Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Twitter Matters: Conversations vs. Monologues

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.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Twitter Matters: Keeping Up with Weak Social Links

Lots of people just Don't Get(tm) social networking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, and especially Twitter. On the face of it, Twitter doesn't seem to make much sense: 140 character updates. But those of us who use Twitter a lot (I'm @neal4d, BTW) know that it's much more than that. Twitter engenders so much puzzlement because it's so restrictive, but the restriction is the genius of Twitter.

In this and the next two blog entries, I'm going to explore why Twitter is a Good Thing(tm) and some surprising ways it can insinuate itself into a useful workstream. The first of these observations is around links.

Andrew McAfee of Harvard has done a lot of research on how social networking intersects with the enterprise (soon to be captured in a book I can't wait to read, Enterprise 2.0). I saw him talk recently about why social networking is a valuable resource left barren by most companies. He defines 3 kinds of social links: strong, weak, and potential, shown in a bulls-eye layout:

bulleye diagram

Your strong links are the people you see regularly, either at the office or during the normal course of your life. There's a good chance you know what these people had for lunch, or at least one of their meals in the last week. The next layer represents your weak links. These are people you see intermittently (perhaps once a year). They are your friends that you don't get to see on a regular basis (because of geography, for example). A good example for me is my friend Hadi Hariri, who lives in Malaga, Spain. He & I see each other perhaps once a year (generally at conferences) and always have good fun & conversation. It's this group that social networking sites support. This is a valuable link because you are more likely to get novel ideas from this group than from your strong group. Before social networks, how did you keep up with your weak links? The Christmas Letter, summarizing a year's events? You are wasting an important link if you can't reach out to your weak links sometimes. You see your strong group all the time, so they hold few surprises. However, your larger and more diverse weak links provide novelty. The potential links are those who you'll form weak & strong links with, but you haven't met them yet. You're also more likely to be introduced to a potential links through your weak links.

Twitter provides a strong connectivity to your weak link. Here's an example of how weak links can lead down interesting paths. I met someone at the erubycon conference last year who's a well known figure in the Rails world and subsequently started follow his Twitter feed. He had very recently gone vegan for health reasons, and he tweeted a reference to an astounding book called The China Study. I read this book (and several other referenced in it) and have since been strictly vegetarian, at least for the time being. It's worth reading: it lays out the case against animal protein in your diet, and backs up the claims with real science. It's a profound book, enough to convince me to change my eating habits. I don't know if I'll stay this way forever, but I've been there for about 6 weeks and it has been quite pleasant. He was very much a weak link; I would have a hard time spotting him in a room. Yet we share enough context in the Ruby community for me to use him as a source of ideas, which sometimes lead to interesting places. In this case, I wouldn't currently be vegetarian if it wasn't for Twitter.

Finding a good mechanism for maintaining weak links and finding (and exploring) potential links allows you to work smarter because you have a broader arena for ideation. The combination of links, constraint, and meme ooze make Twitter very useful to me. I explore these other two aspects in the next two installments.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The 2009 Edition of the Rich Web Experience: Adding Spice to Your Applications

Several years ago, I called an Ajax conference a condiment conference because most everyone there concerned themselves with technologies that augmented other technologies (for example, your base language is Java but you need JavaScript to make your applications suck less). Now, I think that user interaction, web design, the rise of Rich Internet Applications (when used suitably), and other user-facing issues have a deeper relationship to the underlying technologies. Thus, I'm calling this year's Rich Web Experience the spice for your underlying technology. Food is edible without condiments, but bland without spices. You can't avoid the browser as a platform; might as well embrace it in Orlando in December.