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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Anil Dash, What Medium Is
Anil Dash, The Web We Lost
I was involved in a twitter thread today with Ben Zimmer, who is a well-known lexicographer, and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. He has been researching the Twitter hashtag, which was recently selected as Word Of The Year:
In its 23rd annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted “hashtag” as the word of the year for 2012. Hashtag refers to the practice used on Twitter for marking topics or making commentary by means of a hash symbol (#) followed by a word or phrase.
Presiding at the Jan. 4 voting session were ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College, and Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Zimmer is also a language columnist for the Boston Globe.
“This was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk,” Zimmer said. “In the Twittersphere and elsewhere, hashtags have created instant social trends, spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture.”
Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as “vocabulary item” — not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year. The vote is the longest-running such vote anywhere, the only one not tied to commercial interests, and the word-of-the-year event up to which all others lead. It is fully informed by the members’ expertise in the study of words, but it is far from a solemn occasion. Members in the 124-year-old organization include linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, and independent scholars. In conducting the vote, they act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language. Instead they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining.
One interesting wrinkle is that Zimmer contends that I was the first to use the term ‘hashtag’ back in a post on 26 August 2007. My use was a response to Chris Messina’s proposal for so-called Twitter ‘channels’, which had the form of hashtags today (like ‘#hashtag’), but apparently I was the first to use the term hashtag to denote them. I also coined the term ‘microsyntax’ to represent the developing use of symbols — like ‘@mentions’, ‘#hashtags’, ‘RT”, ‘$ticker’ — in Twitter and related apps. (I still haven’t been successful in getting '/geotags' implemented.)
I didn’t even have that post up on my blog. I moved my blog several times since 2007, from Typepad (where it was called /Message), to Squarespace, and then to Tumblr. And I hadn’t reposted all the older posts, since it has to be done manually. I reposted that piece today, copying the text from the Wayback Machine.
Anil Dash, “The Web We Lost” (via AllThingsD)
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
THE PERILS OF A LOW STRESS ENVIRONMENT
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:
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.
- Anil Dash, cited by Nick Bilton in Gawker Hopes to Transform “The Blog”
Denton IS on to something, though, and Anil is missing the forest for the trees. Yes, the new Gawker will still be incorporating some of the mechanical elements of blogs, so in his eyes it’s still the same old, same old.
But Denton is moving into a era where blogging’s tools and tenor have been ingested and digested by big media, but the social dimension has not been. If anything, his new foray into New Gawker will make his property grossly less social, less involved in community, less us and more them.
That’s what he is on to. He is joining the big media companies who are hoping to stripmall the social web, to become part of the sprawl.
I have argued long and hard about the need for something like the New Urbanism Movement, so we can save the best aspects of social media before it is all razed to make way for media malls. I call this New Spatialism.
Denton is going with the other guys, who are dominated by dreams of scale and control.
I am dreaming of the next stage of the social revolution, one that continues to emerge from our connections and conversations, where we have a stake and a say, not just a ticket to sit in the audience with a box of popcorn in our lap.