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A million conversations are going on right now on Twitter--what do they have to say to you

By Joab Jackson | Posted 8/19/2009

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When freelance writer and new media consultant Justin Kownacki decided to move to Baltimore from Pittsburgh earlier this year, he went neighborhood shopping. He was looking for an area that was safe, walkable, and close to a wi-fi-equipped coffee shop and a park where he could walk his dog. So he searched for heavy Twitter users who listed Baltimore as their hometown, then selected a group of about 200 who seemed to have tastes similar to his own, and chatted them up online. He quizzed them about what neighborhoods were worth looking at, and what coffee shops were mobile worker-friendly. This is how he came to move to Butchers Hill and set up his laptop at Patterson Perk or Cafe Latte'da.

Like many creative, computer-savvy types, Kownacki didn't see the need to use Twitter in any sort pre-defined way.

Rather he used it to solve a unique problem, to scratch an entirely personal itch. Twitter, and micro-messaging in general, has a flexibility that gives it a resilience that many newcomers may miss.

And because of this resilience, the technology may be around longer than we think, predicts Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at New York's Fordham University and author of the about-to-be-published book New New Media (Pearson, Allyn, and Bacon). Levinson sees micro-messaging as the newest edition of our human critter's permanent portfolio of electronic communications, here to stay alongside radio, TV, and the movies.

In fact, he points out, electronic media is always evolving toward replicating human communication with ever more fidelity. "Media are making the world more human, not less human and artificial," he contends. Still photography was pretty neat, in other words, but silent moving pictures were even better. Talking movies were even better than that, and color films better still. The old media, if useful, don't go away. We still have radio because we don't need to see each other to enjoy hearing people talk. And novels are around because people enjoy good stories told in that particular expansive way. But a new medium, such as micro-messaging, must communicate with people in some superior-than-all-that-came-before-it way to really take hold.

Where does micro-messaging fall in Levinson's scenario? It could be essential. "Humans have always enjoyed communicating in short bursts," he says.

Indeed, micro-messaging beats out a lot of similar forms that came before it, technology-wise. The message itself, in Twitter's case anyway, must be 140 characters or less, a length based almost arbitrarily on the length of cell-phone text messages. On the surface, micro-messaging brings to mind the chat rooms of the last decade or instant messaging, but unlike those forms of electronic communications, micro-messaging is asynchronous--meaning you don't have to be in front of the computer to get the message at the time someone typed it in. A tweet could also be likened to a very short e-mail. But unlike e-mail, a tweet, in most cases, is a public document, so anyone can access it. (Twitter does also offer private messages, but few people talk about their culturally revolutionary nature.) Internet message boards, mailing lists, and (for those who remember them) newsgroups also had the ability to discuss topics in public--at least in a limited way--but you couldn't intermingle topics. Twitter works a bit like a blender, pulling all of your interests together on one page (or one software console, if you use one of a number of dedicated Twitter-viewing desktop computer applications, like TweetDeck).

While Twitter's impact has been considerable, as far as the numbers of users goes (an estimated 5 million users and growing), it is dwarfed by the social networking site Facebook, which enjoys over 250 million active users. This is ironic, because, for industry observers, Facebook seems to seethe with Twitter envy. Each successive redesign of Facebook seems more and more Twitter-like.

Indeed, by putting the micro-message at the center of its service, Facebook has solved the fundamental problem that social networks have faced: how to keep users coming back after they've filled in their profiles and uploaded their pictures. Facebook also differs from Twitter insofar that it allows users to control who can view their profiles, which helps define the context of the messages being sent out.

Truth is, most people using such services don't fully understand yet at a gut level how communicating with someone via Twitter or Facebook is different from communicating in other ways, University of Maryland Baltimore County Assistant Professor Zeynep Tufekci says. "So many people are using [social-networking sites] and they are acting like it is a private space. But it actually is a public space," she notes. While we may have a conversation on Twitter, it is not quite like a conversation in real life. It is in no sense private and it doesn't vanish. The conversation gets saved in a database. Others can view it. Tufekci sees this as a "collapsing of boundaries."

"It creates a space in which the interactions are intimate, but the visibility is quasi-public," she says. "Usually, intimate interactions are in closed spaces and in private places, and public spaces are for civic stuff, and they are not intimate. Here we have intimate stuff that is public."

Tufekci says she came across this idea when she caught a number of her students cheating on an exam in one of her classes in 2006. Several students had turned in assignments in the same handwriting, but when she called them into her office, they swore they didn't know each other. Their Facebook profiles, however, said otherwise. What struck Tufekci was how the cheaters didn't realize that Facebook would give them away. They still thought of it as a private meeting place.

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