The information hosepipe

Kevin Fong on Twitter’s shift from dull celeb-zone to super-fast data source

March 18, 2010

If I let my four-year-old son ring the shopping in on the self-service till, I get through the supermarket queue much faster. He thinks it’s a game, is quicker than the cashiers and he can even look stuff up when it doesn’t have a bar code. He could in all likelihood do the whole shop for me, but that would mean giving him my credit card and PIN, and it would leave me with a trolley full of gimmicky cereals and toys.

At any rate this is a taste of things to come: of being outsmarted by the oncoming generation when it comes to technology. It was while watching my son whirl a loaf of bread over the bar-code scanner that I thought I should try to delay the inevitable moment when he has to show me how to programme our toaster.

So I decided to have a crack at Twitter. Twitter, for those as tech-oblivious as me, is a microblogging service; which is to say that it’s a fast way of sending and receiving short messages from lots of people to lots of people. It’s been going in earnest for 24 months or so, which in cyberspace age is about a zillion years. To all those early adopters for whom this is ancient news, I apologise unreservedly.

The accelerated pace of development of all things cybersphere means that Twitter has been through its version of the Dark Ages already. In that era it was used mainly to broadcast the dull stream of consciousness of a largely unfunny and uninteresting tribe of celebs, wannabe celebs and neverbe celebs. Indeed, it was conceived in this form. “Twitter” was adopted as its moniker according to its formal definition: “a short burst of inconsequential information”. And in those primitive times the Twitter home page simply asked “What are you doing?”, inviting an avalanche of “I’m brushing my teeth. Ain’t it exciting!” type posts.

The message length, fixed at 140 characters, leaves not a whole lot of play space for the more verbose among us and is responsible for the criticism that Twitter is simply another device that is eroding our children’s basic literacy. (Personally I have been delighted to discover how redundant vowels and all but the most basic rules of grammar are when it comes to making yourself understood, but that’s doctors for you.)

And so, in my quest to stay current, I thought I’d test the water with my students. Being on Twitter would surely mark me out as being “street”. But to my surprise none of them was on it. “Don’t see the point” was the common refrain. But then most students also say that about democracy and their right to vote; so I still figured I should give it a go.

First I chose my Twitter name. This was trickier than it sounds. I tried out pretty much every character from every sci-fi film or novel that had ever passed in front of my eyes. But this, it transpired, was a well-trodden path. After hours of searching, I concluded that Yoda_4239 didn’t quite have the punch I was looking for.

Then I stumbled upon @nuissance_value, a handle with gravitas that I scooped up as fast as my fat little fingers could type and promptly used to shriek my new arrival on the Twitter stage. It was fully 20 minutes before someone pointed out that I should try a new name and this time preferably one that I could spell. So there I was putting the Twit into Twitter within a few hundred seconds of my debut. The white flag came up and I settled for @kevin_fong instead.

At the end of last year, Twitter shifted focus. Instead of inviting users to tell us what they were doing, it now asked “What’s happening?” This had the effect of moving the conversation on from people who insisted on telling us how “awsm” picking up their dry cleaning was, to something quite different.

This, with the embedded, shortened hyperlinks, transformed it into a stream of observation and fast information, lending the tweets new and potentially serious purpose. You didn’t really need to surf anymore; you could just turn the information hosepipe on yourself and bathe in the stuff whenever you felt like it.

It became more than a way of knowing where Ashton Kutcher was having his morning latte. It morphed into a slayer of media giants, a tool of rebellion, a way of calling to arms great swathes of people connected only by an idea expressed in 140 characters.

Of course none of this has helped my own personal Twitter crusade. The problem with being a jobbing doctor is that you’re rarely close enough to a desk to tweet effectively. And mobile device posts using one hand while you’re helping the surgeons through a horrendoplasty with the other are generally considered poor form. I have come to realise that, as a hospital doctor, the response to the question “What’s happening?” is very often utterly untweetable. If I were to tweet my professional life, two things would happen: you would cry and I would get sacked.

So I have taken to listening more than tweeting, using Twitter as a kind of intelligence-gathering thing. I can see its virtues as well as its vices. And for now, despite my initial reservations, I have found it a pretty useful way to go splashing about in the information stream.

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