Just WTF is Twitter?

March 4, 2007

I woke up early yesterday morning (Saturday!) to the sound of my phone buzzing away on my nightstand, alive with text message updates signaling a new day of Twitter activity. Groggy, and mistaking the phone for my alarm, I reached over to slap the snooze button only to send my Blackberry tumbling to the floor. And that’s what got me thinking …

Active vs. passive notification: When it comes to tackling the problem of how to use technology to keep ourselves informed and up-to-date, designers and product manufacturers of the past decade have focused primarily on creating devices and software for active notification. SMS text messaging, cellular phones, e-mail notification systems, instant messaging, pagers, RSS feed readers, and more, all daily competing for our attention in an increasingly hectic and fast-paced world. These technologies are “active” because they require that we look at them, pay attention to them, and respond to them appropriately.

Twitter doesn’t — or more aptly, shouldn’t — fit into this mix. Keith Peters recently described Twitter as a kind of channel for the background noise of a “virtual office space.”

[Twitter] is kind of like background noise. You notice these trivial things people are doing just like you notice Jim from accounting brought back Indian food for lunch … You don’t really need to know any of this, don’t particularly care about most of it, and don’t need to respond to it. But somehow it’s kind of cool just being aware of it.

Keith’s description is spot on. It is a passive information channel. But, the problem with Twitter is that it’s a passive information channel making extensive use of active notification systems. Instant messaging and SMS are not the best way to keep up with Twitter’s so-called “tweets.” Do I really want a text message every time Jim from accounting has a curry for lunch? Absolutely not.

An unfortunate fact of life in the year 2007, however, is that the number of passive notification systems available to us in our work and home are few and far between. Passive notification systems present information without bothering the user(s), usually as part of the ambient environment. We find them frequently in public spaces — airport arrival/departure screens, news tickers in train stations, the city hall marquee or even the digital thermometer outside your local bank are just a few examples. These are things that only give you information if you choose to notice them, without alarms, bells, whistles or flashing icons. I can think of only three common passive notification systems found in the average American household: clocks, thermostats and muted televisions tuned to CNN.

Design influences use. An interesting side-effect of the fact that Twitter makes use of active notification systems like instant messaging or SMS is that people have begun using it as an active information channel, publicly broadcasting messages targeted for specific friends or users that would more appropriately be sent using direct means (usually prefixed with ”@”). In Keith Peters’ example, this would be analogous to shouting something to a co-worker in a cubicle across the office — effective, sure, but only as long as responses are kept short.

For Twitter users on the Mac, software like Twitterific keeps the Twitter back channel noise in a passive space. A small widget that sits on your desktop, Twitterific idly displays and scrolls through incoming “tweets” whether you pay attention to them or not. I’m told that similar software exists for Windows Vista users in the form of a desktop “gadget.” But what’s more exciting is not software, but hardware. What’s more exciting is what I predict to be a substantial growth in the number of solutions and devices for passive notification in the home/office space. We’re already starting to see it now, with devices like the Chumby (basically a personal information dashboard for your home), the Ambient Orb and even the fuel consumption and performance monitoring display systems found in cars like the Toyota Prius.

In a world where the amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis seems to grow exponentially, carefully deciding what information deserves our immediate attention, and what information can go on buzzing or “twittering” in the background, becomes more and more important. In fact, our sanity depends on it.