The sense and nonsense of Twitter

You probably know about Twitter, the so-called microblogging network. If you haven’t heard about it, don’t worry, you’re not missing something vital -I think. But I’m definately not sure, and that is basically what this post is about.

I joined Twitter on july 18 2008, so at the writing of this post, I’ve tweeted for 3 months. I joined because I wanted to try out the popular Twitterific app for my iPhone 3G. I started following a few people I know of, as I had no idea which ones of my friends were a member of Twitter. I followed the tweets made by people like Molly Holtzschlag, Dan Cederholm, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jeremy Keith, Veerle Pieters, Dan Rubin, Derek Featherstone. People who I have never met, but whose work I admire.

Why do these people tweet?

Then their tweets started coming in. I quickly found that they didn’t just tweet about their professional thoughts and actions, like they do on their public weblogs and in articles like on A List Apart. They tweeted about personal stuff like what they’re eating and where, and even with whom. And their illnesses, hopes, dreams, desires, frustrations -very personal stuff by and large.

I joined in myself, following their example. I tweet about my itinerary, about my frustrations, about my location and experiences.

But I have no clue why I do this. Or why those people I consider to be sort of my heroes do this. But we all do, and it feels good.

What is privacy?

What bugs me is that I don’t know why these people, who -as leading minds of the web community have a very clear grasp of the internet- would so willingly give up part of their privacy with no apparent social or other gain. It’s definately not exhibitionism, and they also don’t do it to get more friends or expand their social networks -they’re probably at the top of that pyramid already.
Is it then that they subconciously grasp that the notion of a private life is radically changing in todays networked and information-rich society? With profiles, networks, articles, accounts, events, images and sounds spread everywhere, detailing experience, knowledge, desires, interests, habits and friends, what does privacy really mean?

I suspect that there is a shift in the privacy-mindset, from access to private personal information, to control over personal information. The fact that Tweeps control what they tweet about -but by doing this in the public domain, not controlling who has access to this information- provides enough of a feeling of security that makes up for the loss of percieved privacy. Following this assumption, this also means that twittering about personal events is not for everyone.

This still doesn’t answer why they -or I myself for that matter- use Twitter. There are some practical benefits, but not all my tweets are geared towards those purposes. Let met explain a bit thru an anecdote.

Anecdote

The past 3 days I attended the International Semantic Web Conference 2008 in Karlsruhe, Germany (more posts about that will follow!) I went all alone, to a conference about a subject I know very little about, with a very scientific programme. In short, I felt lost even before I arrived.
Therefore, I registered at the ISWC2008 crowdvine network, hoping to find some people who were willing to help me chart through these unknown waters. But none of the other members were familiar to me -except a few of the gurus like Frank van Harmelen.
A professional assessment I did a year ago concluded that I’m not suited for what they called cold acquisition. Making first contact, so to speak. So I knew this would be a challenge for me. And then I found that the crowdvine site has a Twitter section. You could find which members had added their Twitter ID in their profile. Thinking this would be a good experiment, I clicked on ‘follow’ for everyone I saw.
The days before the conference slowly filled with tweets from people I had never met, but hoped to meet soon. And I easily made First Contact (I can be charming if I want ;-)). So I made some new online friends, hoping I could convert them to real life aquaintences at least. And that they’d help me get my bearings during the conference.

The first day of the conference started off as I expected: I knew no-one in a place where everyone seemed to know everyone else. Yes, the semantic web community is close-knit. During the whole morning I was unable to make First Contact. Then, during the afternoon session, I found that one of my Twitter friends was in the same room, and I let him know I was there too. After the session we met up, and he introduced me to some other people, and that got the ball rolling. In the end I met many many people, and the conference was a big succes.

But it wouldn’t have been if I didn’t have done the Twitter experiment.

Ok, that sounds sad, I know. But it did help me make contact to get the ball rolling. Especially in a semi-closed community on a subject that is very new to me (there’s not much I can do for them), this worked very well!

One of the main reasons is that by using Twitter the First Contact wasn’t about the semantic web, but more personal.

So, I don’t have a complete verdict yet, but in the meantime, Twitter is addictive!

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