Friday, November 12, 2010

Don't blame the judges or the state. Blame the medium

Morning all, today is a very important day, because today is the day where the technological step-backward in online communications that is Twitter, killed humour and conversation dead in its tracks.

Let me start by explaining what I mean when I call Twitter a step-backwards. You see, there once was a wonderful age of T'Internet where people used to gather and communicate with each other using Internet-Relay Chat (IRC).

You used to login into IRC and join a channel, #Ilovebigboobs for example. Yes, that's right, the Twitter "hashtag" is a bit of appropriation, you didn't think it was unique to Twitter did you?

Anyhow, once in the channel you chatted with everyone else in there. You weren't limited to what you could say, but being able to type and keep up could be a challenge for some.

Crucially, everyone in there could see what everyone else was saying, and so there was thing called a "conversation" which also had this wonderful little thing called "context". Thus, when someone said something that was amusing it could be contextualised within the conversation. For example,

[Infe] what happens if you try to recharge an alkaline battery
[HomerJ] blows up
[Andrigaar] Don't they explode?
[Andrigaar] I wonder if it's violent or just some leaking battery acid.
[Infe] i think it's all a scam to get you to pay more for 'rechargeables' and ---

Now, if you were to strip the whole thing as individual lines and present them as such, they'd either not make sense, or, quite possibly, could be construed as offensive, aggressive, worryingly dangerous or just downright odd.

That, people, is where we are today with the backward step called Twitter. You're in a massive chat room, but not everyone is listening to the whole conversation. It's a bit like listening to one half of a phone conversation, you fill in the blanks, and that can be quite dangerous.

We have two striking examples in the news today. The first is the poor sod who, thanks to snow delaying flights, made a joke on Twitter about blowing the airport in a conversation to the person he was off to meet, and the joke was lost, and he got charged and convicted of threatening some sort of terrorist attack.

Then we have the Tory councillor, arrested yesterday, after he responded on Twitter to something he had heard Yasmin Alibhai-Brown say on the radio. His comment was a sarcastic one about stoning her to death that was really just mocking the sheer idiocy of the argument she had been making.

Not only did we lose the context of his comment thanks to Twitter, but we also had the age old classic assumption that is too often made online in general. That being that when you say something, everyone everywhere in the whole wide world will actually know what you're talking about.

This sort of thing, to be fair, happens a lot with online communities. They tend to assume that they're exceptionally important and that what they say or discuss must be known by everyone else because hey, they're discussing it right? They got it trending on Twitter dammit, it's gone viral, everyone knows! Errrr... no they don't.

Just like the loss of context (and irritating time delay) that Twitter has provided to the once great medium of online chat, so too has it created this disconnect with reality, where the importance of something in the virtual world of Twitter is merged into reality and automagically equated with the same importance even when it isn't.

In other words, not only can a councillor, or some random guy say something in jest in an elongated chatroom where the context is lost, but that thing they say can leak out of the edge of VR and be given prominence that it really doesn't deserve.

Just imagine for a minute a world where everything you said to anyone was recorded and analysed in isolation by the state? A world where you made a joke, but the tone, the intonation and sound of your voice was removed and your words were simply displayed and interpreted literally? That's where we are right now with Twitter.

Of course, there are some out there that argue that this is because of a paranoia about terrorism, that's its all because of the state changing our way of life. They might have a point, but no one seems to be spotting the elephant in the room. It's not a changing a state that's to blame, it's not because of an assault on liberty, its because Twitter itself, by design, has created this situation.

Whilst everyone has got carried away with the idea of "social networking" they've all missed fundamental design flaws of many of the platforms and the unintended consequences they bring. If you have a system of communication that not only limits how much can be said, but also works on a broadcast principle where contextualisation of conversation's can be lost, then what we see in the news today is the result.

The online text-based world has always been fundamentally flawed because tone and intonation of what is said can be lost. However, at least in the old world of bulletin boards, forums and IRC, you could follow the flow and build the missing tone of what was being said in real-time, on Twitter you can't. It lacks the real-time dimension and produces little more than isolated snippets lacking not just the tonal flow but the context too.

Like I said at the beginning, Twitter has killed humour, but it's worse than that. Twitter has killed conversation too.

Imagine there is man with an infinite tape recorder that is omnipresent. We let that man record everything we say, everyday and every minute. He take those recording and breaks them down into 3 seconds chunks, and then, because he's super clever and powerful, plays them through every PA and speaker system in the world, but he does it totally randomly.

That man is Twitter.

That man killed humour.

That man killed context.

That man killed conversation.

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