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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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In his 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer describes a fictional centuries-old Polish Jewish village called Trachimbrod in which all of its inhabitants collectively kept a diary, called The Book of Antecedents.

While started as a record of the town's major events, the volume grew as its keepers added parables, definitions, "[v]arious rules and regulations for righteous living, and cute, if meaningless, sayings." Soon everyone in the town added entries of their own activities, until "any school boy could easily find out what his grandfather ate for breakfast on a given Thursday 50 years before, or what his great-aunt did when the rain fell without lull for five months."

"Even the most delinquent students read The Book of Antecedents without skipping a word, for they knew that they, too, would one day inhabit its pages," Foer wrote.

Could Twitter and other micro-messaging outlets be morphing into the modern-day embodiment of The Book of Antecedents?

Certainly, a lot of people do seem to be using such services to document the every-day. "Lunch break at Panera with the co-workers. Today is good. I'm just tired," and "I seriously don't even want anything for lunch. Just the thought of eating anything else is making me nauseous LOL!" were two dispatches pulled at random from a recent noon-time Twitter search.

On the face of it, informing your friends of your picayune daily decisions is not a bad thing. This is probably the reason behind the popularity of cell-phone texting, the precursor to Twitter. But teenage girls tap-tap-tapping out their secretive messages on cell phones tend to aim these dispatches to exclusive recipients. Micro-messaging, like The Book of Antecedents, tends to presume a stage and an audience, to a sometimes detrimental effect.

A number of web sites attempt to compile the "best" Tweet-like Facebook status updates. Most of their entries seem to be on-line jokes rejected by third-rate comedians: "ben wouldn't be caught dead with a necrophiliac" or "ben can't listen to that much Wagner. ben starts getting the urge to conquer Poland." You've been a great audience, folks, ben will be here all week.

Which is not to say humor doesn't work with micro-messaging. "Humor goes a long way on Twitter. Because of its brevity, it forces you to boil your comments down to a quick sucker-punch," observes Justin Kownacki, who has attracted several thousand followers on Twitter with his political commentary and insights into new media.

The Twitter kingpin of this sort of approach seems to be Lincoln, Neb., resident Tim Siedell, who, under the Twitter name "Bad Banana," spins off curious, sometimes chuckle-worthy one-liners, such as "Can't decide if my evening should be full of medication or heavy machinery" or "Calling it a night because I'm too tired to get out a thesaurus." Written up in The Washington Post, Siedell has garnered 25,000 followers.

As with any new media, people have tried to push the micro-messaging this way and that, both towards the practical and the absurd. For instance, computer prankster Seth Hardy wired up a toilet so that every time it flushed, it would send out a Twitter update (@hacklab.toilet). Some people cram recipes into the short format ("Zucchini Blossoms: saute 6T zuke&onion&tom/T olvoil; 6T rice/T mint&lemon/s p. Stuff 8flwr; .5c h2o/T olvoil&tom paste/pep. Cvr/simmer25m."). On a more practical note, the Maryland State Highway Administration tweets news of traffic jams (@mdsha). In May, the management at London's Kings Place concert hall held a contest for the best haiku tweet (what is it with Brits trying to retrofit Twitter onto older art forms anyway?). The winning entry came from Simon Brake: "beneath the Morning Sun, The city is painted gold, People move like bees through honey."

"Just when we think we've figured out what to use Twitter for," notes David Parry, an assistant professor specializing in emerging media, digital culture, and literary theory at University of Texas at Dallas, "people re-purpose it for something else."

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