This is part two in an exploration of why Twitter makes sense, highlighting its use as a legitimate tool for connections and idea generation. The first article appears as Twitter Matters: Keeping Up with Weak Social Links.
The 140 character limit is perhaps the most distinctive characteristics of Twitter. Some of my Twitter friends have commented that conversations on Twitter tend to be more civil: you just can't cram much message and bile into a 140-character message. This has happened to me: carrying on a debate on Twitter is an interesting exercise in conciseness. Tight constraint is a forcing function on creativity: sensibility, lucidity, and articularity in just 140 characters is tough. You would think that all discussions on Twitter are either about trivial subjects (so that you can fit it into the built-in limit) or quickly degrade into multi-part messages. While the latter happens sometimes, it is rare in my experience, and the former doesn't occur as much as you might think.
An example is in order. I recently posted a message in response to Jim Weirich that I thought that cyclomatic complexity wasn't as useful a metric in Ruby because so much of the things that normally require loops and branches are so handily encapsulated in powerful libraries. Thus, this effect causes cyclomatic complexity numbers to be lower when comparing apples-to-apples code in Java & Ruby. Jim correctly pointed out that that does in fact make the Ruby code simpler, and therefore cyclomatic complexity is measuring exactly what it is supposed to measure. During this same discussion, Glenn Vanderburg weighed in on a related subject, and then so did Ola Bini. The conversation quickly turned to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and how viable it is for spoken languages (not much) and computer languages (much more so). Along they way, I learned the distinction between the strong and weak versions of Sapir-Whorf. All this took place over about 20 minutes, 140 characters at a time. Yet at the end, I knew a lot more than when I started. The combination of (shortened) links to external sources and brief forays kept the conversation focused, covering just a few topics and exploring the implications between them.
How would the conversation work without Twitter? It could only work if all the interested parties (myself, Jim, Glenn, and Ola) were somehow on the same email mailing list or happened to be at the same place at the same time. While our location does coincide occasionally, it's rare (we're based in Atlanta (sometimes), Cincinnati, Dallas, and Stockholm). Even so, the topic would have to come up in conversation. If we were on the same mailing list, the conversation would proceed differently. Because there is no character limit on email (I'll let you immerse yourself in the fantasy of a limitimg function on email for just a second), it's no longer a conversation, it's a series of monologues.
A tricky balance exists between constraint and creativity. Obviously you can cram more information and context into a sonnet than a Haiku (I explored this idea in a blog series about the expressiveness of the Ruby language back in 2007). 140 characters seems to be a bit of a sweet spot: enough to convey some thought but not enough to go overboard. Composing a good Twitter update is different from composing an entire blog but they aren't as far apart as you might think. I certainly have noticed that the people who both Twitter and blog have cut down on the number of blog entries they write. I'm certainly that way. It used to be that I would blog for 2 types of messages: short announcement type blogs ("I'm speaking at Random City Users Group next week") and essays. Now, all the short announcements happen on Twitter, leaving my blog for more formal essays. I like this distinction because I find that the blogs I read tend to be more substantive.
There is no question that most of what comes through Twitter aren't deep thoughts (many think that Twitter is just for food and travel). I find that people who only post obvious messages, too much information, or too much that I either don't care about or I find offensive don't stay on my list of people I follow long. There is at least one prominent technologist who mixes his interesting posts with right-wing bile, and I dropped him like a hot potato because I don't need a subscription to a channel for misinformed dogma. Managing your user list becomes important in Twitter so that you filter out stuff you don't want or need.Twitter creates a new communication stream for those who contribute and consume Tweets (conversations vs. monologues). By creating a new specifically constrained communication channel, it moves conversations that used to occupy other spaces to a more appropriate space. This combination of a new conversational outlet between people with who I maintain weak links and the built-in constraints mean that I have a new source of ideas (both raw ideas and refinements of my ideas) to keep my brain percolating. In the next post, I explore the idea that Twitter can be a form of meme generator.