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4/29/2009
12:45 PM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Podcast: Is Twitter Making Us Stupider?

Leave it to Nicholas Carr to get us so twisted up that his mere name evokes a leer or a cheer, and rarely anything in between. His big stir ("Does IT Matter") gave way to "The Big Switch" (his book), and just for fun in between he published things like "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Done questioning whether we matter, in "Twitter Dot Dash," he questioned our patte

Leave it to Nicholas Carr to get us so twisted up that his mere name evokes a leer or a cheer, and rarely anything in between. His big stir ("Does IT Matter") gave way to "The Big Switch" (his book), and just for fun in between he published things like "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Done questioning whether we matter, in "Twitter Dot Dash," he questioned our patter.This amazingly entertaining, truculent swipe, created months after Twitter's launch predicts everything that is wrong with the service, but without the foresight to imagine what it could become. And still a reading of this seminal piece turned me crimson with the shame of a drunkard the morning after, silenced my Twittering for days, fueled me to sneer at Ashton Kutcher, CNN and Oprah. When I saw this video on Flutter, I shoved it in the face of so many suffering Twitteria. Nano blogging, indeed.

Then I LOL'd, ultimately laughed at Nick Carr, and pressed on; hopeful he wasn't right. Carr's prescience went largely unrewarded, so now he has turned to pen his newest tome, tentatively called "The Shallows." And so here we go again.

I sat down with Carr to gauge whether his thinking has shifted, quizzed him about Twitter's usefulness in businesses, pressed him about its dangers to our culture, our minds, and our privacy, all in this Podcast, which you can listen to here by clicking the miniature play button.

His biggest worry is that we are "breaking experience and culture into its smallest possible bits and interrupting ourselves with it." He calls us "nibblers of information," and while he has two dormant Twitter accounts that he mostly uses for research, he's turning it all off --as he often does with his blog --to focus on his next book.

I am still torn. Twitter, at first a curiosity, has turned into an annoying fad, a way for today's modern celebrity, hiding behind a ghost-tweeter, to seem normal while the untalented dress up their lives like carnival barkers (micro-celebrities, Carr calls them).

Twitter's benefits are drowned out by the trumpets of some revolution and the rising volume of its place as a status symbol, best summed up in Steven Colbert's response on The Today's Show.

Its promise, I'm afraid, is more banal, more utilitarian. For one, it is re-inventing the fourth estate, rewarding creative and investigative journalism by forcing us to read beyond the spoon-fed news. Each day your own hand-selected group of insight spotters push you into the cracks and crevices of the world; each day you can monitor a new research topic, stumbling upon your wildest StumbleUpons. The sources may sometimes be specious, but that's all a glorious part of the discovery. As Carr says in The Big Switch:

"We're able to indulge our personal tastes as never before, to design and wrap ourselves in our own private cultures."

But here, Carr warns about the dangers of homogeneity and polarization of thought. He's talking about things like blogs, but he may well have been talking of Twitter when, referencing a 2005 study, he says:

"The study revealed a fact about human nature and group dynamics that psychologists have long recognized: the more that people converse or otherwise share information with other people who hold similar views, the more extreme their views become."

Already we are seeing Twitter turn up as a source of reporting, like in this New York Times piece. The danger, of course -- besides the spam and the unwanted marketing -- is lazy reporting. We'll be DMing and texting and reading between the characters, asking ourselves whether we trust all of this.

Hell, it's fun too. Ellen DeGeneres puts out ticket alerts around Los Angeles; Shaquille O'Neal often does the same -- he once tweeted that he was at an outdoor restaurant, lunching in Miami Beach and the first person to touch him would get tickets to that night's game. But are we creating a Twitterazzi?

Above all, social media is where communities form, and Tweetups have also been a popular way to gather: around a town or village, around a conference, at an airport. A cyber café.

But the most useful Twitter applications are just emerging. On the corporate side, companies are monitoring Twitter feeds to gauge customer reaction and respond to customer needs. @dberlind and I were testing WebEx functionality and ran into a series of errors. He posted his thoughts on Twitter and within seconds WebEx responded, even getting on the phone and talking us through solutions. Stories like this litter the Twittersphere.

Companies are also starting to view Twitter as a short messaging protocol, another way to connect thoughts between applications or between customers. Twitt(url)y lets people follow the top URLs being shared on Twitter, ostensibly for research on trends.

If you're just getting started, you should watch my colleague, Mitch Wagner's video on Twitter. O'Reilly has a new book, called The Twitter Book, and I highly recommend this report "Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution" which used to be free and now costs five times as much as the book (help me figure that one out). Finally, you should also bookmark this piece (refreshed every so often) on useful Twitter tools.

Twitter: (@fnelson)
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