I said several times on this Blob that I was a slow learner. I suspect some think that’s just an attempt at false humility, but it’s true - I AM a slow learner. Mind you, there comes a point when the penny drops and I can get quite good at what I’m trying to do, and use it in inventive ways. I happily admit that. But it takes me longer than most people to reach that point.
Take for example new computer programs – self-taught ones. After finally coping with Microsoft Word twenty years ago or more, I tried PageMaker for desktop publishing. I loathed it. It just didn’t do things the way I wanted. I gave up trying with it for some time, then came back and persevered. Bingo! Something clicked in the old grey matter and it just fell into place for me. Suddenly I couldn’t imagine why I had a problem with it in the first place. Photoshop, FinalCutPro, even FaceBook – you name it, I had trouble with them all, conceptually. Progress was painful for some time, and then out of nowhere it seemed, the lights came on and someone WAS home.
I could go on providing you with many more examples but you get the idea. I comfort myself with the thought that maybe even Einstein was a slow learner.
I love the piece in his biography where he gets a letter from a ten-year-old girl. I read this biography many years ago, so I have to paraphrase. She wrote complaining she was having difficulty with her maths. Einstein wrote back to her something like, ‘I can understand that you are having this trouble. In a way it makes me feel better. You’re able to appreciate the terrible problems I am having with mine!’
Anyway, this is by way of an introduction to my slow-learning problem with Twitter. For years, I confess, I just didn’t get it. I am barely getting it even now, but the penny has dropped and is on its way down the chute to some real understanding at last. It’s so obvious now I barely know what my problem with it was.
I’m always fascinated by something that seems so important and easy to use for other people, but which can leave me totally confused for ages. Like many of you, I suspect, I am not a ‘read the manual’ person. I try something and start to explore it, or look for things to happen when I press this or that.
This has its good points and bad points. Good is that you learn lots by accident or, by doing things wrongly, you discover a whole heap of things you probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise, like how to get out of the mess you have just created for yourself. Bad is that if you RTFMd (which I’ll delicately translate for you, if you aren’t familiar with the term, as ‘READ THE FLAMING MANUAL’) you’d almost certainly get the hang of most of it a heap earlier.
But my brain just doesn’t seem to work in that sensible way. Christian’s does. Before he began flying lessons, he had read up so much on it that in theory, he could have taken that little Piper Cherokee straight up in the air, done two loop the loops and then helped the instructor hone his flying techniques. In theory, I said.... in practice as we all know - and he learned very quickly - it doesn’t work out quite that way, especially when he flew solo for the first time.
But it’s true – his RTFM method is eminently more sensible than groping about in the mud and the blood and the beer than mine. My general learning technique is not one you’d encourage kids to use. Well, I sure wouldn’t.
I opened a Twitter account years ago, because it seemed to be something people I respected in the computing world were doing. I then sat back, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what I expected, but one or two people who knew me did actually FOLLOW me almost immediately. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry. It didn’t make all that much sense to me for a while either.
The problem was that I had nothing to offer people. It was like I’d opened a shop and not stocked it with anything. Worse still, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to put on the shelves. I don’t think I even understood to begin with that I suddenly had a shop. It was like building a website without any clear idea why I was doing it. Any idea at all, if truth be told.
So what was it that people were doing with Twitter in places like Egypt, to bring down a dictator? What were they selling and how were they selling it?
It’s something like this, if we consider it a logical progression. Think of the now infamous eight-second grab for the news on TV. A Government Minister has to make a statement. They’re going to show him or her for a maximum of eight seconds. Talking politicians' heads are not exciting (unless maybe they refuse to say anything at all for eight seconds as happened recently here in Oz, but let’s not muddy the waters). So what’s said is tailored by the politician or press secretary to be the strongest statement possible that fits those eight seconds.
This means one person gets to talk to thousands who happen to be watching the news at the time of the eight-second grab. It’s one-sided but it may get a simple message across – or maybe I should say, a simplified (often simplistic) message across – to a diverse group.
Now, think of FaceBook. If you’ve never used FaceBook then this won’t mean much to you, but stick with me for a minute anyway. FaceBook allows you to talk at one time to a group of people you've chosen as friends, and for them to talk amongst themselves and/or with you. It’s like a group at the bar or a café. And like such groups, one person doesn’t hold the floor for long. They make a short comment and the conversation moves on. FaceBook isn’t a place for long serious conversations. People can’t be bothered with them.
So, most things you say to anyone on FaceBook are limited to a couple of sentences at most. It’s only as deep and meaningful in public as you can make it in a couple of sentences. Most of it's ephemeral and some's plain rubbish like the nonsense I put on there sometimes. The chat-like character of FaceBook means that it’s easily adaptable to a mobile phone, if you’re good at texting, which I’m not.
And so at last to Twitter. This lets you talk to people by creating a tweet at the Twitter website (I know, how twee! But that's what you do). People may view your tweets either on the computer screen or on a mobile phone. But the innovation with Twitter is that it gives you only 140 characters in any one tweet. So your tweet must very brief and to the point. (What’s above in green is just 140 characters).
The number of people who see your tweet depends mainly on how many people you are following, or who follow you. Who you follow is your choice. Twitter has a powerful search engine to help make that choice depending on what interests you.
And that's it! Sort of....
The power of Twitter is how many people you can get to at any one time. If you’re using a mobile phone and the message is texted to you, then you get it any time your phone is on – but it doesn’t have to be on a mobile phone – it can be completely computer based if you like. I tend to like... though I set it up to go to my (rarely used) mobile phone just to see how it worked. (A lot of people use FaceBook like that too, I know.)
On a computer you just go to the Twitter website to see what’s happening in your Twitter world of Followers and Following, just as you’d sign in to FaceBook to see what your friends are doing.
So what? It’s not all that much different to FaceBook, MySpace etc, you might say, just briefer. More chatty. In a way, yes – but its real power is threefold.
(b) to organise people very rapidly.
(a) to provide immediate spot information on some important event, by the minute if necessary. As I write this, Nick Kristof in Bahrain is eye-witness reporting using tweets on dramatic events very similar to what we saw so recently in Egypt (at considerable risk to his life, I might add).
(c) to use that 140 characters to direct people to a hyperlink – to some page on the net that may be an article or expert advice or something. Or a command, for that matter.
This is its power. By being part of a Twitter grouping that you choose by following people or being followed by them, you can exert influence or follow directions in a way never before possible. Your group will be unique and include all sorts of people, many of whom you won’t know personally even though you chose them. That’s different in some respects to FaceBook. If you're wise you choose your FaceBook friends carefully. Not quite so with Twitter.
No wonder dictators fear the internet or seek to manipulate it to their own ends. No matter what sort of society you live in, power over others and social networking has reinvented cooperative power of diverse groups and individuals. It also turns out to be an enormously powerful research tool if you know what you're doing.
If you don’t get how it works you need to start to do so right now or you won’t understand how its power can bring down or set up any type of government or system. It’s that serious. We just saw it work in Egypt. The only way to stop it is to cut all digital communications, and that's cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I doubt it will be my problem as I may not be around for all that long, but for most people who made it to the end of this posting, it surely will be yours.
The thing is, you just finished reading 1500 words. Congratulations. What might it be like to be controlled by those in power who find anything over 140 characters (say, 20 words) too much of a challenge?
PS If you have a Twitter account, please find me (deniswright) and follow me and I'll reciprocate. It will help me to learn more about how it networks people and information.