I wrote this for my personal blog, but thought it might be of interest here, seeing as this blog is partially about introducing new technology to people. Twitter, if you haven’t heard is a new “microblogging” service: you’re limited to 140 characters and the interface is designed to make posting and replying to others’ posts as simple as possible. I decided to try it out and here’s my response:

I’ve been using Twitter for a little over a week now. For a long time I was hesitant to sign up. While Twitter had lots of hype, the hype was all within a pretty narrow circle: sure, all the internet celebs on TWiT each week love Twitter, but they’re in the crowd using Twitter. Nobody I knew used Twitter and it seemed like the kind of thing that’s only useful if you know lots of people using it. But both the geek and the sociologist in me were interested in it, so when one friend signed up, I decided to give it a go.

My first response to Twitter, and I think the first response of many people, is “Why would anyone care what I’m doing minute to minute?” There’s definitely some vanity involved in Twittering, but not really that much more vanity than is involved in the human experience generally: Twitter is basically an extension of our capacity for gossip and our curiosity about others. We all gossip to some degree (some people think it’s even the key to our evolution as linguistic creatures), even if it’s the simple “So what’s new?” kind of catching up we do everyday with virtually everybody we see regularly.

And some people we love to gossip with, even if we’re not that close as friends, simply because they have a way of communicating the boring minutiae of everyday life in a particularly humorous or insightful way. These people make great Twitterers, and they’re fun to follow on Twitter whether you personally know them or even really care what they’re actually doing minute-by-minute.

Then of course, there’s celebrity gossip: even if you’re hopelessly out of touch with popular culture, you still can’t help but look at the tabloid headlines in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. It’s just fun to see what famous people are doing.

So basically Twitter encapsulates all of these features of gossip, only it’s public and it’s online. You use Twitter to keep up with what your friends are doing, you use it for the entertainment value of following Twitter Personalities, and it’s fun to follow well-known people with thousands of followers just because, well, thousands of other people are watching, too.

But really, I think knowing a lot of people on twitter personally (for the first type of gossip) is probably the key to sticking with it for the long haul. I don’t really know how long I’ll stick with it, though for now it’s mostly been a way for me resuscitate my blog (I use FeedWordPress to crosspost all my Tweets on my blog). I remember when I first started blogging, I was really into it for awhile and then I kind of ran out of steam. All the big long rants had been written and it kind of lost it’s charm, or at least I lost the sense of urgency needed to motivate me to actually write up the posts.

What Twitter does, however, is dramatically lower the barrier to posting, so it isn’t a big time investment to Twitter at all. In fact, if you take the time to think, “Hmmm, is this worth Tweeting about?,” then you’ve already spent more time on it than if you’d just Twittered it right away. Again, this has it’s downsides, as represented by this popular cartoon explanation by Huge MacLeod of why he quit Twitter:

So I’m not sure how long I’ll use Twitter, but it’s very interesting and fun for now. Back to the vanity issue: yes, there’s clearly something weird about wanting to share your thoughts with anybody with internet access. However, let’s not kid ourselves: only a ultra tiny percentage of people writing on the web, period, whether it’s on a blog or twitter or whatever, actually has a lot of eyeballs looking at what they write. Anybody who really writes as if that’s the case is missing the point: you write for the handful of people you know. Or, less ambitious than that, you just write for yourself as if it were a personal diary, with the minor caveat that anyone can read it so you should probably show a little restraint.

But in comparison with a regular blog, this is where the beauty of the 140 character limit comes in. Unlike with a blog post like this one, where you invest hundreds or thousands of words in making some point, a tweet is only 140 characters. Who cares if it’s silly and insignificant. While it’s a fairly common experience to invest 20 minutes into reading a lengthy blog post and think, “Wow, that really wasn’t worth it,” your tweet has to be really bad before someone says, “Wow, that’s three seconds of my life I’ll never get back.” So Twitters’ appeal is all about a) making it so easy to post it’s often faster to post than to overthink it, and b) imposing a limitation (140 characters) that actually helps you by lowering the pressure to say something brilliant. It’s just a Tweet. Wait 5 seconds and refresh the Public Timeline and it’s already gone.

Is it a complete time-suck? It can be. I’ve probably wasted way more time than I needed to on it the last week on it (I hope my advisor doesn’t read this…), but a lot of that was because I’m kind of obsessive like that: I can’t just sign up for Twitter. I need to learn how to post from my cell phone, write a script to post from the command line (that I haven’t even used), find a Yahoo Pipe to remove replies from my Twitter RSS feed and then rework my blog to import that feed as posts and then display them correctly, explore lots of cool Twitter-related sites such as:

And, oh, yeah, write this long-winded blog post. I should probably stop now.

Eric Alterman’s article in the current New Yorker, Out of Print: The death and life of the American newspaper, describes the Huffington Post’s editorial process:

The Huffington Post’s editorial processes are based on what Peretti has named the “mullet strategy.” (“Business up front, party in the back” is how his trend-spotting site BuzzFeed glosses it.) “User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks,” Peretti says. The mullet strategy invites users to “argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.”

I’m posting this for two reasons: 1) it’s hilarious, 2) we’re actually having conversations about this right now about thesocietypages.org. (Not that we’ve called it the “mullet strategy” — though we will now!) With the magazine, we have to be really careful and selective about what makes the cut, so it’s so tempting to go in the complete opposite direction for the web and just throw every idea imaginable up on the web. As web editor, I’m pushing strongly for our website to not become the trash can of Contexts: where ideas not good enough for the magazine go to die. On the other hand, this is a pretty interesting way to think about managing community websites, funny imagery and all.

I just got back from the Midwest Sociological Society meetings in St. Louis this past weekend. The theme of the meetings this year was “Making Sociology More Public.” Obviously, this is relevant to what we’re doing at Contexts, so I attended several of the sessions on the subject, including an excellent talk by Mario Luis Small and a session with reporters from the Belleville News-Democrat newspaper, a manager from KDHX 88.1 FM and the news director from News20 television.

This last session was particularly interesting as much of the discussion centered around how, on the one hand, sociology is a broad field where people study almost anything, but, on the other hand, any given sociologist is likely only comfortable speaking authoritatively on a very narrow topic. Additionally, the usual suspects came up in discussions of presenting scholarly research to the public: the media wants short sound bites with strong, unambiguous statements of fact. Yet we have qualifications, caveats, probabilities, etc.

I tried to pull together a couple of clear lessons from the weekend’s activities for sociologists who want to have more of a public voice:

  • A lot of sociologists wonder why the media doesn’t contact sociologists more often. Aside from the general haziness about what sociology is, sociologists simply aren’t good at talking in places where the media can find them. If you want to have a public voice, instead of thinking of the process as “media contacts you, you speak,” you should think: “You speak, media contacts you, you speak some more.” And I don’t mean “you speak at an academic conference”—a lot of people were apparently surprised the local media wasn’t interested in covering our conference! Building a space where sociologists can speak in a way that the media, and the public generally, actually has a chance of hearing them is our job here at Contexts (and Contexts Blogs in particular), so understanding this is particularly important for us!
  • Sociologists need to stop complaining about the media not wanting nuance or complexity. This is true, but psychology and economics are complex too—they’re just better at translating. Stop flattering yourself about how complex your wonderful ideas are and learn how to speak clearly & concisely about them. Does this come with costs and trade-offs? Yes. Deal with it. Convince people you have something worth saying first, then they’ll buy your book or take your class and get all the nuance they need.
  • Stop going for the media home run! The journalists who spoke to us emphasized that sociologists (and academics generally) can play a valuable role in adding to a story, either by adding some social & historical context or by even by influencing the overall direction of the story—even if they go uncited in the actual article. Too often, we think getting entire stories devoted to our work is the only goal worthy of our time. Of course, that’s gratifying, but forming long-term relationships that can actually shape the direction of news over time has benefits, too. Of course, as a discipline, we don’t really reward people for doing this kind of consulting work, so that’s a big part of the problem, too.
  • We need to be more comfortable discussing the state of knowledge in our discipline outside of our own narrow little specialties. If journalists ask us questions outside our specific area of expertise, it makes sense to be nervous. If it’s easy to refer them to someone down the hall, then by all means, do it. But otherwise, realize that you probably know more (or at least can offer a slightly different perspective) than whoever else they’re going to talk to if you pass up the opportunity. This is another thing about Contexts I realized: our effect on the media may be less direct (i.e. journalists avidly reading our magazine) and more indirect: sociologists reading our magazine should have a broader sense of the discipline and be more comfortable relaying, I don’t know, a fact or two about immigration and crime, even if that’s not their specific area.
  • Sociology’s got some internal problems to work through if we really hope to be “more public.” We’re really bad at talking to one another, let alone the public. From the time we enter graduate school, we’re channeled into specialist niches and socialized to write & speak for those specialized “literatures.” Addressing the discipline as a whole usually amounts to a token reference to Marx, Weber or Durkheim. This makes sense—we’re a broad discipline. But we need to do better. (There is, in my opinion, a subfield that should fill the role of drawing connections b/w subfields and even between sociology & other disciplines—social theory—but, alas, it’s mostly just another niche with its own jargon, networks & literatures.) If we just get better at communicating with one another, broad field that we are, that should help a lot with communicating outside of sociology as well.

There’s a review on The New Republic’s website about Sara Boxer’s book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. I haven’t read the book, but the review contains a funny description of blogging:

Acoustically, it evokes both a burp and a yawn, seeming to anticipate the toss-away, fervent, carefree prose it would come to define. One doesn’t craft a blog, just as one doesn’t plan to puke. One pukes. One blogs.

Them’s fightin’ words! While humorous, I don’t think it’s true: anyone who’s blogged for any length of time—and saying this I just now realized my personal blog is almost five years old!—knows it’s actually a lot of work to stick with it and most bloggers agonize a lot over what they post.

There is some truth to what he says though though: if you think too much about a blog post, it will likely never be posted, at least in my experience. But then again, I think the same is true of academic publishing—it’s tempting to workshop an article to death for years until it’s just perfect, but you won’t publish very often with that attitude. I wouldn’t compare academic publishing to puking though.