Let's just tweet now

PG WODEHOUSE wrote the best evocation I've ever read of what it's like to be totally astonished. He describes the expression on the face of a chap 'who while picking daisies on the down line, has just received the 4.15 in the small of the back'. Well, I saw that expression this week.



By John Naughton

Published: Thu 31 May 2007, 8:19 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:53 PM

It crossed the visage of a friend who is a grizzled veteran of the print business, a man who was once the deputy editor of one of our more disgraceful national newspapers. No more cynical observer of human depravity can therefore be imagined. But he was, for an instant, genuinely taken aback.

What caused this astonishment was a casual mention of Twitter (twitter.com), a current online sensation. My friend had clearly never heard of it, so we explained that it was a web service that enables people to publish short (140 characters maximum) messages telling the world what they are thinking about or doing at any particular moment. His jaw dropped as the sheer pointlessness of the notion struck home. While he was recovering, one of my colleagues used his mobile phone to post a "tweet" (as Twitter messages are called) telling the world that "John is explaining Twitter to Bob".

We then added to his pain by telling him about Twittervision (twittervision.com), a clever mash-up created by David Troy that superimposes messages from the Twitter rolling log onto a map of the world provided by Google Maps. I'm just looking at it now. Up pops 'sparklette' from Singapore. "You are the cutest and most precious thing ever!" she or he burbles. "Do you know that?" Next up is "sasame3" in Japan, saying something incomprehensible (to this columnist). Here's 'JamFactory' from Bristol saying "Thanks bro, it's Soooo close, another hour or so maybe!" And just when I thought there was nothing happening in Indonesia, up pops 'herdiansah', who is clearly grappling with technology. 'kenapa sih font dax medium ini kalo di Flash IDE nggak bisa... sementara di Photoshop bisa'... any clue?

And so on. It's important to remember that these particular tweets are not part of any conversation. They're simply the product of individuals typing answers to Twitter.com's question: "What are you doing?" And although Twitter is not the only service of this kind, it's the one that has become the sensation de nos jours.

Why? It's partly because Twitter is modestly - but not dangerously - wacky. It provides a subtle way of letting friends and colleagues know that they shouldn't have written you off as a technophobe. And it's easy to use. You don't even have to be logged in to the net --- tweets can be sent and received using mobile phones.

The obvious downside is that, in a world when busy people are already besieged by electronic stimuli, it just adds to the cacophony. Do I really want to know that one of my friends is "thinking about feeding the cat", or that another is "pondering a witty blog post"? It raises the problem of what psychologists call "constant partial attention".

"How can I focus on a task or simply think about a problem", asks a thoughtful blogger, "when I am constantly updating people on my status and receiving updates on theirs? The answer is I can't focus and I don't think others can either. A state of continuous partial attention is not a good thing. We need to think deeply at times and focus." Amen.

Observer


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