Twitter and global interconnectivity

Perchance if you are tech savvy or pretend to be you may have heard of a neat service called Twitter. The official website gives quite a concise description to what the application was originally intended to be all about:

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Basically the idea is that you can subscribe to the twitter feeds of people you know, and whenever they post a message (e.g. via instant messaging, online or SMS), you receive the message on your medium(s) of choice. The service is currently free, although the most dynamic and pervasive medium (SMS) does of course cost you for the messages you send and potentially depending on your carrier and the prevailing conditions, the messages you receive. Depending on the mobile phone plan you happen to be on, the net cost to you of twittering all day long ranges from next to nothing, to being quite prohibitively expensive for obsessive twitterers (e.g. particularly if like me you are on a bare bones pay as you go plan). On the other hand, sending one message (and paying for that single message send) and then having it distributed by Twitter to a cast of thousands represents a massive cost saving waiting to be exploited for those who are addicted to texting.

Of course the rather naïve “what are you doing?” question that is supposedly at the philosophical core of Twitter has been superceded by what is essentially a “what do you want to say?” question. Like so much of what we consider to be “Web 2.0” technology, the Twitter service has above all become a tool for expressing one’s self and observing the self-expressions of others. Charles Arthur, writing in The Guardian today, does a neat job of summarising the power that this form of communication can have, particularly when coupled with a wireless and borderless transmission mechanism:

An American student is arrested in Egypt, and manages to send a brief text with a single word – “ARRESTED” – which is picked up around the world, and leads quickly to his release, helped by a lawyer hired by his university back in the US. In Britain, the prime minister’s office decides people should be able to find out what their premier is doing; as of today, more than 2,000 people do. During an interview at the SXSW festival in March, audience dissatisfaction with Sarah Lacy’s interviewing style with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spills over into silent but powerful discourse among the audience: one calls it a “train wreck”. People fleeing from fires in California say where they are; that proves more useful and timely than official goverment information.

The possibilities in a political sense are worth considering for a moment. Arthur mentions above the use of Twitter by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s staff; already the technology is being used by some of the most important people and in some of the most important organisations in the world. Twitter also provides an additional real-time avenue for social and political discourse, apart from the ubiquitous buzzing of Blackberries, which for the time being at least, remain primarily a plaything for young corporate foot soldiers. Although discussions are of course by necessity going to be abbreviated by the limitations of the SMS and also Twitter platforms (e.g. messages are limited to 140 characters), one can already envisage the node-to-node interactive power that could be leveraged to enhance our experience of the world.

Consider for example a televised political debate between two leaders. Active and co-ordinated users of Twitter would hardly need the infamous studio audience “worm” to get a feeling for how both leaders are faring amongst people whose opinion they respect; the stream of comments flooding in to their mobile phone via SMS would do that for them. It would almost certainly be more entertaining and enlightening than the crusty old “worm” to boot!

In short, Twitter is a service that does not really break new ground in a technological sense – we already have powerful means of communicating with each other in our increasingly wireless and borderless world. What this service does provide, however, is an intelligent and welcoming wrapper for the technologies that many of us are familiar with, but have not yet educated ourselves on or bothered to fully exploit. Twitter is arguably set to do for mobile communications what Blogger did for blogging.