Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Twitter Matters: The Meme Abiogenesis of the Internet

This is part three in an exploration of why Twitter makes sense, highlighting its use as a legitimate tool for connections and idea generation. The first article is under Twitter Matters: Keeping Up with Weak Social Links and the second is under Twitter Matters: Conversations vs. Monologues for those who want to catch up.

Abiogenesis, the study of how a primordial soup of chemicals eventually lead to amino acids and life, is an area of fascinating study by biologists. This spontaneous generation of life happened here a long time ago, and its study obviously interests those investigating life on other planets because this primordial soup seems to be the first prerequisite for life as we know it.

You can think of the Internet as a free-form gathering place for memes, an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed on from one individual to another by non-genetic means. Examples of memes include hit songs, water-cooler conversations about hit TV shows, and things like communism. If you are in the idea business (meaning that you are always looking for new sources of ideas and how to apply them to a broad subject like software development), you are always on the lookout for primordial meme pools. Twitter meets that goal admirably. As I mentioned in the first installment, weak social links are your best source for "outside the box" ideas. That makes Twitter a great place to harvest and generate new ideas. New ideas frequently start from seeds of an idea that are nourished into full-formed thoughts. Twitter now only delivers these seeds to your door, you can use them as an incubator for your own seeds.

Here's an example. One of my recent blog entries was called the Suck - Rock Dichotomy. That particular turn of phrase came from a quick one-off Twitter entry where I was responding to a Tweet from someone that combined rock and suck. I mentioned that the entire argument was really part of the pervasive suck/rock dichotomy in the software world. That worked nicely in a 140 character Twitter post, and it was modestly re-tweeted. But it started more serious thinking on why that phenomena exists, which further lead me to an entire blog post (i.e., essay) on the subject. The turn of phrase came from me, but in response to some other stimuli. Would I have ended up writing a blog post on that subject if it hadn't come up in a virtual conversation? Probably eventually, but having a conversational medium close by encouraged the original Tweet, which lead to more fully formed thoughts about the subject.

Finding new sources of in-context ideas is a gold mine because you can never tell what fruit those idea seedlings will bear. Yes, 99% of Twitter is mindless trivia, but discovering or creating a new idea that you wouldn't have had otherwise? Priceless. People complain that most of Twitter is drivel, and I won't dispute that against overwhelming evidence, but the remaining usefulness is an artifact of the volume of memes present. Here's an analogy. Numbers vary, but some sources suggest that up to 95% of the human genome is "junk DNA", DNA that isn't used (or at least its use hasn't been determined). That's how nature tries out new ideas, and the really good ones survive. Most of Twitter is junk, but good ideas do lurk in these murky meme pools.

Twitter has evolved to fill a niche that didn't exist before. Just like any social environment, users have to figure out a way that it can provide value. I've certainly found that for me. The combination of keeping up with my weak social links, having terse conversations vs. email monologues, the enforced constraint to keep ideas atomic, and the new medium of ideas forms a completely unanticipated but welcome enhancement to the way I work. Rather than cast stones at new technologies like social networks, ask yourself why people find it useful and how can it be useful to you. The answer may be "no", but you need to understand why it matters before dismissing it.

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