Polluting the streams, pruning the networks…

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* * UPDATED: corrected from draft which was published. Facts/links/opinions unaltered. * *

Alan Patrick’s pure class in my book. His blog is prickly, argumentative and pushy in the very best kinds of ways. I reckon it’s blogs like Broadstuff and DotBen that help me keep questioning things. Without them the idealistic eejit in me decides to dance off into a digital daze chanting lines from Clay Shirky and waiting for the Singularity to arrive in the style of an evangelical rapture and sweep us up to the all-too-virtual promised land.

So, Alan’s post about filtering the Twitterstream gets me thinking. He talks about the Tweets around the Guardian’s Activate conference:

What was interesting to me was the massive degradation in the User Generated Twitterstream. Last year, and early this year, you could tune in to such Twitterstreams and get a fairly decent “user generated media” view of what was going on. The “User Generated” Activate Twitterstream yesterday was….well, “unhelpful” would put it mildly.
Key issues I spotted were that retweeting of content was far more focussed than before, but not in a good way – the main focus was on:
(i) Uncritical mass retweeting of “soundbite sayings” – “Kool aid” homilies etc
(ii) Similar mass retweeting of very dubious statistics, again totally uncritically.
(iii) In fact my impression overall is that the Twitterstream was becoming an “empty vessels making the most noise” mode of communication. The Retweeting seemed more about marking cyberterritory by pissing on the digital lamp-posts than actually communicating anything.

On the one hand, he’s right of course. Twitter’s full of idiots. Sometimes, I’m one of them.

Less contentiously, Twitter’s increasingly full of noise. Sometimes I am that noise.

The issue isn’t Twitter, of course, it is that old effect of the web spreading, of services reaching the mainstream. As Eric Schmidt said at the conference, the disruptive nature of the web (it is the most disruptive technology in history, he asserts) is “because it has replaced the economics of scarcity with economics of abundance”. As Twitter is taken up by more people, the messages become more abundant and it becomes harder to find the useful bits.

Perhaps the barrier is the second thing Eric Schmidt talked about at the Activate summit: the “now-ness” of the web. We expect things now, to be good *now*. The more people there are using the conference tag, however, the more echoes, the more content that’s less useful to you that appears. Reminds me of how Paul Adams points out that “friend” is a bad way to describe most of your online connections – there are lots of different groups you are connected to and usually want to?share?different things with each. Well a tag becomes a poor way of organising the conversation around a major conference, as people are there for different reasons, have different levels of understanding and standards for what is new news, an inspiring insight, vs. homilies and clich?s…

I think that as we all get more used to using services like Twitter, two things may help counter Alan’s issues around the quality of a stream around a hashtag for something like this conference.

  1. As he acknowledges, his filters will get better. When we open our Twitter stream and are reading nonsense, Twitter isn’t broke, our network has got clogged (time for a cull?) or our filters aren’t working. In the same way as “control+all, delete” is often the sanest way to deal with 4,000 emails when you get back from holiday, mass-un-follows in Twitter could be a good way to go. Prune your network and let it grow back stronger
  2. People will become savvy enough to know that Tweeting obvious soundbites and re-Tweeting them doesn’t make them look good, but instead makes them look self-consciously?brash and a bit loud. The behaviour will become slightly embarrassing, the same way that shouty mobile phone calls in public places became less acceptable, to the point now where people on trains will ask others to keep the noise down. It doesn’t make you look important, it makes you look rude.

Maybe that last one’s a bit optimistic. Either way, how we access the streams of information and the norms we negotiate with one another for how you behave in the streams will shift and be refined. We need to remind ourselves that if your network’s broke, it’s up to you to fix it.

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google