What the Tweet?

Newenglanbod responded to Jerry Coynes notice that Richard Dawkins has started tweeting:

“I still refuse to get a Twitter account. Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play. I also do not wish to be a ‘groupie’ who follows the sound byte pronouncements of other people and especially the often malformed thoughts of their followers.”

But then we get this from newenglandbob, on a post that was about Sam Harris on Free Will: “I prefer the egg rolls to the spring rolls. Some Vietnamese Pho(ph? bò)if they have it.” [87 characters]

And this, on a post about Elliot Sober’s views: Or potato chips. They also have Wavy to help during the wave function. [70 characters]”

Or this pithy contribution to a post about Sam Harris: “Heh heh.” [8 – not counting smiley emoticon]

To be fair, newenglandbod does contribute more interesting stuff than these examples. My point here is not that these particular comments are inane in any way (they seem off topic to the main post, but they are in context as responses to other comments), just that they seem to contradict the statement “Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play”.

Okay, if twitter is so great, what’s so great about it?

As Jerry pointed out, you can use it to broadcast your own blog posts.

Twitter is really useful for following people who tweet but don’t provide feeds to their web sites or blogs, so otherwise I wouldn’t pick up their posts so regularly, say with a news reader.

The whole point of the 140 character limit is to avoid verbose people (guilty) hogging the space. I can scan tons of tweets really quickly, and many (most if you follow the right people) use twitter to link to their posts or other interesting stuff when you want greater detail. The limit is an aid. And for those adicted to longer tweets there are other tools that will take your longer tweet and condense it for presentation on twitter: http://longertweets.com/

And, the 140 limit makes it easy to read on a smart phone, where you can choose to open up links for a more detailed read if you want to.

One of the best features is the retweet, where you simply echo to your followers the tweet of someone you follow. When someone retweets a tweet from someone they follow and that I don’t, I sometimes find new interesting threads to start following.

And retweets are one of the means by which news travels fast on the web. I think it’s hard to deny the contribution of twitter to social change. The Arab spring being a prime example. Try this activist. Take a look at the number of retweets that link to others. This is how they communicate.

And all the news agencies and radio and TV broadcasters have several twitter accounts where you can pick and choose what you’re intersted in: https://twitter.com/guardianscience

I also follow several tweets related to my work, which makes keeping track of events a lot easier.

You can still use twitter as a source without having an account. There are some tools out there, such as Meet The Tweet. Or, if you only follow one or two you only need their twitter name: https://twitter.com/Evolutionistrue.

I get it that there are millions of inane tweets out their keeping you up to date on how much navel fluff they’ve collected today, how much pain they are sufferring at the hands of an unrequited love, or how Jesus will save you. Sometimes even the people worth following can resort to uninteresting stuff. Stephen Fry is a prime example. He’s an interesting guy; love much of his TV and radio work; have picked up many interesting links from his tweets. But sometimes I’m not so interested…

There’s no escaping the fact. I’m eating a cherry.”

So, this is Margate, is it? Certainly plenty of fish and chip shops.”

… though no doubt many of his followers are.

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. It might be popular because it works. Trying it, making your mind up based on that, and then deciding to quit, is all fair stuff. If you’re rejecting tools because of what you suppose them to be, because the notion of what they are, or who uses them, or how popularist they are, offends your rationality, then perhaps you’re not assessing it rationally yourself.

An Experiment

1) Sign up to twitter. You can always close the account after the experiment. You don’t have to write any tweets yourself. In this experiment just use it as a source.

2) Enter each of the following into the search box, hit search and click the ‘Follow’ button. These are just for starters. They are some of the more regular sources that link to articles on science, philosophy and news. Sometimes the authors will link to their own blog posts – you get your blog to automatically post on twitter, so no big deal there.

@sciam, @microphilosophy, @Neurosciencenw, @TelegraphSci, @JandMo, @Neurophilosophy, @tedtalks, @neuroblogs, @TheBrainScience, @docartemis, @edyong209, @nytimes, @Stanford, @PhysicsWorld, @newscientist, @guardianscience, @philosophybites, @NewHumanist, @BBCNews, @Evolutionistrue, @neuropsychblog, @MarcusduSautoy, @BHAhumanists, @bloggingheads, @BoraZ

I’ve left off lots of people associated with my work that won’t be of interest to you. I also follow some celebs: @seanmcarroll, @timminchin, @BadAstronomer, @neiltyson, @SamHarrisOrg, @bengoldacre. Some celebs I don’t follow (honestly): pop-stars

3) As you read your own sources, from news feeds or favourite blogs, start to click on the twotter link so that you follow them too. My list is just a starterlist for you. Develop your own interests. You’ll soon figure out who is worth following. Some people post infrequently, and maybe post interesting stuff even less frequently. They are OK to leave as followed, since they won’t fill up your stream too much.

The ones you may want to stop following are those that tweet very often – like 10+ times a day, but mostly consisting of useless 140 char opinion. Yes, these are the ones that most critics of twitter are objecting too, along with the millions of teens tweeting on the attractiveness of their current idols. Don’t follow them and you won’t see them.

4) Try this for a month. Open twitter every day or so and scroll down and scan down. I just scanned 20 hours of tweets I follow in about three minutes, and I follow 197 people. Of course if I follow a link and read the article I take mroe time. But, hey, what are you doing reading this anyway? If you’ve posted a criticism of twitter on some blog of online news article then you do actually find some stuff on the net worth reading. Now you are using twitter as one more tool to follow your interests, efficiently.

Extension to Experiment

I find some days there are too many interesting things to read up on, but some I really don’t want to lose track of. I don’t find twitter’s favourites tool useful. Instead I use Evernote, plus Evernote clipper, an extension to Google Chrome (and other browsers) which allows me to quickly save an interesting web page url to an Evernote note. I must have hundreds of such quickly saved links that I’ll never get round to reading. But in there are some gems that I vaguely remember seeing but can’t trace again by a google search. After a quick search of my Evernote account I’ve been able to get back to the article, often months later.

If you don’t like Evernote, try Deliscious, or one of the many other means of keeping track of links. These tools, and twitter, ensure that if I must waste much of my time on the internet, at least I’m wasting it on interesting stuff.

Writing, from Thinking

The thought provoking Lesley has provoked some thoughts, which, in line with her post, has given me the urge to write them down.

I’d agree with the sentiment of spiritedcrone’s comment – that writing is prayer; though from an atheist perspective I’d say writing and meditation, or simply productive exploratory thought, are part of the same process, and writing is the foundation of all productive thought, including philosophy, maths, science, poetry, prose, fiction. If we are flexible enough with the medium then any of the visual, audio, tactile arts fall into the same pattern.

The point being that to write (or paint…) is simply a means of recording and organising one’s thoughts for a productive purpose. Even if that’s in a personal journal that no one else ever sees – and in this respect a blog is a brilliant medium for sharing some of our thoughts, whether we offer them up as words of wisdom, or as appeals for interaction. We are our own librarians.

I’m often struck by how often I have thoughts I wish I could record, but don’t have the means. Driving and listening to a radio broadcast and knowing that some of my ideas will be gone by the time I can record them. I often walk listening to podcasts, and for repeated ones I know that on a previous hearing I had a thought about some point but can’t recall it. Despite this frustration, so far, I’ve resisted carrying a separate voice recorder, to record my thoughts, because I’d have to spend further hours transcribing them. I’m waiting for the thought-transcription gizmo – maybe an app on the iPhone version 20.0. Or a separate device – the iThink?

I feel that without writing, my life would be an endless stream of fleeting events and ephemeral thoughts that would rarely lead to anything. I want to feel in control of my thoughts, and writing gives me this control. And this from someone who thinks there is no free-will – at least not as many of us normally think of it. I want (ok – this organism has a biological urge) to learn something from the electrical impulses that flit through my brain. The biological mush between my ears doesn’t have the appropriate fidelity when it comes to recording ideas. We need other tools.

How many of us who are parents have held on to the treasures that are the school work of our children.

My father was keen on electronics in its early days. I have a notebook of his, with jottings and drawings. It’s not prose. My wife has notes and the odd letter of her mother’s, tucked into her mother’s bible. They’re the only writings we have from them, and as little as they are they are valuable to us. It seems so little. But, archaeologists drool over any fragment from the past of human inscription – even if it’s only the scraping of lines on a bone. We take what we can get.

How many are lucky enough to have family treasures of writings from dead parents or grand parents, or even ancestors you never knew? How many are published? What does it feel like to be a descendant of Darwin, for example?

Transcribing our thoughts, from cave paintings, through hieroglyphs, to writing as we know it, has been maybe the greatest invention of human beings. Writing has given us the capacity to do more than simply conceive of continuity. It has made it real for each of us, within our personal lives; and for some it has made them effectively immortal, at least to others if not themselves.

Facebook Applications

I recently joined facebook, which is currently facelessbook for me, until I can post a reasonable mugshot that won’t offend the religious, or frighten young children, old ladies or those of a sensitive disposition. My social network so far consists of my son and his friend. Am I a recluse, or simply unpopular. Time will tell.

I had a look through the applications there, and found so much junk it took some time to find anything of interest. They’re mostly natty little games and social nutworking widgets that look novel when you see the first of that ilk, but are usually discarded five minutes after you start to use them.

The only ones I’ve found I can use are Causes, an advocacy toy, and one of the “places I’ve been” mapping apps. If you spot any app that you could really use over time and that isn’t some five minute marvel, please let me know.

I hadn’t looked at these apps until I read Marc Andreessen’s new blog, June 12 2007, as referenced in Adam Herscher’s blog, June 12 2007 – two blogs worth following.