Page history last edited by Jolene savage 14 years, 8 months ago


Note: This article is copyright the Chicago Tribune. The original is available here.


World gets 21st Century totem poles


By Eric Gwinn

Tribune staff reporter

Published March 20, 2007 Original source



Is small talk the next big thing?


Twitter is a tiny but rapidly growing Internet community in which members tell one another what they're doing right this second. The result is sort of a mini-blog, a thought balloon via text message or posted on the Internet. "Twittering," described by some early users as addicting, might turn the instant messaging world upside down. Or, it might be the latest vanity of a Web culture so in love with itself that every mundane act -- from getting a cup of coffee to quelling a yawn -- is worthy of a worldwide Web announcement.


In any event, "twittering" got a big public boost last week when it won a prestigious 2007 Interactive Web award at the annual South By Southwest music, film and interactive technologies conference in Austin.


Similarly, Tumblr is a small community in which members use a software application to create collages of words and images to post online. Tumblr calls them "blogs with less fuss"; they look like the headline-news version of blogging that many online diarists have been searching for -- or they look like disjointed monologues created by people too lazy to explain what they are thinking.


Whether these are fads, toys for the ultraconnected or the next MySpace, the two sites signal a form of communication different from what most Web users are accustomed to. Here, readers are like detectives, piecing together the brief postings to form a mental picture of who the creator is, what he or she thinks is cool or important, who his or her friends are. The writer, on the other hand, is using those snippets to show, not tell, the world about himself or herself.


People like creating an open, online journal because "humans want a mechanism to share ourselves and feel popular," says David Karp, president of Tumblr's New York parent company, Davidville. Tumblr and Twitter hope to attract a high number of users -- and the advertisers who love them -- by making blogging quicker and easier.


Karp believes short-form communication is here to stay because people want to talk about themselves -- hence the creation of millions of blogs that haven't been updated in months; we don't want to have long, drawn-out conversations, the reasoning goes, simply bar talk.


Just as the quick back-and-forth of instant and text messaging make e-mail and phone conversations feel slow, the in-the-moment nature of Tumblr and Twitter makes it easy to float an idea or a thought or an image. It remains to be seen if a collection of Tumblr or Twitter posts add up to anything with the depth, power and personality of a traditional blog.


Tumblr plays the show-not-tell game by letting members clip quotes and images found on the Web and paste them onto a blog. The quote at the top of the page may not be related to the picture below, but the sum of these parts shows who the writer is.


"This is blogging that favors short-form data," says Tumblr's Karp, alluding to his tool and to Twitter. "You can make 10 posts during the day, as opposed to spending an hour writing one long, editorial post."


Karp says Tumblr is seeing 10,000 posts per hour from its 50,000 members all over the world, with 250,000 visitors simply reading, not posting.


Setting limits


The text-based Twitter restricts each blog entry to 140 characters -- a typical length in text messaging -- and users create entries from their phone or their computer, by text message, instant message or through their account. The users' friends receive the Twitter posts on their cell phones or instant messaging accounts, or they can read them on . Users also can allow their posts to be part of what's called the public timeline on the Twitter home page, a spot where messages are stacked one on top of another, creating a totem pole of disparate thoughts -- in English, Portuguese, Spanish and other languages -- from members in the U.S., Asia, Europe and South America.


The 140-character limit is just enough room for a note to a friend, a quick thought, poetic observations.


Dana Power, a computer programmer from Raleigh, N.C., says her brother who lives in Texas introduced her to Twitter so they can stay in touch: "I hardly ever corresponded with him, but with Twitter, I can see what he is doing at a given point in his life," she says. "It makes me feel more connected to him somehow."


Reading a stream of posts from strangers is entertaining, Power says: "In my spare time at work, I would go online and just read the public timeline. Sometimes, the things people say are hilarious. And you can see what a different lifestyle some people lead compared to yours."


"Off to the supermarket -- on Yahoo," announces one Twitter member. "I was all for this spring thing, now it's too hot to sleep. Gimme winter back!" complains another.


Because members are talking to no one in particular, visiting the site is like overhearing bits of conversations at a cocktail party.


Such small talk was alluded to by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922, defining "phatic communication" as a way to communicate without exchanging information (for example, saying, "How're you doing?" without really wanting or expecting an answer). In 1960, linguist Roman Jakobson altered the definition slightly, saying the phatic function of communication keeps open the lines of discourse. Similarly, these micro-blogs link to long-form, fleshed-out blogs.


Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has a Twitter account, presumably to tap into its sense of techno-savvy community. His page lists hundreds of "friends," all of whom can "meet" each other if they want to, and the candidate's updates give a mini-view of life on the campaign trail: "committing our campaign to become carbon neutral"; "Great to see my family. In NC today. Call with student reporters. Interview w Wolf Blitzer. College Tour Rally at Bennett in Greensboro."


Social sharing


Crosby Noricks, author of the fashion PR blog, says she and her Twitter friends "share laughs, sympathy, even job leads." Social media services such as Twitter have staying power, she says, because they are more than just chroniclers of users' ephemeral thought balloons: "I think the real key is participatory, two-way communication and dialogue keeping people who spend a lot of time isolated feeling a part of the world."


Twitter's 60,000 members update their sites an average of three times a day by typing in messages from a Web browser, through an instant-message service or via text message. They can choose to be alerted whenever someone posts a new message.


"When an earthquake happens, I don't feel the ground shake, but I feel it in my phone," says Jack Dorsey, Twitter's San Francisco-based creator. "My phone starts vibrating off the hook. Everyone's posting about this earthquake, informing their friends, and my phone is shaking. That's when Twitter becomes a pulse of the society."


Steve Jones, head of the communications department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, isn't certain that kind of social pulse is for everyone. "It requires a level of hyper-attentiveness that's difficult to maintain," he notes.


"These may work best if enough members of your own network are on it," says Eszther Hargatti, a communications professor, blogger and Internet researcher at Northwestern University. "This works well for those whose networks are made up of other ultrawired people. But it doesn't work so well for those who have many friends and family members who are not nearly as connected. That is why the widespread takeoff of this is unclear at this point."


Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune.


Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.