A Smudge and a Bird

September 10, 2010

I was watching reruns recently of my favorite show, ‘The West Wing’. There’s a scene in one of the last few episodes where the character Toby Ziegler, once a powerful figure at the White House, is now awaiting prison for a security leak. He is incredibly idealistic and the conscience of the West Wing. Now he’s reduced to sitting in his apartment waiting for punishment, so he starts rereading and comparing different copies of the Constitution (believe me, this is his idea of fun!). He notices a place where in some copies there’s a comma and in other copies not. It changes the meaning of the sentence, so he calls up and has someone check the original. He’s told, yes, there is a comma. Or is it a smudge? They’re not sure.

This is a kite

This reminds me of the famous Freudian analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s childhood, which, no matter  what else you think of Freud (in my case, not

This is a vulture

much) is fatally flawed because of a mistranslated word in a document he used in his research on Da Vinci. In one of Freud’s interpretations, he extrapolates from a childhood incident with a vulture that it is a symbolic remembrance of suckling at his mother’s breast, and interprets the memory as a fantasy with mythological connotations. All of this is moot, because it is based on a translation error where the word was for the bird  ‘kite’ instead of ‘vulture’.

What I learn from all this is how easy it is to say the wrong thing or build an intellectual edifice based on a small mistake. It makes one almost terrified to put any thoughts down.  I probably should reread this blog a few dozen more times.


Is Twitter a highway to nowhere?

December 13, 2009

     The question here is that talking about Twitter on Twitter might be a lot of fun, and that’s okay. But if Twitter is to be taken as a serious medium, where are you going on the Twitter highway? Are you delivering any fresh content, whether it be recipes or philosophical musings? A large amount of social media seems to be navel gazing, recursive discussion of social media discussing itself. This resonates across all forms of social media in different but related ways. I focus here on Twitter as it is my preferred type of social media.

     In the early 1960’s Marshall McLuhan had many remarkable and prophetic insights in the fields of communication. Among these was the concept that media was as or more important than the content it delivered, summed up in the famous statement ‘the medium is the  message’. He had many startling conclusions which don’t seem quite as strange to us now as they did then, although a few still are a little unsettling. For example, he said the effect of television as a medium was the same whether it was delivering children’s shows, or reports on violent crime. 

     So on Twitter, is it just the  tweet that’s important? Or, as I hope, does the content still have some meaning. Twitter can be a road leading somewhere. As a tool for businesses to analyze their brand and communicate with their customers, as a means for people to mobilize for social causes and charities, as a way to find people with shared interests for discussion and involvement.

Twitter and Self-organization – Don’t Mess with Success

August 13, 2009

twitterantThe recent news by Twitter of it’s intention to legitimize the RT nudged me back to a subject I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, self organization and emergent behavior as evidenced in Twitter.  In fact, the Twitter blog announcing this actually used the word emergent.  Do you think Twitter demonstrates this?

Self organization exists in all types of ways, crystals and biology and urban growth.  It’s the tendency towards order exhibited by various discrete elements with no central guiding mechanism.  Probably one of the commonest examples everyone is familiar with is the ant colony.  Ants don’t cooperate according to some vast plan, or at the direction of some ruling queen (except in a few popular animated movies!).  Their activity and seeming complexity exists primarily from the interaction of various sensory cues.  Cities, before urban planning, didn’t say “Let’s have a slum here, a market district here, wealthy residences there”, the pattern would just emerge implicit from the nature of the activities.

Twitter being composed of millions of tiny tweets offers an interesting study of this phenomena.  There are few rules, and the simple interactions have evolved an increasing complexity to it.  Retweets are a perfect example, or the hash tags, or followfridays.  These weren’t designed into the system, they evolved out of necessity by the users.  All the application programs for twitter were designed outside of twitter, feeding off the simple API feed.

Twitter has been criticized for not being more innovative, and for not designing more structure to it instead of letting others do it.  But this is twitter’s greatest strength, it’s extreme simplicity makes it flexible and adaptive in ways no one originally conceived of.  In fact, one sees a tendency now for other forms of social media to simplify, as with the new Facebook Lite.  I hope Twitter doesn’t get too carried away with complicating it’s basic structure, I think it would be a mistake.  Do you think Twitter should remain simple and let nature take it’s course?  What do you think?