Clive Thompson’s newest Wired piece argues that the flow of short-form messages as we see on Twitter and Facebook is encouraging longer meditations in other media. I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon for a while in terms of the impact that it has on me and other bloggers, with the simple premise that I’d like to be writing the content that everyone links to in those media, instead of merely passing around links to other people’s work.
I alluded to that concept in the lengthy conversation I had with Clive for the piece, and he captured one of the key points I was trying to make:
“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.
Now, while I’d like to self-servingly pretend that everything I say here is “big” in the sense of being important, really what I meant is that some ideas are just bigger than 140 characters. In fact, most good ideas are. More importantly, our ideas often need to gain traction and meaning over time. Blog posts often age into something more substantial than they are at their conception, through the weight of time and perspective and response.
And blogs afford that sort of maturation of an idea uniquely well amongst online media, due to their use of the permalink (permanent link), which gives each idea a place to live and thrive. While Facebook and Twitter nominally provide permalinks as well, the truth is that individual ideas in those flow-based media don’t have enough substance for a meaningful conversation to accrete around them.
Felix Salmon touches on this point well in his recent post about the evanescence of Twitter debates. In the particular case he cites, Twitter is the medium that hosted important disclosures that could be material to a case that a current Supreme Court justice has said could impact a future ruling on free speech.
This means that, in an upcoming court case with the highest possible stakes for self-expression in our country, we may be relying on content that will soon be unretrievable by design. (That linked page shows that Twitter will only let you retrieve your last 3200 tweets.) If Kevin Poulsen decides to write 3000 more tweets between now and the time this theoretical case hits the Supreme Court, then we’re relying on the (admittedly likely) chance that Twitter, Inc. makes an exception to its policy in order to provide this evidence.
If You See Something, Say Something
But usually, the stakes aren’t as high as the future of free speech in America. Sometimes, we just have ideas we’re pondering. Maybe we aren’t sure of the full implications of something we’ve noticed, but we want to help catalyze a conversation. It’s that sort of brainstorming that led David Galbraith to invent the most popular form of autobiography every created. I get to experience small versions of it myself, as when I noticed a small trend in people’s observations about Google lately, which seems to have helped to promote the idea that maybe there has been an inflection point in the evolution of Google’s ability to search the contemporary web.
Here’s the important thing: The only reason I was able to synthesize those few perspectives is because they were blogged. Certainly, Twitter helped bring those ideas to my attention, and Facebook or any other stream-based service could have played that role as well. But because these points were raised by people I don’t always read immediately, the persistence and permanence of their words, as uniquely provided by blogging, is what made it possible for a pattern to emerge.
Capturing those ephemeral moments of observation in a permanent and persistent form is essential for the ideas to mature into something larger. I’d hoped, when I first recommended that everyone consider Twitter a few years ago, that Twitter would emphasize those traits about tweets sent on the service, but until and unless their current design choices change, there’s an enormous amount of cultural data that gets lost every day, simply by having been shared through a platform with those constraints.
The Perils of a Low Stress Environment
Now, Twitter and other stream-based flows of information provide an important role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the most important psychological innovation of Twitter is that it assumes you won’t see every message that comes along. There’s no count of unread items, and very little social cost to telling a friend that you missed their tweet. That convenience and social accommodation is incredibly valuable and an important contribution to the web.
However, by creating a lossy environment where individual tweets are disposable, there’s also an environment where few will build the infrastructure to support broader, more meaningful conversations that could be catalyzed by a tweet. In many ways, this means the best tweets for advancing an idea are those that contain links to more permanent media.
So, if most tweets are too ephemeral to reach their full potential as ideas, what do we do about it? Well, obviously, one big step would be to simply make sure to blog any idea that’s worth preserving. It’s perfectly fine to tweet about trivialities — I do it all the time! But if you’re tweeting about your work, your passion, or something meaningful to you, you owe it to your ideas to actually preserve them somewhere more persistent.
And, of course, I should make a pitch that this is part of the reason I am so enamored of the work the ThinkUp community is doing. A free, thriving, powerful, relatively accessible app that archives Twitter and Facebook updates with a mind towards incorporating them into more persistent and meaningful media is an essential part of the ecosystem. This is especially true as political, social and artistic leaders start to rely on these ephemeral media, without realizing the cultural costs to those choices.
Given enough time, and without substantial changes to the way the big social networks work, if you didn’t blog it, it didn’t happen. In fact, I first wrote about this idea a bit on Twitter a few years ago. See if you can find it.