Conversations are marvelous ways to spend time. One person says one little thing, which causes somebody else to think of something else, and that causes yet another thought in another corner. They are organic, engaging, educational, and brilliant fun. For many of us, a simple conversation is what being “social” means, and many social events are organized around this one thing that we almost all love to do.
Bringing a conversation to the internet is an idea as old as the thing itself. The internet is designed around sending messages back and forth. Communication and the internet have practically become synonymous. One of the huge advantages of the internet is the ability to communicate asynchronously. However, no internet technology has really been able to capture the elegant simplicity of a casual, social conversation and make it asynchronous.
Twitter has changed that. They have achieved the asynchronous converation where no other technology has been able to. I know that’s a bold statement, but let me explain. Conversation, in the social sense, is not about getting things done. Conversation is about bouncing a thought out there and seeing what bounces back. Conversation is about talking to whoever in the room will listen, just because you want to hear what they have to say. Conversation is about expressing yourself and yielding the floor to others. Twitter captures all of these things, and removes the necessity of being in the same place and time.
The “@” replies are really what gave this capability to twitter. By being able to view the replies of people you know to people you know, your twitter feed becomes a chat room transcript, except you don’t have to stay logged in and you aren’t expected to answer. It becomes your email inbox except there’s no “To: “ list, the messages are just sentences, and you don’t need a reason to post. It becomes your IM except any other friend can throw in his two cents. In fact, it’s welcome.
While the “@” replies make Twitter a channel on which you can have a conversation, it’s the 140 character limit that forces the conversational feel. Whenever you are not limited in time or length, people tend to go on too long. In a real conversation, somebody will usually interrupt somebody else who is taking up too much time to make his point. The asynchronous nature of much of the internet does not offer these interruptions, so there’s no impetus for conversation sized-snippets of thought. Twitter’s brilliant move to limit statements to 140 characters forces single thoughts to be expressed, which is exactly what happens in a good conversation.
These two simple design decisions have created a phenomenon that I used to mock mercilessly but now embrace. The web-wide conversation is a great way to casually keep in touch with people you rarely get to have a real conversation with, and a great way to have a little fun during work without distracting you for hours on end, like facebook can do. Twitter is probably not the end of network news, real time search is probably not the end of Google, and it’s probably not without some element of narcissm. However, I’ve grown to enjoy this simple technology immensely just because it lets me talk a bit more to a few more people. More conversations are never a bad thing.