Unless you've been under a rock for the past 10 years, you've probably heard of this series of tubes called the Internet. Chances are (unless you have particularly thoughtful friends who have printed this column out, thereby rendering any of the handy links that are to follow completely useless) you're on the Internet right now. You might even be familiar with the lovely term Web 2.0.
Web 2.0 is, as briefly as possible, a term to describe websites that embrace interactivity and user-generated-content. These sites would have little-to-no content without the people who are using them. Some of the websites that you use on a daily basis may be considered Web 2.0 apps without you even knowing that you're supporting such ridiculous terminology. Good examples are Craigslist, Wikipedia or YouTube. In fact, our very own Intrepid Media fits the bill pretty well. Nothing defines Web 2.0 better than the redundancy of terms called "social networking." You're probably familiar with Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, and a suite of others.
Some of the most recent hype-generating sites out there are those like Twitter, Plurk, Tumblr or Pownce which can be best referred to as micro-blogs. They're essentially ways to post little tidbits - thoughts at most - to whoever might be trolling through the internet at that moment.
There are 4 basic types of people who use these sites.
Category 1: 14-year-old girls. (27%)
Category 2: College students. (46%)
Category 3: Overweight bearded guys with a penchant for Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. (24%)
Category 4: Everyone else. (3%)*
As you can see, Categories 1 through 3 generate the lion's share of content on any of these given sites. Interestingly they all share the same basic characteristic: they hold an overwhelming belief that other people care what goes on in their lives. Category 4 is a harder nut to crack. It's a kinetic and ever-changing mix of people who are trying something out to see what the hype is about, people who think this is somehow a great way to keep in touch with their friends, people who are using this as an extension of their other web-related business, and people who are desperately craving some sort of attention ("LOOK. AT. ME!")
Here's the thing - it's not a great way to keep in touch with your friends. Unlike a normal blog, which requires your friends to all have the same common technology (ie - a web browser), this requires your friends to all subscribe to the same micro-blogging service. True, you can view what someone else is posting without having an account of your own, but you can't truly interact unless you're a member. This requires a level of buy-in that you'll generally only really see in Categories 1 through 3. It also requires both parties (both the poster and the reader) to interact with the site on a regular basis, otherwise the technology is ineffective.
In theory, friends who are incrediblly bored at work will follow your Twitter, or will "Plurk" you, and can get a really good idea of who you are, what makes you tick and comment on all of the stupid little tidbits that you post, whilst you do the same for them. You don't have to play catchup the next time you see them if you know what they had for lunch yesterday, what kind of insignificant trifle they're running into today, or any other piece of useless information that they care to post. In practice, it relies on people to lead at least somewhat interesting lives. It shows, magnificently, how utterly mundane some people's noteworthy incidents are. (Mine are no exception.)
What these sites do best is enable stalking. Sure, via Google you can find any public record for someone - phone number, address, local tax records, etc. But via Twitter, Plurk, or any of the others, if you are following a truly avid user, you can find out what they're doing through their entire day. You know when they've been sleeping; you know when they're awake. You know when they've been bad or-- I don't need to finish this. It's voyeurism at its very best, because the people are actually expecting you to be watching their every move.
These sites are the kind of thing that your mother would be worried about. They are an open door of letting strangers witness the smallest minutiae of your life. What's worse? They are exciting and enthralling; they bring out your inner exhibitionist. They represent an experience that is likely the closest you'll get to becoming a celebrity without ending up on the back page of a ratty tabloid.
They have turned stalking - and being stalked - into a fun pastime that can be enjoyed by anyone.
* - All statistics cited from the infallible source of 'my ass.'
As an experiment, I've set myself up on these services, and am attempting to update them on a regular basis. After all, the best way to learn something is to experience it. My updates are just as mundane as advertised, but I invite you, here, to step in on the voyeurism:
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.23.08 @ 12:46a
I really must be Amish, because I don't see the attraction of Twitter, or Plurk, or whatever. Like I need to know you just picked your nose.
These features came up at a corporate meeting today, and were slightly mocked, yet many of the Web managers think these tools are exactly what are needed to engage the consumer.
Are they? Really?
7.23.08 @ 9:26a
Only if your consumer is a 14-year-old girl.
I probably have the time to provide regular updates on my life to a Twitter-like service...
...but I have zero motivation to do so. Must be related to why I still don't have a cellphone; I just don't feel obligated to be so available to the rest of the world.
7.23.08 @ 9:51a
I think it's a great idea from a business standpoint. We're such a fan-based society. People have all these weird allegiances to companies that are just out to take their money because.. hey.. they're companies.
But! From a corporate standpoint, this is exactly the kind of thing that you want - some way for the customer to feel like they are personally connected with you - what better way than to give them small regular updates of inconsequential things? It's like you're talking to them.
On a person-to-person standpoint, I find it to be a curiosity and nothing more. I'm DOING it and I can't figure out why people well... care. Certainly, the only thing that intrigues me about other people's updates is a odd sense of voyeurism, which I tried to communicate here. Unfortunately, most people lead really boring lives and aren't that much fun to read about.
What do you have against the Amish?
Russ, you know that just because you own a cell phone doesn't mean that you *have* to answer it, right? Ask anybody that calls me, they'll tell you.
7.23.08 @ 11:36a
Yes, but I don't even want to hear it ring, or feel it vibrate.
Small talk is antithetical to my nature. So "small regular updates of inconsequential things" equals junk mail, in my opinion. It's the same reason I have (shameless plug) castigated blogging and webcasting. Ninety percent (or more) of either is dross.
And honestly, the best thing about my Facebook account is the friendly reminder of friends/relatives' birthdays.
7.23.08 @ 11:46a
Okay, but it's different than that.
Nobody's forcing you to keep it turned on. (Then what's the point? So you can have it when it's convenient to YOU, not everyone else.) Similarly, with this, nobody's forcing you to go look at it. It's not push technology, it's pull.
This is one of the things that makes it so interesting to me. You're not getting these updates in your e-mail, or anything like that. Like blogging and webcasting, you have to go look for it to interact with the content. You don't care about it? Don't look at it. Awesome. It's better than junk mail because you don't have to be inflicted with it unless you choose.
The thing is, it's quite clear that there are a lot of people (in Categories 1 through 3 listed on my left) that choose.
And yeah - 90+% of it is total dross. But that doesn't mean that people aren't watching it. For example, people still watch television.
7.23.08 @ 12:43p
A couple of the webcomics that I read have a twitter window next to the comic where the artist either leaves notes about the content, or just says what they're up to, and I tend to look at those. But the idea of actually going to a specific other site to look at what people are doing sounds like kind of a pain in the ass.
On the other hand, this is yet another way for people to voice those little thoughts that you have - or little complaints that you want to make - that are too transitory or trivial for a whole email or phone call. And since people only have to look at your twitter if they want to, you aren't inflicting it on them specifically, just getting it out of your brain.
7.23.08 @ 1:23p
Interesting point I just read on Tumblr, regarding Twitter:
Verlyn Klinkenborgâ€™s complaint about Twitter is the clearest demonstration Iâ€™ve seen in a while of â€œthe pressâ€ not getting â€œthe internet.â€ Hereâ€™s how he describes Twitter: â€œThe idea is to send short messages â€” microblog entries of 140 characters or less â€” to a group of people who are â€˜followingâ€™ you.â€
Wrong, Verlyn. Thatâ€™s not the idea at all. The idea is actually to receive short messages from the people you are following. Reading Twitter is what its all about. It functions as a kind of smarter RSS feed, a news aggregator, a market research application (ask Mike Hudack), a way to keep up with friends and a way to discover new people and ideas.
I can see it. I love reading my friends' status updates on Facebook. And posting my own.
7.23.08 @ 2:39p
I have my moments when, on Facebook, I strive to think of something witty to write in the status bar in case anyone's That Interested.