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Where Twitter Is Taking Us

The age of Twitter, and where the quick, quick digital impulse goes next. Clay Shirky and Andy Carvin join us.

Twitter is an online social networking service and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as "tweets". (eldh/Flickr)

Twitter is an online social networking service and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based posts of up to 140 characters, known as "tweets". (eldh/Flickr)

People laughed when Twitter hit the digital scene. A social network of 140-character micro-blogs. Little tiny bursts of text. What you had for lunch. How great you’re feeling this morning. How hot Jenny is. What would we really do with that? Well, some still laugh.

But Hosni Mubarak’s not laughing. Twitter helped fill Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the dictator is out. Bank of America’s not laughing. They moved to hike fees. Twitter pushed back. Fees gone. 100 million users tweet about great ribs – and revolution.

This hour On Point: Clay Shirky, Andy Carvin and where Twitter takes us.

-Tom Ashbrook


Clay Shirky, Assistant Arts Professor in the New Media focused graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

Andy Carvin,  Senior Strategist at NPR’s Social Media Desk.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wired.com “Now that 2011 is coming to a close, it’s worth looking back at an intellectual argument that played out just as the year was beginning — back before we saw the spread of the Arab Spring, the UK riots, the Occupy movement, and so much else.”

Danger Room
“In the early days of the Libya war, U.S. commanders were adamant that they didn’t communicate with the Libyan rebels about what targets to bomb. As it turns out, they don’t need to. They’ve got Twitter.

Business Insider “Along with Charles River Ventures and about a dozen other individuals, one of Glass’s earliest investors in Odeo was a former Google employee named Evan Williams. Williams was more involved with Odeo than most investors are with startups in their portfolios, and eventually, Odeo moved from Noah’s apartment to Williams’s. Williams, who had recently sold a company called Blogger to Google, had just bought a nice house and wanted to put his old apartment to good use.”

Video: Shirkey On Technology And Press Freedom

In this video, NYU professor Clay Shirky delivers a compelling lecture on the intersection of technology, the press, and democracy as part of the 25th anniversary of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.

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  • Gemli

    I don’t know where Twitter is taking us.  I had trouble believing Twitter could be a success, for no one, I though, would have any use for sending 140-character messages unless they were professional Haiku writers, and frankly how many of those could there be?
    But I suppose what has happened as a result of the pervasiveness of the Internet should not be surprising. Our brains evolved to pick up and send out social signals. It was important to know what members of the group were doing at any given moment, and to let other know what we were doing: where are you? Have you eaten yet?  Looks like it’s going to rain!

    A constant stream of trivial information kept the group aware of each other, similar to the way in which birds chirp constantly when they’re in groups to advertise their location and warn of danger. It’s not for nothing that electronic “Tweets” now serve the same purpose.
    Any technology that resonates with these primitive mechanisms will act as a sort of drug, overwhelming a system that is not prepared to handle this new-found ability to endlessly communicate trivialities around the world, using up the bandwidth that was once available to contemplate, imagine, and ponder.
    We may have already crossed a threshold in which upcoming generations will not know that ideas longer than a sentence have value.  Besides, who has time to read a whole paragraph?

    • Mark S.

      A very insightful and focused analysis, Gemli.  I wanted to say something similar, but you’ve nailed it.  I will instead simply state my belief that it is no coincidence that the first four letters of “twitter” are “twit.”

      • Terry Tree Tree

        Good observation!

    • L armond

      Same here.  My dog learned what Caw Caw meant from the birds.  You comment reminds me to change the ringer sound for a caller that is brain injured and can’t tell time or register new information.  Not his fault, but I respond to the ringer too fast.  So, must give each nuisance a ‘species’ sound.  But, I have to figure out how, first.

    • http://www.facebook.com/SlackerInc Alan Thomas

      You’re forgetting that, as someone on the podcast pointed out, what people often do on Twitter is to share links to articles that are much longer than 140 characters.

  • Hidan

    Breaking news,

    After hearing that the Saudi Prince who comes from a country who actually practices the worst form of Sharia law will be investing 300 million into twitter. All Republican candidates will stop using twitter citing Human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

    Many democrats such has Hillary Clinton has denounced twitter for working with an flagrant human rights abuser.

  • SteveV

    We’re living in a society where, it appears, no-one can keep their mouths shut.
    Everyone not only has an opinion about everything, but they have an insatiable
    appetite to express that view to anyone who will listen. And even to those of us
    who don’t want to hear it. So now anyones opinion on any subject has become just
    as insightful as any “Intellectual Elite”, as long as that opinion contains no
    more than 140 character messages.


    I’ve crossed the divide of technology that makes one officially old, and I’m only 41.  My personal technological evolution ended with email, facebook, and cell phones that were only phones.  Don’t tweet, don’t get the appeal at all.  Don’t text either, and that one has become a real cultural opiate.

    At first I worried a bit about the implications of cossing the age/technology threshold, now I would classify myself as a “comfy Luddite”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    As a millennial, I use twitter and I tweet relatively frequently. I can understand how many people, usually older, would view the rise of Twitter as a bit of a conundrum. How can 140 characters be relevant to modern life? How can knowledge and meaningful communication be had over such a medium? Well, in my experience, it can’t. When I tweet I rarely if ever tweet anything more than nonsense I came up with at 2 am when I couldn’t sleep and that is it. As to where the twitter trend is taking us, I see it as leading us to a world of instant information and instant gratification with little to no deep thought and introspection. If people can send out their thoughts as they have them then why would they feel a need to filter or think before they broadcast them to the world?

    p.s.- I do recognize the important role Twitter played in uprisings and social movements across the world last year but I feel that it wasn’t Twitter that made the difference. It is just another medium to get the word out as quickly as possible. If it wasn’t Twitter, it would’ve been youtube or text messaging or some other connection to the world at large. Twitter just happens to be easiest right now.

    • Jememih

      Interesting.  Sounds like though you use it, you’re not really a “fan” of it?  I rarely tweet, and when I do it’s usually to pass along a link to something interesting online or to retweet. I have a friend who was the 2nd most prolific tweeter in the Tahrir Square chaos and found his tweets fascinating. But to be perfectly honest, who cares what you–or I–am blurting out at 2am?? 

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

        No one really. You’re right I am not a fan of it. As it is used in mainstream America (outside protest movements), twitter is nothing more than a vehicle for American narcissism (admittedly the reason I tweet at all) and another marketing tool latched onto by major media and corporations to peddle goods. Nothing more.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Why would you bother several others, with your random thoughts at 2 AM?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

        Why would someone bother several others with what they had for breakfast? Or what color shirt they’re wearing on Tuesday? Narcissism that’s what. Hearing what the commentator just said does make sense in that I guess it does reinforce relationships and social grooming but really why bother with all this other junk, social protests aside?

  • Anna

    I did not grasp the concept of Twitter, but dived in and now use it daily and find it a more challenging way to communicate concisely.  Gasp prediction: over the next year or two, most who Twitter will abandon FB. 

  • Jemimah

    What will be interesting to see is how many times this is re-tweeted!

  • Anonymous

    illiteracy, loss of spelling and grammar, snark, irrelevant thoughts and incomplete ideas– and some fine haiku!

  • Anonymous

    I have no interest in Twitter.  I value concise communication, but the character limit appears to make people try to cram in as much crap as possible using symbols and abbreviations rather than write more concisely.  And the content is usually worse than the style.

  • kay

    who calls sxsw a “tech conference?” major fail.

  • yossariandave

    The usefulness of Twitter is, duh, dependent on how you go about using the network. I know that no one cares about what I’m doing at 2am but I do want to know the opinions of people like @acarvin:twitter  and @cshirky:twitter  so I follow them. Twitter isn’t just a tool for voicing an opinion but also a tool for consumption.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    It has been a tool for social upheaval – that said, it only works until someone pulls the plug. Or worse, takes it over. Twitter hijacked by the government is a very scary thought.

  • L armond

    I can’t stand seeing the Word “Verizon”, which comes on my email from my sister’s IPhones.  I flushed them because they flush people.  They are impossible to communicate with  -  call out and never be responded to.  Twitter them to death.

  • nj

    Top Google “suggestions” for “twitter is…”:

    twitter is down
    twitter is stupid
    twitter issues
    twitter is over capacity
    twitter is gay
    twitter is better than facebook
    twitter is anyone up
    twitter is dumb
    twitter ispeakfemale
    twitter is for black people

  • Hank

    Are these real “relationships” that are being created, formed and built? Aren’t they actually ersatz versions and an easy and rather limited “way out” of real relationships? Isn’t there an unlimited and self-deceiving vanity that comes out of the whole Twitter/Facebook culture?

    I have been involved in both Iran and Syria during the past six years as a conduit for certain dialogue, and I question the utility of Twitter. Isn’t it too risky for key agitators to expose themselves on a traceable system? Aren’t core participants in this process of change truly in place without Twitter and their actions better kept off of all forms of social networks?

    Yes, a message can contain a link but do I want to both using all the links that get sent my way. There is too much fluff coming across Twitter and too little useful information that is actually looked at, absorbed and acted on.

    I have been involved in the Internet as a concept since the late 1980′s and as a business since 1995 in tools/technologies for content management and for long-distance Knowledge Process Outsourcing.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    it may be only 140 characters – but people use twitter for websites, pictures, video, audio and more

  • Ren Knopf

    As another medium for communication and change, this now sits at the adult’s table. But in the theater and concert hall, please seat in the children’s section.

  • Athena Kazuhiro

    Twitter is awesome. Haters gonna hate.  #surlypeopledontgetit #notaholierthanthouintellectual

  • BHA in Vermont

    I’m not a Twit and I don’t Tweet :)

    Sorry, I am a Luddite.  Our society is WAY too “I MUST KNOW IT NOW” and self absorbed with our own “importance”. There is enough inane “information” out in the net now without adding a billion 160 character poorly “spelled” “messages”. And “retweeting” things you find interesting? Nothing more than spam from your “friends”.

  • Adks12020

    I no longer post status updates on Facebook and I will not Tweet for the same reason.  There is no reason for people to know, or want to know, what I am doing.  I also don’t want to know what celebs or anyone else is doing either.

    I also like reading actual news stories with fleshed out information.  140 Characters is not enough to give me the information I want.  With smartphones why do I need news organizations to Tweet?  I can use an app to find headlines and actually read the whole story.

  • http://www.telecom-digest.org/ Telecom Digest Moderator

    Human beings are hard wired to have conversations which contain a beginning, a middle, and an end. Twitter is tabloid speech: a flash in the electronic pan that will glow for a microsecond and die, as the nervous teenagers who use it now mature into adults who expect better communication.

    Bill Horne
    Telecom Digest Moderator

  • Janine

    One of your guests said that he uses twitter contacts to translate texts for him and as crowd sources to report the news. This makes me very nervous. There’s no editorial process there. If you don’t know the translator or the reporter, how do you know that the imformation you receive is accurate?

  • nj
  • Hank

    “Shared awareness”- yes, but it is without adequate context and depth, and in its very shallow condition it allows for only data and limited information sharing but very limited knowledge transfer.

    Twitter is a poor substitute for real personal and cultural expansion, and claims made to the contrary are somewhat deceptive.

  • Japhet Els

    I get 95% of my news from my “network” on Facebook and Twitter. While I appreciate and value the social filter that my network gives me in terms of what I consume online, the bigger question is, what impacts does that have on the diversity of information I consume on daily (or momentary) basis?

  • troll doll

    I have a twitter account freebeerpvd that lets people know when Im at an event or place that is providing free beer.

  • Wade

    To put it in perspective, 15 years ago I was working for a large upscale real estate co. in Boston. At a company wide meeting it was announced we were going to have a website. Not really sure why or what it would do for us, but everyone else seems to be doing it. Fast forward 15 years, every real estate conference says you have to be on Twitter. I joined a year ago and now do understand the benefits. And I also don’t question or express skepticism on new technologies, just run with it.

  • Mascott

    Just don’t use Twitter at the theater or symphony.  Ed Seigel just highlighted the problems of theater companies allowing tweet seats in the Globe.  Too distracting and inappropriate to those who want to enjoy live performances.

  • Tom

    Twitter did not cause the Arab Spring. That is so naive.Iran had demonstrations and huge social media use a couple of years ago, but failed to change.
    Egypt would have had a revolution with or without social media, as would Tunisia.
    Libya would have gone no-where without massive NATO intervention.
    Syria is not getting anywhere right now.

    I can’t believe everyone is saying social media made it work.

    • L armond

      Yes, it’s an echo chamber, alright.  

  • Smiller2327

    I don’t think your guests sufficiently covered authenticity and source validation – especially if the info is being re-used from a position of truth or authority. The twitter system is based on anonymity for individuals, groups and governments. There’s little if any consequence when misinformation’s promulgated. Limits of authenticity should not be underestimated – even if 20 people are tweeting the same thing (think conspiracy).

  • jvoorhies

    During the flooding in Nashville in 2010, Twitter provided a means for rescuers, shelters and people in need to communicate across the city. Shelters would tweet a need for food or water and people who saw the tweet would respond with cases of water and food much more rapidly than normal social and rescue organizations could. Road closings, emergency information and dangers were known as soon as they were happening. People responded to needs for filling sandbags as quickly as they could get there.

    In my profession, people that are in the forefront of what I do – the people who teach at the seminars and lead the innovation in our industry all tweet and share their knowledge and discoveries repeatedly.

    If all you hear or see on Twitter is what someone had for lunch, you’re following the wrong people. The value in the medium lies in you and how you personally use it, not how others use it.

  • revolve

    stop giving American social-networking credit for revolt sin the Arab world–its disgusting.  You are spinning.  I cant use twitter cuz im in china–but never would.  It is a ridiculous waste of time.  I have tried using weibo  (i call it wierdo)–a Chinese version of Twitter–to promote business but it yields zero results–even though it is very popular here.  Social-networking is an incredible self-centered, self-absorbed behavior, and reflects how warped our societies have become.  it feeds off everyone’s warped desire of fame.  What make you think your site will be noticed when billions are online?  If you want to express yourself–paint, write poetry, a book, essays, do some photojournalism, start a small business, do some outreach in your community, perform a play in public, organize your community around artful fun progressive issues, and activities–build a real community, an active one.  Get off the phone, the net, and out of your car–see what it’s like to talk to sb, touch sb, know the people in your community and what motivates them, what wills them…rather than alienating yourself in your bunker getting pasty and broken.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/SlackerInc Alan Thomas

    Double post.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SlackerInc Alan Thomas

    Brilliant discussion, one of the best podcasts I’ve ever listened to.

    A correction, though: Facebook now has “subscriptions” so you can do the equivalent of “following” famous people as on Twitter, without it being a two way thing.  Also, my wife uses Twitter a lot but protects her tweets so only those she approves can see them.  Thus her Twitter use *is* generally more two way, like Facebook.

    So I see the main difference between them at this point that Twitter, despite being newer, uses the “classic” Internet style of “screen names” or handles, instead of one’s real name as is required on Facebook.  There are pros and cons to each approach; but ultimately it may be this distinction more than any other that preserves the need for both to exist.

  • Bin

    Excellent discussion, Twitter has changed a lot how things work for us in the video game industry. Because game marketing is so volatile and short-termed, an early wave of tweets can make or break the  game debut. For instance, our pre-launch campaign of Bubblenauts by http://www.ThePlayChannel.com got about 5000 tweets in the first day. An earlier launch of Word War III was not done on Twitter, and we can see a clear difference on how the two games have received attention – even if, design-wise, they are comparable in quality and audience appeal.

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