We are the atoms within it. All living things exchange meaningful signals. They engage in conversations expressed in languages of form and color, chemicals, behavior, and sound rather that words and sentences.
We do like that form of a constant stream because it so mirrors life. In some ways, even though it is digital and searchable, it is also forgiving - our short bursts do have an expiration after all.
By paring down our own interactions at micro levels to a mere 140 characters, it is easier to think of and see us as social atoms, a term physicist Mark Buchanan uses to wrap around the understanding of human behavior and the social world. I wonder what he would make of the massive ongoing conversation that is Twitter.
Twitter encourages and engages certain features of our nature that are essential to our social lives. It also helps visualize social patterns and regularities, which humans are very good at picking up. This is important to those who are looking to Twitter for marketing purposes. These features are:
- the adaptive - we take a step based upon a rule, an idea, or a belief and then adjust based
upon the outcome. Our behavior is governed more by trial and error than by deduction. We recognize patterns, make predictions, and then adapt. Our decisions are typically made on the fly. Don't you find yourself saying to others who have not tried Twitter that the only way to "get it" is to be participating? That is true for other forms of social networking, but it is especially true of micro interactions.
- the imitating - we are not isolated nomads, but, rather, individuals who regularly seek information from others, especially in circumstances of insecurity, ambiguity or danger. There are plenty of those circumstances around today.
- the cooperative - human beings are naturally not purely self-interested but, rather, "strong reciprocators." Think also back to the teachings of psychologist Robert Cialdini. We are capable of genuine kindness to those beyond family and friends and we also display righteous indignation toward free riders and those who violate the canons of justice.
People cannot be understood in isolation, and then summed together. Social reality emerges inherently from the collective patterns born of their interactions. Twitter is a map of several social networks that intersect and overlap long enough to give us a glimpse of threads appearing in other quasi conversations.
Yes, there is a danger to be misunderstood with such brevity. A meme can really gain momentum with the ease of a wild fire when imitating is engaged. It can be downright fascinating to see our adaptive nature at work. The most amazing conversations happen when we are cooperative and supportive of one another - for fun and for real.
Twitter is not for everyone. It may work for you some of the time. I find it superficial and arbitrary, and downright noisy at times. Then again, this can be said for just about any medium, and many physical situations - bazaars, airports, train stations, events. It's in the moments when it works, when it engages those certain features of nature, that it expresses the social of the network, that it connects the people and the ideas.
Has your participation on Twitter changed over time? Why did you join? What makes you stick with it?
[PN 35-07 atoms. Hydrogen breakthrough could open the road to carbon-free cars. Credit: EPSRC]