Your editor, being the grumpy, older sort that he is, must confess that he
has never quite understood the allure of services like Twitter.
140-Character broadcasts look an awful lot like a combination of the worst
features of cellular short messaging and Usenet; it's conversation via
bumper sticker. A local disaster recently pushed your editor to spend more
time on the site; what follows are some observations, somewhat
tenuously tied to the world of free software.
While grumpily working through the US Labor Day "holiday," your editor
noticed that the sky, as seen through the basement window, had turned a
rather sickly shade of orange; the smell of smoke followed shortly
thereafter. Drawn away from the keyboard for a quick look, your editor
could not miss the fact that a large fire was burning in
the hills to the west. While Colorado does not do forest fires on the
scale of places like California (actually, we don't do anything on a
Californian scale), wildfires are still a serious threat. When the sky
fills with smoke, it's natural to want to know what's going on.
What was going on is now known as the "Fourmile fire"; it burned something
like 6600 acres (2600 hectares) of heavily-populated foothills and
destroyed over 160 homes. Definitely worth knowing about.
Unsurprisingly, the local newspaper's web site was not particularly
illuminating. Neither were the television stations. In these situations,
TV can be counted on to show impressive videos of slurry bomber runs and
burning houses in the
evening, while the newspaper provides still photos from the same videos the
next morning. The local community radio
station was a bit more helpful, but, when disaster strikes in one's
neighborhood, it's hard to have too much information. In desperation, your
editor went to Twitter and typed in "boulder fire."
The results were interesting; the Twitterati were already well engaged in
conversation about this emergency. People were reporting their observations and
posting pictures from various locations. Evacuation orders were being
relayed through the site; given that the local "reverse-911" phone
notification mechanism failed outright, it's possible that some people
learned of the need to flee their houses via Twitter. A local journalism
professor was listening to police and fire radio traffic and posting the
interesting parts. Information on evacuation centers and shelters for
large animals (horses, for example) was broadcast. The destruction of a
fire truck was reported. All within the first hour or so.
In other words, Twitter was carrying a great deal of useful information
which was available nowhere else. It was enough to keep your editor
hitting that "NNN more tweets since you started searching" link over and
That said, this information was not as easy to get at as one
might like. The signal-to-noise ratio was quite low for a number of
reasons, the first of which appears to be an artifact of how "routing" is
handled in the Twitter environment. The "follower" relationships lead to a
strange topology made of vast numbers of one-way links; one can only
broadcast a message to those who have created inbound links. So Twitter
appears to have reinvented the old Usenet flood routing mechanism, but
without the "I've already seen this" feature. This mechanism, called
"retweeting," comes down to people continually rebroadcasting anything that
they found interesting.
The result is a huge amount of duplicated content, perhaps with a trivial
comment tacked on to the end. After a message has gone by 100 or more times
(literally), it just isn't quite as interesting as it was the first time.
But everybody somehow still feels the need to retweet it for the benefit of
those people who hadn't yet caught on to the
#boulderfire hash tag. This process goes on for a very long time;
messages which were only relevant to the early stages of the fire were
still circulating days later.
Beyond that, much of what was posted was not particularly useful. Quite a
few people felt the need to get into the limelight with "that #boulderfire sure
sucks" posts. Local construction companies wanted to be sure we all knew
that they are available for the rebuilding of destroyed houses. We were
all encouraged to send texts to various numbers to donate money which, they
promised, would go to fire victims. Local TV stations assured everybody
that they had the best slurry bomber videos. There was also a significant
traffic in posts about how all this demonstrated "the power of Twitter."
A community of this size - even this sort of temporary community - must
necessarily contain at least one troll and at least one nutcase; it's
written in the
laws of physics somewhere. The #boulderfire "channel" did not disappoint
on this score, though many of the participants were quaintly surprised by
the presence of these people. The troll was shouted down with impressive
efficiency. The nutcase, seemingly representing a local "news" outlet, was
able to sustain a regular stream of posts about discoveries of charred
bodies (there were actually no serious injuries) and said news outlet's
refusal to bow down to the "Twitter police."
Need it be said that all of this stuff was mercilessly retweeted dozens of
In summary, maybe one message in 50 was both original and
interesting. That reduces the value of the channel considerably. For
added fun, the journalism professor was blocked as a spammer, while the
actual spam continued, seemingly unimpeded.
Identi.ca is meant to be a
free-software-friendly alternative to Twitter. Naturally, your editor had
to wander over there to take a look. The good news is that the massive
"retweet" traffic was absent; the bad news is that most of the useful
traffic was absent
as well. Information was sparse at best, and, in general, it seemed
more heavily spam-laden than what was found on Twitter; one gets the sense
that there is a budding industry in setting up pages allegedly related to
breaking news and posting links to social networking sites. In summary:
identi.ca was not a useful resource for anybody who wanted to learn about
why they were breathing smoke thick enough to obscure the view of the
monitor from the desk chair.
One might argue that it is a matter of network effects; people post to
Twitter because that's where the readers are. Your editor would respond that
this situation is unsurprising: identi.ca looks an awful lot like a
taillight-following exercise. It may serve as a useful demonstration
platform for StatusNet, but it offers no real reason for Twitter users to
switch. "Source available" is not a compelling feature for most of these
users, and identi.ca lacks anything else which is sufficiently shiny to
motivate them to change. In this setting, at least, identi.ca was not able
to offer a competitive service.
That said, your editor is still not a Twitter user. The fire is mostly
controlled, so attention has returned to less noisy information sources -
linux-kernel, for example. The value of Twitter is a little more
clear, but what is really clear is this: there must be room to do broadcast
messaging in much better ways. High-quality information about unfolding
local disasters may be a bit of a limited use case - though it's one most
of us are likely to want at some point in our lives - but the simple
"what's going on?" question is more broadly applicable. If we, the free
software community, could come up with a messaging platform which was less
noisy, less subject to manipulation, not centrally controlled, and more
efficient in getting news to all interested listeners, we would have
something worth tweeting about.
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