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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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But despite all this diversity, people tend to use social-networking tools not to test new identities, but rather to extend their own selves. While there have been a number of cases of people registering the names of celebrities and then tweeting as them (Emma Watson, William Shatner, Brian Eno) and celebs who use "ghost tweeters" (Kanye West, Britney Spears), the voice of the tweet is the voice of the person writing the tweet.

To a certain extent, this literalness is due to restrictions of the format, particularly with Facebook. UMBC's Zeynep Tufekci, who has spent the last several years studying social networks, calls the site "identity constraining"--it ties an account to a person's actual identity. Indeed, micro-messaging not only represents an actual identity, it often represents an idealized version of that identity. "Everyone uses Twitter either to promote themselves or to make themselves look magnetic to others," Kownacki says. But, he adds, those who word their messages in a way that makes them relevant to others can extend their influence.

Occasionally, posts will come out of the din of updates and provide a respite--even if a temporary one--from the day's drudgery, even for complete strangers. Recently, a Facebook friend of mine posted a status update, apropos of seemingly nothing, that read: "These cows are small, those cows are far away." Taken on its own, the line, flawlessly balanced, speaks volumes beyond its simplicity about subtlety and perspective (and child-rearing, for that matter). Best of all, it requires no backstory whatsoever to enjoy. (If you want one here it is: The poster was actually misquoting a line from a British television series, Father Ted. "These are small," Father Ted tells a fellow priest, while holding up two small plastic cows. "But the ones out there are far away.")

Another Facebook post that caught my eye, from a friend staying in a trailer home in Kentucky, using the third-person voice encouraged by the format: "Laura pretends not to see the meth lab in your yard."

Either by accident of design, the best messages mine some face of life for some sort of meaning and beauty that anyone can enjoy, even those (especially those) who are unfamiliar with the situation that brought about the utterance in the first place. The value can be small. In fact, the limitation of the form pretty much demands such slightness. Poets and the headline writers of the New York tabloids are good at this sort of thing. The rest of us are still learning.

Another thing distinguishing micro-messaging from past forms of media is that no one individual, no matter how clever or persuasive or powerful, will monopolize attention. The 140-character limit of Twitter "resists any one person dominating the conversation," the University of Texas' David Parry says. With micro-messaging, he adds, "it is the sampling from the aggregate that actually gives you wisdom."

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