Recently, there has been some buzz about the microblogging service Twitter, such as the free newspaper De Pers calling Twitter ‘mind masturbation‘, and therefore something tossers would use. This inspired an article on the subject by Floor Drees on the IKKI website, which in turn sparked a discussion among its visitors and staff. I am omong those who replied to that discussion. The ideas expressed there, as well as some others I recently came across, have lead me to reflect on the reason I use Twitter.
The term of this week seems to be ‘defriending’. It’s not even in Wikipedia -yet- so it must be fresh. Website Marketing Facts writes about it, a sure sign that it is to be a trend for 2009. Basically, it means you clean up your social network so that only people who you’re actually in a friendly or closer relationship with remain. The basic premises behind this idea is that the value of your social network is higher, if the online equivalent reflects your offline one -or something like that.
It was fast-food chain Burger King who took defriending to a new level. With the Facebook app Whopper Sacrifice you earned a free Whopper for every 10 friendships you ended on Facebook. After a week, Facebook ended the viral as 233.000 friendships were sacrificed.
Facebook sacrificed the Whopper Sacrifice viral
I think the whole assumption that your social network should have only “real friends” is wrong. At least, in my case. My social network is made up of people I’d like easy access to, and who do, like and know things I find interesting, and with whom I’d like to share some of the things I do and find interesting. I haven’t personally met all these people, nor have had contact with them. That doesn’t make their ideas any less valuable to me tho.
The Dunbar Number
So why is the scope and extent of my social graph important for why I use Twitter? For that, I need to introduce you to the Dunbar Number. Dunbar is an anthropologist at the University College of London, who wrote a paper on Co-Evolution Of Neocortex Size, Group Size And Language In Humans where he hypothesizes:
… there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.
The number he calculated was 150. If you carry this number to the social graph, you could argue that the human brain is only able to cope with 150 or so stable relationships, thus anyone with a higher number of friends in any of their networks, has unstable relationships, and are therefore worth less then those with stable relationships. Thus, one should defriend and stabilize his graph. (for more info on this subject, read Christopher Allen’s great blog post The Dunbar Number as a limit to group size)
Source of inspiration
Like I said in my introduction, my online social network is my main access to a lot of inspiration. I have real life and long time friends there, family, co-workers, people I have worked with in real life, people I have collaborated with online, people I haven’t met and would like to meet some day, people I’ll probably never meet but whose ideas, skills and works I admire. I haven’t got stable relationships with 150 of them -probably far less. But they reflect on who I am, and how I like to be perceived, and what I do and don’t do, and what ideals I have and don’t have. They reflect on me.
Now, lets get to the topic of this post, why I use Twitter. Twitter is especially in the picture when the defriending topic sails along, as it is both easy to add people to your network (you just click ‘follow’ and you’re done) and for other people to add themselves to your network (all they have to do is follow you). But for me, Twitter isn’t just a representation of my social graph and an easy way to know what my friends are doing all day, but something else entirely. It is a source of inspiration.
The modern day Hearth
This is something Stephen Fry pointed out in his talk at the Apple Store in London on Apple and Twitter and so forth. He basically said that the human race has a long history of exchanging ideas and transferring knowledge. He was talking about audiobooks, but the same applies to Twitter in my opinion -he is Twitter’s self proclaimed vice-president, as only Barack Obama has more followers then him.
Anyways, he basically says that with the invention of he printing press by Guttenberg, knowledge exchange moved from a social, interpersonal experience into a distanced, individual experience. Before the mass distribution of printed knowledge and experience, there were storytellers who, in different forms -songs, tales, plays, opera’s, etc.- immerse the listeners into the story, thus conferring it’s meaning and sharing its experiences and lessons. The most basic form of this oral distribution is the hearth. Around the hearth the storyteller is in direct contact with his or her audience, and shares not only his words, but also the non-verbal meaning, suspense, experience and even drama. Thus, making it a rich experience, probably anchoring the experience in the audiences minds far better then most books ever could.
This struck me as true, and I immediately followed this logic to my use of Twitter. To me, Twitter is the modern day hearth or village pump. It’s a place where I choose to go to and share my experiences, my daily finds, my emotional states, my inspirations with anyone who is interested -for whatever reason. And I look for other people’s experiences, knowledge, daily finds, etcetera as well.
And the beauty of Twitter -for me- is that it’s not long distance. Yes, it is a-synchronous, but I can reply to tweets, send them a direct message, and start conversations. In other words, the barrier to get in touch with the storyteller is very low. I can easily get in touch and enrich their experience with my own, and even build a relationship.
This is why Twitter for me is such a source of information, experience and inspiration. It lets me see things from a different perspective and surprise me with insights -both good and bad. It is the Social Graph and Social Network stripped of all web-technology-imposed barriers. I interact with other people, not with web applications or websites that aggregate the personal aspect to a manageable social blob. To me, Twitter is the modern day hearth.