Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Teaching Young Dogs New Tricks: The past, present and future of collective experiences

It's becoming more and more difficult to say what it means when someone actually "tweets." There are so many different kinds of Twitter users that a single tweet could fall under one of many, many, many categories. Waaaay back in the day—like, a few months ago—it was pretty common to just broadcast stuff about yourself, things along the line of "just got back from a great jog!" or announce to everyone what kind of mustard you just used on your sandwich that day for lunch. Now we've expanded to business promotion, sharing ideas and links, posting photos, broadcasting news and gossip, and telling stories. The best part is that digital resources are now reaching more and more people, and interesting articles, videos, pictures and everything else that people are finding worth talking about are reaching a wider audience. After all, the internet is about connecting users as a single community, not simply connecting each of us to these resources independently of each other.

At one point, sharing links and saving links used to be two different things, but the line is starting to blur. Sharing links entails emailing, IMing and talking about cool or interesting stuff that you find. Saving links is about bookmarking and keeping stuff for later so you can go back to it when you need it. "Social bookmarking" was the first step in blurring this share-save divide. Services like Delicious ( emerged as way to keep track of how many people bookmark certain links, and the more people that bookmark it, the more popular it becomes, making it easier to find for more people: sharing and saving. It's now totally integrated with Firefox, so saving a bookmark to Delicious is just as easy as saving one to Firefox (and more powerful, since you can get to your links anywhere from the Delicious website).

Then Twitter came along. I knew lots of people who scoffed at the idea of sharing every small, minute detail of their lives with the world. But that was Twitter 1.0, and so much has changed since then. Twitter 1.0 was about what was happening now, in the present. With their redesigned homepage, Twitter has established itself not only as a way to talk about the present, but also what happened in the past and the future. The search feature encourages people to see what others are saying about [insert topic here], but it shows you what's other have already said about [insert topic here].

Fundamentally, Twitter is about the present, and Delicious is about saving stuff for future use. But change is afoot. Delicious—used for saving and discovering links that were bookmarked in the past—just recently rolled out some big changes to their site that use Twitter as a way to show what's popular and being discussed in the present. Since popular links might take a while to bubble to the surface before Delicious users get a chance to bookmark them, Delicious is using tweets to find out "what's hot," hoping that its users will see those popular links and then bookmark them.

That was the beginning of Twitter 2.0. It was a decisive moment because it established Twitter not just as something to keep track of the "right now," but also as a way to find out what we might want to look a later. The fact that Delicious is now using Twitter as way to track "save-worthy" links readjusts the responsibilities of Twitter users and what they're tweeting about: instead of just using Twitter as way to broadast what's happening in the moment, Twitter is becoming a way to save and search moments passed.

So maybe you've finally gotten into the habit of tweeting, you have followers and you're sending updates—whatever they might be—reguarly throughout your day. Good for you, but now's time for that dog to learn some new tricks. You've got to start thinking about what you're saying not just as a way to share what's going on now, but to save what happened for later. There are many services popping up—most notably OneRiot (—that keep track of what's being said on Twitter, and your tweets are providing others with valuable information about where to look for x, y and z, as well as the who-said-what when and the why-this-happened-there.

But why Twitter? Because everyone's doing it?

Yes, but there's more to it. It's always good to have a go-to service, something everyone understands and relies on. Somehow, Twitter has emerged as an accessible tool that lots of people love to use. The beauty of the 140-character limit is that, arguably, it makes sure that you only say what's necessary. The power isn't in the individual tweets themselves, but in the message of them as a single united voice of opinion. By readjusting our perspective on what a single tweet really means, we are helping to build a foundation of information knowledge about culture and experience, about news and people, and lives and lifestyles.

Fine, you can go ahead and protect your updates so no one can see them. But then who really cares what you have to say if you're not contributing to the conversation?

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