Tweeting as play

The essential criticism of Twitter, and of much Webby expression in general, is: “What a waste of time!” The endless online blurting and clicking of online is causing a culture of distraction.

I’m sympathetic to that critique: While the more hyperbolic claims that extend this argument to the it-will-rot-our-brains extreme are hard to take seriously, I also find it hard to take seriously the counter-critique that it’s all about “connecting” and “sharing,” or that having a lot of Twitter followers somehow makes you more informed or even smarter.

All of that said, I’m also open-minded. And I found myself thinking about blurty-click “communication” while listening recently to an interview with Stuart Brown, founder of something called the National Institute for Play. Here’s how he defined “play”:

I’d say play is anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake. And then one can extend that into more and more detailed definitions, such as ‘appears purposeless,’ ‘produces pleasure and joy,’ ‘leads one to the next stage of mastery.’

The interview veered off in other directions and mostly had to do with children, and with physical play.

But it seems reasonable to me that what Twitter enthusiasts and the like are doing, on some level, is simply playing. I certainly think that’s a more reasonable description than the more high-minded arguments about connecting and learning and building new kinds of relationships that lead to greater knowledge and more productivity. But what explains the seriousness of such rationales? Well, the interviewer responded to Brown’s definition by saying:

You know, you said “appears purposeless.” And I’m thinking what difficulty some parts of our culture have with anything that appears purposeless.

Yes. Twitter freaks don’t want to say, “Look, I’m just messing around. I’m goofing off. Yes, it’s a waste of time, but that’s the whole point.” Instead you get the stuff about Twitter being more important than CNN, or about new forms of community, or truth-to-power revolution, and like that. And yeah those arguments can sort of be backed up by examples — but so can counter-arguments about banality and narcisissm.

If it is play, why not just say so? Why not just say it’s fun? After all, one of the reasons “play” is always in vogue in certain business magazines is that it really is important to creativity — taking yourself out of the routine makes your thinking less rigid, etc.

Later in this same interview the issue of competition is raised, and this is often the problem with humans and play: It morphs into competition. I think Twitter and social media in general are very susceptible to this. Partly by design: Prominent display of friend-or-follower numbers and the like. And the other part is the insistence on rationalizing. Because people don’t want to be seen as doing something that “appears purposeless,” they trump up the more rational-sounding measures of importance: Building a social network, becoming better informed, tapping into resources that make one more efficient.

Grown up-sounding stuff. Stuff that sounds like it’s not fun or recreational at all. It’s related to productivity, self-improvement, information — in a word, work.

In The New York Times Magazine: Plinky

Adding to the structure of online expression, but giving you something to express.

It has never been easier to express yourself in public. Whatever you might want to say, the online tools to let you say it to a (theoretically) worldwide audience are innumerable. Say it long, say it short, say what you want, when you want and how often you want. As the title of a forthcoming book about blog culture puts it: “Say Everything.” You have the technology. The only thing the technology cannot do is solve this problem: What if you don’t really have anything to express?

Ah, but technology can solve that problem for you….

Read the column in the May 31, 2009, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

Your content or your life?

“Tweet and FB are making blogging obsolete!,”  writes Andy Serwer of Fortune. He’s not entirely serious, or not entirely literal; he ties his observations into the ongoing debate about whether we’re in a culture of distraction or becoming more smartly connected and all that. In his own case, he says, he’s blogging less because:

I have literally been Facebooking and Twittering all my content away! I get a thought, I meet someone interesting, I go somewhere cool, and then snap crackle pop, I put it up. Crazy right?

Hmmm. The thing that stopped me here was the phrase “my content.”

Thinking, meeting people, moving through the world — this used to be your life.

Now, I guess, in the time of leveraging your personal brand via online social networking connections, it’s your “content.”

Commodify your followers

followermugLike anything else that’s popular, Twitter has inspired plenty of physical and buyable things for those who wish to express their fandom for the service by way of products. One probably inevitable example: Tweet-based Threadless T’s.

But reader Kevin Dugan points out a more interesting twist: Twitter Mosaic. You type in your Twitter handle (or, it seems, anybody’s Twitter handle), and the site produces a “mosaic” of all your followers’ avatars, which you can then have printed onto a coffee mug, T-shirt, tote bag. (So if you use a photo of yourself as your avatar, someone you follow could put your mug on a mug.)

I suspect one of the great appeals of Twitter for many of its users is in fact racking up a high follower count, and seeing that pleasingly high number signaling to the world some notion of importance and/or influence (or “connection,” if you like). So converting that into an object that transports a version of that signal into the physical world makes a certain kind of sense.

Personally I’d prefer something that did the same with the Gallery of Default Anonymity.

[Previously: Consumed on Fail Whale + merch; Consumed on Threadless.]

Immaterialism critiqued

Today the NYT has an item headlined “Virtual Goods May Be A Blip,” noting the sales of Facebook gifts and the like, and suggesting  that despite the surprising sales numbers, there are problems that may undermine growth in this category. “How fast do prices drop when such items are mass produced?” the item asks. “Companies will have to churn out different goods in limited editions just to keep users amused.”

And: “How long can a product with no real-world value stay useful? … There’s the chance that users will realize they’re paying something for nothing.”

All very rational — and like many rational analyses of consuemer behavior, almost certainlly inadequate. I’m not sure what to say about the “price drop” issue, since virtual goods are already incredibly cheap (and frequently “mass produced”), partly because production costs, as it were, are low.

On both the specific issue of variety and limited editions (already happpening) and the more general question of whether such goods have “real-world value” or represent “something for nothing,” see this April 29, 2009 Consumed.

Desperate for followers

Todd Wasserman, writing about his Twitter adventures, mentions this:

The dirty little secret of Twitter, though, is that many people get high-follower counts by making it known that they will automatically follow you if you follow them. So when I had trouble getting over the 400 barrier, I Googled “twitterers who automatically follow you” and found a list of 237 people who do just that.

Many of these people, it should be noted, have well in excess of 10,000 followers already, which means that not only will they not be receptive to my messages but, because they are following so many people, they will be unlikely to see my messages.


And makes me wonder: What is more important — the theoretical audience, or the degree of engagement of members of that audience.

Having 10,000 followers is a powerful “signal” that whatever one is saying is important, even if the reality is that none of those 10,000 are listening.

Having 10 followers who are engaged and useful and paying attention might have more utility. But because your audience “looks” small, the signal to others is that nobody cares what you have to say, so it must not be interesting.

Probably some version of this same  basic dynamic holds true for blogs, and articles, and even books, but the visibility of audience-count in the Twitter setup just makes it more obvious.

Anyway, I suppose choosing between an emphasis audience size and audience quality (yes, I realize it’s not always a choice), is a matter of individual priorities.


In a post back in November, I quoted a little from Robert J. Samuelson Newsweek article in which he more or less drew a link between American materialism, and American self-esteem (this in the context of  the economic downturn that at the time was still coming into full view).

An interesting comment on that post came from reader Jonathan, who essentially said that material goods had already been fading in significance: “Generations Y and X place more value on social capital in establishing their self-esteem, as in how many Facebook friends they’ve got, how their love lives are going, etc. … The Internet provides more opportunity for inexpensive socializing (meetups, parties, conversation).”

While I can think of ways to rebut, or at least question, that assertion, I think the essence of Jonathan’s point is pretty interesting, and it’s stuck with me. I’ve been intrigued by what I guess I’m going to call immaterialism for a while, and I do wonder if there’s a sub-plot here to the question of what sort of consumer culture eventually emerges from this recession.

Here’s some more fodder. I apologize in advance for the long post, but if  you have reactions I’d love to hear them.

Recently, Wired’s Underwire blog, in answering the hypothetical question, “what would you grab if you had just 20 minutes to save the objects in your home that mean the most to you,” replied: My USB drive. Obviously that answer has nothing to do with the  object, but rather with the immaterial data it stores.

Similarly, on a SXSW panel, Tim Brown of Ideo said something about (if I remember this right) the data on his laptop being more important than the physical laptop.

Another variation: A couple of times Consumed I’ve dealth with virtual goods — in this October 16, 2005, column on EverQuest, and this October 1, 2006 column about Second Life. And I’m certainly not the only person to write about that (non)stuff — there are whole books about people making and spending real money in virtual worlds.

And finally: A more recent Consumed dealt with iPhone apps, even silly ones, that consumers will spend money on and presumably value, creating another vibrant immaterial marketplace.

Now, none of that is exactly what Jonathan was talking about.

But … Let’s say you go along with the basic premise that much of the material-object-buying of recent years (decades) is partly explained by consumer desires for more abstract ideas such as individualism, or connection, or progress, or status, and the self-esteem that Samuelson references.

Can these various immaterial offerings serve a similar function? If so, does that have a  broad impact on consumer culture going forward, or does it just become another element of it? And how, in turn, does the recession affect our desires for immaterial goods — spending on stuff in virtual worlds, for instance?How does t

I return to virtual goods in part because I listened to a segment on DNA recently about an architect who has basically moved his practice to Second Life, creating “buildings” there for various clients. In that old EverQuest column, I noted argued that spending a few dollars on an (immaterial) Pristine Teak Strong Box isn’t that different from paying a few dollars extra for a (material) suitcase that happens to carry a luxury brand name: “Paying for the intangible is hardly exotic; most of us do it all the time.”

To take that another step: The immaterial object isn’t made in a dubious factory, and won’t end up in landfill. So maybe it’s even possible to argue that immaterialism channels consumer desires in ways that are, on some level, better.

Which isn’t to say there are no consequences (eco and otherwise) to our digital habits — more on that tomorrow. Because this is way too long.

For now, just sketching out these few thoughts, and curious if  you have any.

Nostalgia for blogs

Today a blog I read via RSS basically announced its own demise. The reason? The author now prefers Twitter. I checked the Twitter feed and it was, of course, far less substantial than the blog had been. In fact I didn’t seen a single tweet of interest, whereas this person’s earlier blog posts had been, with some regularity, worth a look. If I don’t “follow” this person, I miss the possibility of some future interesting tweet — at least a link I would have missed, something.On the other hand, if I do follow, I clearly have to wade through a bunch of garbage. The signal-to-noise ratio will clearly be way worse than it had been on the now-dying blog. I’m interested in this person’s thinking — but I’m not that interested.

Too bad. Maybe someone else who follows this person will pick up on the occasional interesting tweets and blog about them? Or will I eventually capitulate and start following, the days of (kinda) thought-out blog posts fading into —

Whoa, I better wrap this post up — it’s so long!

Most important “citizen journalism” ever

1. The Zapruder film.

2. Rodney King video.

3.  … ?

What do you think? I feel very confident about the top two. But what comes next? The “macaca” thing? Trent Lott’s downfall? The Dan Rather stuff? Something else?

Any significance to the fact that both my top choices predate the IPO of Netscape, let alone the careers of the 50,000 people who now make a living blathering about “citizen journalism”? Or are my choices wrong?

You tell me.

Another quick note on Twitter & music

Got some interesting, and mixed, reactions to yesterday’s note about Twitter & orchestral performance.  Here are two more bits about Twitter & music:

1. Coudal points to 406 bands who Twitter.

2. Wired’s Epicenter blog assesses, billed as a “new tool for putting music on Twitter.” While unimpressed by some aspects, Epicenter does say the player “could prove beneficial for labels, artists and users looking to distribute music on the Twitter platform, as well as Twitter users looking for new music. The player includes play and pause, a short version of the song’s URL (of course), and, perhaps most importantly, buttons that let listeners to re-tweet or otherwise share the song. (Bands must host the MP3s themselves.)”

These examples have more to do with promotion/connection/distribution than with changing the  nature of a performance (like the earlier example), but still worth noting.

The future of listening is … reading?

Here’s a randomly encountered post on the subject of how orchestras can use Twitter:

An orchestra gives a concert. Someone sends commentary tweets, in real time while the music plays, describing what’s going on. I don’t know how pinpoint the time accuracy might be, so maybe you can’t time something precisely to a downbeat. But you could certainly indicate major sections of a piece.

But it gets better. You could have a dozen Twitter streams. What does the conductor think about, while she’s conducting the piece? What’s the hardest part for the principal flute? What passage in the horns makes the principal trumpet player’s hair stand on end? All kinds of people in the orchestra could send tweets during the performance, or rather could write them in advance, and have them sent out at the proper time by others. Someone in the audience could decide which Twitter streams to follow, or could follow them all.

Knowing full well that I’ll be slammed as a dinosaur etc. if I say anything at all to question the mightiness of social media and like that: I find this a little odd. In-concert tweets “describing what’s going on”? Um, there’s an orchestra performing; check it out. (I’m remembering an old David Mamet interview where he talks about disliking it when reporters use a tape recorder: “Why don’t you try listening?” ) Or  maybe you’d get a tweet that says, “This is the good part, starting now.” Or just: “Applaud.”

And what’s this about what the conductor is thinking about while conducting — is the idea that s/he is waving the baton with one hand and texting with the other?

Having said all that, the problem here may just be that the example is throwing me off, and there’s some more interesting/useful application of the idea. But my immediate reaction is that this implies that an orchestra, by itself, simply playing music, isn’t worth your time. Like maybe what the audience really wants is a Twitter feed for their favorite baseball team, so they can pay attention to the game during the boring parts of the musical program.

What do you think?

In The New York Times Magazine: Fail Whale

An unlikely social-media icon

This week in Consumed, how a service-interruption image got a fan base — as if a song heard mostly as hold music hit the Billboard charts.

As with many Web-popularity stories, there’s a lot of flukiness to Fail Whale’s rise. For starters, Lu had never heard of Twitter when she created the image (which she called Lifting Up a Dreamer) as an electronic birthday card for a friend overseas while she was still finishing her visual communications degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. In July 2007, she uploaded a number of her illustrations, including that one, to a service called iStockphoto. That’s where, almost a year later, it came to the attention of Biz Stone, a Twitter founder….

It probably took two specific factors to create the accidental icon. First, it’s a lesson in the power of raw repetition — the “mere exposure effect” identified by psychology studies that suggests we like things more simply by seeing them more often. Second, Twitter enthusiasts are almost alarmingly zealous….

Read the column in the February 15, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

Consumed archive is here, and FAQ is here. The Times’ Consumed RSS feed is here. Consumed Facebook page is here.

“Letters should be addressed to Letters to the Editor, Magazine, The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. The e-mail address is All letters should include the writer’s name, address and daytime telephone number. We are unable to acknowledge or return unpublished letters. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.”

New media’s secret weapon: Hype from old media

The other day I read something in The New Republic, a book review in which the writer said in passing: “The media industry’s attacks on the net can be scary, but they can also be understood as death throes.”

I had to read that sentence again. What was he talking about? Not the death throes — I get that part. The scary attacks. I realized he must be referring to the occasional high-minded broadsides about blogs dumbing down the culture, or whatever. I’ve seen those. But does anybody really find them “scary”? Surely nobody in the new-media blogosphere does. Such laments have approximately zero impact, and are routinely swatted down by the blognoscenti as, yes,  the death throes of irrelevant gatekeeper dinosaurs who don’t get it and don’t matter anymore. “Dead tree media” and all that.

The next day I was skimming an issue of New York Magazine and noticed this exchange in a Q&A with Rob Corddry about his new Web-only show, Children’s Hospital.

Q: How do you market a Web show?
A: I had my publicist get me an interview at New York Magazine.
Q: Seriously.

Corddry goes on to say something vague about “manipulating Google,” but the right answer is: “Um, seriously. Who the fuck are  you kidding? Mainstream media eats up news of the latest new-media whatever with a spoon!”

After all, isn’t that the case? Occasional broadsides notwithstanding, hasn’t the traditional media, by and large, functioned largely as a cheerleader for and amplifier of new media? If Corddry has a traditional sitcom, nobody (in the mainstream media) really cares. But he has a Web-based sitcom? Oooh! Cutting-edge! Write it up!

The Times Magazine (my primary client, of course) has done more than one cover story about bloggers, and has hired one of the most talented critics I’ve ever met to do a column about aspects of Web-media culture every week. The column is not a series of scary attacks. Meanwhile, every section of the paper has done multiple stories about this or that blogger in almost every category imaginable — design, gossip, restaurants, politics, “citizen journalists,” whatever. I would certainly guess the paper has run more stories about Twitter than about, say, a TV show like N.C.I.S., which probably has at least double the audience.

But this makes sense, in that the new-media stories are, you know, newer. More like news. Indeed I would actually say that one meta-story that the traditional media has covered quite thoroughly in the last 10 or 15 years is the story of the new media. Has there ever been a significant online phenomenon that was not only covered but in effect abetted by mainstream coverage? That is to say: I wonder how often new-media properties, from Napster to Facebook, take off precisely because old media introduced them to a wider audience. Or at the very least, if the old-media coverage didn’t juice things along much faster than might have otherwise occurred.

I’m not suggesting that new-media forms wouldn’t catch on anyway. But I am suggesting that the number of “scary attacks” from the old media are far outweighed by “ya gotta check this out” hype. Which is exactly why Corrdry’s new-media strategy involved having his publicist call New York Magazine.

The professional amateur

Funny story in the NYT today about a guy who has won 11 “user-generated ad” contests, “earning more than $200,000 in money and prizes.” A great example of the co-promotion theory of what inspires amateurs to make ads: It’s not about hyping the brand, it’s about hyping the maker.

Mr. Levinson has a Facebook group entitled “Yes, Joel, I’ll vote for your newest stupid contest” and he uses Twitter, blogs, e-mail and text messages, asking acquaintances to vote. He even calls 24-hour customer service lines at night, when he thinks the representatives are bored, and asks them to vote for him.

Twitter chatter

Adverblog is the latest to ask the familiar question:

What’s the value of Twitter for a brand? It’s just a question of feeling cool and up to speed with the 2.0 era? Or there is (or there could be) more? Is there any brand out there using Twitter fully exploiting its conversational potentials or is it just another broadcast channel?

In a way, the overheated emotions about Twitter are a good example of the medium/message problem: It’s just another way of potentially expressing something, and that is inherently less interesting (to me) than what’s being expressed. I’ve been asked about Twitter a lot, and on precisely one occasion has the question been interesting. It was in the recent Q&A for Crafty Bastards, and if you have read that then you already know what I was asked and what I said, but if not, here it is, answer after the jump:

Q: What do you think of Twitter as a marketing tool? Are people more likely to buy from Zappos because they know what the CEO is having for dinner? Read more