Why Twitter Was Inevitable


Have you listened to the radio recently?

I was on a radio interview with the CBC last week with Jo-Ann Roberts. It reminded me about a lot of stuff I had forgotten about in radio culture– things that are necessary because of channel-surfing that goes on with most listeners.

One of those things is to constantly repeat the thing we’re talking about, what we just discussed, and what we’re about to. It’s an attention-deficit medium, kind of like a Rocket Robin Hood episode. Listenens need to be reminded because we’re not really paying attention in the first place, or we weren’t there. Impatience is adapted to rather than penalized.

This is sound bite culture. You know this already.

Soundbites are the foundation of our media. We cut up, dissect, and put together short bits of information to support our biases and keep viewers. We design segments around these ways of speaking. This process destroys original context and places information into new (and convenient) contexts– or removes them entirely. The best piece of information is the one that’s easily digestible, uses simple language, and is massively spreadable.

The tweet is the apex of sound bite culture.

  • It requires no context;
  • it spreads faster and with little friction; and
  • it’s easily inserted in any environment.

It is the absolute and perfect acceptance of a culture with as many channels as individuals. Too much to pay attention to? Reduce the information to its barest possible form, removing all filler to increase how much you can absorb. Natural, right?

This isn’t to say that it’s bad, but it does mean that in a world where Twitter is the easiest mechanism of propagation, ideas have to be designed with a simplicity that even previous media would have been uncomfortable with.

The question is whether this attribute will make other media wither away and die. If I can get my news piece in 140, do I need the whole article? I think most people, for most articles, will say no.

After all, no commercials, no filler… why would I ever pay attention to anything else?






14 responses to “Why Twitter Was Inevitable”

  1. Eric Jean Avatar
    Eric Jean

    If the desire of most media and media users is to reach the greatest number of people than it is inevitable, in the name of sound marketing, that you will adapt your “message” or content to the medium in order to make the best possible use of that medium’s strenghts while compensating for its weaknesses.

    However, it is to be hoped that there are people out there with things to say that will explode the traditional modes of communication: this is essentially how literary forms and genres have evolved. Someone runs into something that requires a new “shape” to contain the thought, or to carry it through. (On this point, I can recommend excellent Modernist works, like say, T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” that dramatizes fragmented and alienated self in society by putting the literary canon through the blender and rearranging the pieces.)

    I personally believe that this will always be the case, but I’m not sure what forms this (these) new expression(s) will take.

    (It’s interesting that this semester, my Honours Seminar is about that space between so-called “high brow culture” and “mass media culture”. Which is why I get to read a bunch of novels not usually on the syllabus.)

    In the case of Twitter, I think that one way in which people are using the media is as something of a digital “place marker.” The best use of a Twitter feed, in my opinion, is as a nexus or portal outwards towards the content. For many things, 140 characters is fine but I think that people still crave the fully-detailed story. Maybe they’re just more selective about which ones they’ll settle down to read.

  2. Joseph Erlandsen Avatar

    The anxiety buried in all of this, of course, is simply the fact that we are creating an ever tighter closed loop of meaning that’s utterly suffocating important things like difference or novelty.

    It’s very easy to say and comprehend something that is already known in 140 characters. A statement that fits an accepted world view requires little explanation and can therefore be outlined in a few words. In order to have any chance of being persuasive, a statement that is different, or introduces new ideas that aren’t soley re-inforceing the already known needs significantly more than a sound bite.

  3. Alan Rae Avatar

    At the risk of being having a Meldrew moment (for non Brits victor meldrew is the apotheosis of the grumpy old man)

    In the world of media it might work

    In the real world – of processes, relationships, manufacture, horticulture and government context is all

    otherwise you end up in a world full of stylised turds

    like the world we’re living in now

    so for tweets I guess it’s headline – idea – link

  4. Jennifer Meacher Avatar
    Jennifer Meacher

    Twitter @140 has the potential to broaden vs shrink meaning.

    It allows for a custom / personalized view of the world based on who you follow and list.

    No two people interested in the same subject are likely to draw the same content.

    It allows you to explore new ideas sooner — originators can “test” or “float” ideas in 140 characters rather then write a long white paper which they may never get around to doing.

    Its a different way of absorbing info — you can absorb multiple perspectives on the same subject quickly and choose your own focus and segways!

    You can become part of a community interested in the same issues outside your regular network which opens up new ideas and possibilities.

    May favor ADHD, conceptual, right brained thinkers…or not…

    May forever kill our ability to write in proper sentences and paragraphs…

  5. Jackson Wightman Avatar

    I guess one can get a degree of understanding from 140 characters. Pretty minor league though. If this becomes the way people in leadership positions consume news then woe unto us.

    It’s amazing how hard it is becoming for me to get into the state that occurs with deep reading – the headspace that comes from digesting long magazine articles or books. For many, it is here that substantial portions of true learning occur. The 140 character world is a threat to this very precious space and we must actively fight to preserve it.

    So re the 140 characters killing other media I think (and really hope) you are wrong. Smart people will always need and yearn for more so there will be a marketplace for more.

  6. Ike Avatar

    Try explaining Packing Theory in 140.
    Try explaining Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem in 140.

    You can’t. And you shouldn’t.

    You can do four things in Twitter.
    1) Reference
    2) Assert
    3) Question
    4) Entertain

    That’s about it. You can’t debunk, analyze, synthesize, or solve anything. Those involve more complex structures and discipline which is at loggerheads with the Soundbite Culture.

    Sadly, it’s what we need more of, and we’re rapidly losing the institutions that performed those functions without knowing for sure what will emerge to replace them.

  7. Gahlord Dewald Avatar

    Not too different from old media; Twitter is just a collection of headlines. Main difference is that it comes out more than once a day.

  8. Bernard Dahl Avatar

    The ultimate elevator pitch, but for everything you say. Brevity as an obligation is refreshing.

    Tip of the hat for plugging Rocket Robin Hood. So Old-School 🙂

  9. Bill Wren Avatar

    I think everything you say is more or less on the mark. However, I use this analogy when people worry about 140 characters and the impact: don’t confuse a postcard with a letter.

    As much as we may be communicating in 140 characters, what we communicate (and how) resembles casual conversation. Much of what we say in the offline world is the equivalent of tweets. But when something has some significance for us we usually start looking for some depth – the postcard expanded upon, maybe in a letter form.

    I guess my point is that I don’t believe in the either/or world. Tweets are one of many ways we communicate. And I don’t know that 140 characters are all that revolutionary. Their impact, and how the ways we communicate evolve, remains to be seen. As they relate to marketing and PR, surely no one has ever had expectations of depth there?

  10. Rufus Avatar

    HA. Station identification for blogs as well. Radio people know what they are doing and we should be paying attention to the “old school.” Thanks for the inspiration.


  11. Kneale Mann Avatar

    Most people have the attention span of a 3yr old. And what’s important to note is that the attention of most people is akin to a 3yr old. And 3yr olds are not unlike most of us when it comes to our attention span.

    Tell them you’re going to do it, do it and tell them you did it. That is the mantra of many marketing people and as a former radio programmer I know only too well how to “sell the next 15 minutes”.

    Radio audience measurement is almost as archaic as the slide rule so constant reminders of what and who you are listening to gives stations the chance that someone with a ratings’ ballot will actually remember what they’re listening to and write it down then send it in – yes, via regular mail. Don’t get me started!

    With Twitter, the long tail resides in your overall stream. I may not see every tweet from you, but I have trusted you over the long term to react when I am “listening” on your channel. That is context.

  12. Christine Geraci Avatar

    I think you make some excellent points here, Julien. But I would respectfully append the assertion that most people won’t read the whole article if they can get to the meat in 140 characters. If they care about the subject of the article, or if they think the article will give them information of value to their own lives, I think people will BEG to read past 140 characters.

    Just because a person thinks people SHOULD care, it doesn’t mean they will. So, I think the challenge becomes getting people to care to read on in 140 characters or less.

  13. simplynonna Avatar

    I TWIT-therefore I AM 😉

  14. simplynonna Avatar

    I tend to think of the TWIT in 140 chars as inspiration..the catalyst..the beginning of a thread and not the end..almost like that old time game telephone where things get passed around between people and expand;)

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