The person is the point

This is just going to be a quickie, mainly so I get it out before I go away on holiday never to remember it again. At some point I might expand on it.

Over the last few weeks in particular, we’ve seen the public finally sitting up and noticing Twitter. It’s been on the BBC, all over the news and makes for interesting watching on Google Trends, too:

Twitter / UK / 12 months

Twitter / UK / 12 months

About a year ago, my assessment of so-called “lifestreaming” was that it was all a timesink. Back then, I hadn’t pulled as deeply on the Twitter crack pipe as I have since, or do now. Looking back (nearly 5,000 tweets and 300 followers in), my thoughts are on the one hand changed – radically – and on the other, mostly the same.

My views have changed in terms of signal / noise ratio because Twitter has deeply, deeply affected me, the way I work and the way I consume and receive content and news. I can’t think of a technology that comes even close. The panic – and it is panic – that I feel when I consider a world without Twitter is, actually, pretty worrying.

On the other hand, my views about institutional Twitter have changed only a little. Back then, I questioned that Twitter has a place at all in an institutional setting. Now, with some water under the bridge, I’ve tuned my assessment of this. My current take on this is that there are only a few ways in which institutions can create convincing, fun, and followable Twitter streams.

The first of these is when it is automated (for example, Towerbridge – and this particular example is a genius use of various bits of technology). The second is at the opposite end of the spectrum, and that is when institutions are given personality, usually because the person doing the tweeting can sit outside the corporate MarketingFluff (TM). The obvious example is the always-great Brooklyn Museum. The third is when it is just plain useful, giving rapid updates on a topic in a way that other channels can’t.

As the interest grows, we’re starting to see the cultural sector increasingly wanting a slice of the pie, and the first thing they’re asking is how do we engage with this new channel? How do we mix it into our offering and make it work for us?

Right now, many of the museums on Twitter are using it in an informal, below-the-radar context. The problem is that as the thing goes more mainstream, we’re likely to see the same old problem we’ve seen with institutional blogging: it just ends up becoming the same old shit from marketing leaflets, regurgitated into new channels.

Twitter, like blogging, needs an edge, a voice, a riskiness. As long as institutions can retain this – i.e., do it for a reason – then, IMO, things will get more interesting. If they don’t, we’ll probably all be unfollowing museums as quickly as we can slide down the steep, slippery trough of disillusionment

All noise, no signal. Lifestreaming is a timesink

The fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should have standards” he says. “No! Standards are boring”, everyone replies…

In this particular area I have to say I pretty much fall on the side of the anti-standards bods – lifestreaming should be about spontaneity and not regulation – but there are still some interesting issues about the modes of use of these tools, and I can understand what Brian is pointing out.

The reason why there are issues is pretty clear: lifestreaming is a paradigm shift; it’s disruptive and hence different from everything that has come before. In some ways, tools like Twitter are IM-like in the way they work. In others they’re a little bit more like a chat room. In others, they’re like an email thread and in yet others more like a discussion board.

There’s no surprise therefore that we’re all a bit confused. Throw into the recipe tools like Twitterfeed (passes feeds to your Twitter stream), Hashtags (enables you to tag tweets), Twitter Facebook app (feeds your tweets to Facebook status) or Twittervision (type ‘L:’ for location…). Then lightly saute before throwing in some finely chopped Pownce (it’s the new Twitter, only ‘better’) or Jaiku (Google bought it so it must be good..) or Tumblr (who really knows what ‘microblogging’ is anyway?)…and it’s hardly surprising that we’re feeling the need for some sanity.

This is classic Gartner hype in action. The emergence and adoption of these technologies is rapid, exciteable, reactionary. Darwinian evolution is choking the ideas that don’t work and elevating those that do.

Take the Twitter Facebook app as an example. Both Brian and I installed it at pretty much the same time. It links your Twitter updates to your Facebook status. All good, you think – I only have to do this once, updates both – excellent. Then you realise that actually the use mode is different: Twitter isn’t being used as a “what are you doing” tool (the original intention) but instead has become a way of having a conversation with your fellow users. In this context, linking it to Facebook makes no sense, as the following screen shot demonstrates. Shortly afterwards, both Brian and I (independently) removed it.

twitter on facebook

In “conversation” mode, Twitter doesn’t actually work – if I’m friends with person B and they’re friends with person C then all is fine from my perspective if I’m having a conversation with B. If, however, B is having a conversation with C, I just get B’s side of the discussion. And that, frankly, is rubbish…

Pownce might be about to help out here – it gives you the option of posting comments to public/all friends/selected friend. But then we’re really back to square one: sending a message to “public” and you might as well use Twitter. Send it to a single friend or a group and you might as well use email or Facebook messaging.

And here, for me, is the rub. I’m going to go out on the line here (always risky) and suggest that essentially none of these tools actually adds anything. Let me rephrase that. All of these tools do add huge amounts of noise, but to me none of them add signal. Sure, they’re fun. Sure, I check mine every so often and take part in the conversation, but they’re not doing anything useful for me apart from…er…um…

It’s a bit like those 3D world conversations when you discuss the various technical aspects of the 3D world and actually find after an hour or two you haven’t actually shared *anything* useful. It’s technology for technologies sake. I think we’re getting caught up in the fact that we *can* rather than finding a gap in need and responding to that gap.

This is not to say that lifestreaming doesn’t have a place. I can see that during a conference, being able to send comments is useful. I can see that the mobile integration factor is a pretty exciting area of development. I can see how this might help during an emergency, or during a live event like a talk as a way of garnering feedback. Here on my desktop, however, it’s just a distraction, a timesink.

Within an institution, I’m also failing to see the applications. And this is where Brian and I both converge and diverge all at the same time. I think he has a point in trying to establish the modes of use, settle these down and try and get some clarity. But unlike Brian, I’m not convinced that institutionally there is anything in it. It may be that these tools and modes of use mature, and once we’ve all skidded through the trough of disillusionment we’ll find we’re in more informed place. But for now, I’m watching (and taking part…!) with an air of cynicism.

What do you think? Do you use these tools? Do you think they have a place in institutions? Should we look to standardise, either technology or modes of use? Comments please!