThinkUp community is doing. A free, thriving, powerful, relatively accessible app that archives Twitter and Facebook updates with a mind towards incorporating them into more persistent and meaningful media is an essential part of the ecosystem. This is especially true as political, social and artistic leaders start to rely on these ephemeral media, without realizing the cultural costs to those choices.

Given enough time, and without substantial changes to the way the big social networks work, if you didn’t blog it, it didn’t happen. In fact, I first wrote about this idea a bit on Twitter a few years ago. See if you can find it.

I agree with Anil: anyone who wants to hold onto an idea, and build on it, should put it in a blog post. Sure; twitter out a link to the post, get it out into the stream, but anchor it to something fixed, accessible, and easily addressable.

The utility of streaming media – like Twitter – isn’t necessarily pegged to the lossiness of the system, though. That’s just an artifact of the technology being used, like pixelation on low res displays, or the fact that new paper money can give you a paper cut: it’s not a function of the meaning of money or computers.

Twitter doesn’t have to be a black hole for ideas. Better search tools or better clients could hold onto tweets we read, retweeted, liked, shared, or tagged. It’s the tools that are limited, not the stream medium.

And having better tools wouldn’t necessarily mean that Twitter would lose its streaming character. One of the pivotal characteristics of the streaming medium is not being an inbox: tweets fall off the end on their own, without me having to file them or delete them. But that doesn’t mean they fall into nothingness. 

Streams could be made richer. I would like to imagine advances like these coming out in the near term:

  • Why do all tweets have to move at the same speed, in a fixed order? I could imagine a client that would have the most interesting tweets move more slowly, with the less interesting ones disappearing more quickly, where ‘interesting’ is defined in any number of ways.
  • Couldn’t related tweets be aggregated? Like when seven of my sources all tweet references to the same URL? Why do I have to infer this connection?
  • Couldn’t a twitter client keep a store of all the tweets I’ve posted? And references to them? Is we can’t depend on Twitter, why can’t we have something like ThinkUp’s capabilities in our Twitter tools? 
  • And if I have to write down and conserve longer posts – as most do today on Workpress or Tumblr – why isn’t that experience more integrated? Perhaps a unified tool where creating, publishing, and retaining the long format posts is closely integrated to our experience of the stream? I can imagine a Tumblr-like product, but where the social dimension is a combination of Tumblr-like reblogs and likes along with the gestures embedded in the Twitter stream. I think that would be a killer product, one that Twitter should build, honestly.

Lurking behind Anil’s practicality are the more philosophical issues of time and transience. Yes, we don’t need to retain every tweet ever read or written. We can accept the fast and furious impermanence of most tweets, and the up tempo pace of the Twitter bloodstream. But we want to also operate at a slower pace, dealing with deeper and abiding interests, ideas, and connections. We need to be able to shift tempo without missing a beat.

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