The 'micro-blogging' service Twitter gives you 140 characters to answer the question "What are you doing?" The answers, or tweets, are then broadcast to friends. It's a simple premise but internet consultant and author Clay Shirky argues as the service continues to grow, it's creating a complex and influential new way to communicate.
BOB GARFIELD: Some 60,000 of Barack Obama's supporters would learn of his vice-presidential pick via Twitter. This month when the House recessed and the microphones and lights were switched off, Republicans who stayed to protest the Democrats energy policies did not do so in silence. Their BlackBerries worked, so they "Twittered." It's been a couple of years since the launch of the social networking service called Twitter. Basically users post 140-character or less messages to cell phones or computer screens that supposedly answer the question, “What are you doing right now?”
You can monitor the posts of the people you follow, and the people who follow you can monitor yours. Companies like Dell, Whole Foods and Jet Blue Twitter their customers. NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander Twittered as it made its way to the red planet this spring. One Minneapolis couple used Twitter to give second-by-second graphic updates of their daughter's birth.
Clay Shirky is the author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." He Twitters. Clay, welcome back to the show. CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks Bob, thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Don't take this the wrong way. As much as I like you and respect you, I absolutely don't care [LAUGHS] moment to moment what you're doing or what your passing thoughts are. CLAY SHIRKY: Fair enough. There is a small group of people who you are interested in their kind of, you know, what are you doing now, your friends and your family. There are a lot of people — I see them once every six months - all of a sudden on Twitter I'm getting some sense of what Nat Jones' life is like day by day.
The other thing is that a lot of the uses of Twitter aren't actually answering the question, “What are you doing now?” People are, in fact, using it sometimes to ask questions, like a friend of mine just said essentially "I can go anyplace on the Eastern Seaboard for a week's vacation, where should I go?" All right, so he was asking his friends for advice.
There are people who say something only once every three or four days. I've unsubscribed from people who are either too prolific or too banal or both. All right, and so a lot of it actually comes to the listener choice of who to listen in on. BOB GARFIELD: It still strikes me as being a bit pathological. If Twitter goes beyond 200,000 users to 200 million users or more, I — it would probably have some fairly substantial implications for how the culture will evolve. Do you have any thoughts as to what hyper-connectivity might mean? CLAY SHIRKY: Well, periods of hyper-connectivity [LAUGHS] are typically followed by periods of disconnection. The economic logic of all of these services is get as many users as you possibly can, for obvious reasons. But for the users, right, the early days of a service, where it’s dense enough to be interesting but not so dense that it feels completely crowded, is a big part of the appeal.
So once the service gets large enough, you have to start being really choosy about both when you, when you send out a message and when you receive a message. BOB GARFIELD: And like Yogi Berra says, nobody goes to that restaurant anymore, it's too crowded. CLAY SHIRKY: Any communications medium can suffer from that, problem. And by the time Twitter or something like Twitter gets to 200 million, it's going to have that problem. BOB GARFIELD: I gather that the brevity demanded by Twitter has created something along the lines of connectivity haiku; people are [LAUGHS] forced to be quite succinct. How important was the 140-character limit to the success of this application? CLAY SHIRKY: I think it was enormously important. And even though it was designed for mobile phones, people have taken the 140-character limit on the Web. There's a certain relief, right, in being forced to write short form. When you're writing an email, right, you can end up agonizing over it and so forth. But if you can only say one thing, if you can only, you know, manage a sentence or even a sentence fragment, it really makes you concentrate on what it is you're wanting to say.
There are actually Twitter comedians. Like there are people who are just trying to - [BOB LAUGHING] reinvent the one-liner for the 21st century. So already you're starting to get different styles of Twittering, even within this highly locked-down medium. BOB GARFIELD: Okay Clay, one last thing. Clearly I'm talking to you on your cell phone. What are you doing? CLAY SHIRKY: [LAUGHS] I'm walking around Fire Island trying to find someplace where people aren't ringing, ringing bike bells and driving by in little golf carts. BOB GARFIELD: I'm sorry, you've exceeded your 140-character limit. Clay, as always, thank you very much. CLAY SHIRKY: Thank you, Bob. Nice talking to you. BOB GARFIELD: Clay Shirky is the author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations."