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What tweets tell us about the human condition

June 12, 2009 15:41 IST
About two years ago I was attending a seminar on new technologies in San Francisco. Addressing a small group of geeks, techno-freaks, journalists and some odd characters like me who had drifted in out of plain curiosity was a young stylish woman in jeans and a black T-shirt who looked like the female avatar of Steve Jobs, the legendary chief of Apple, I-Pod and I-Phone. Short spiky hair, round glasses and the black outfit worn like a uniform.

She was recounting her visit to some friends in Oregon, a State north of California regarded by the people in Silicon Valley as a pastoral backwater.

"Can you believe it, no one there had heard of Twitter," she was complaining, half seriously. "And, I just had to stay in touch with the world by e-mail and my Blackberry."

Some of the younger geeks had tittered, yes, tittered, not twittered.

I had never heard of Twitter at that stage, but it was clear to me that she was not talking of birds, since Oregon has plenty of them. Some others had shaken their head and looked amused.

Coming back from the seminar, I had looked up the lady on Google. I realised that she was some kind of a technology futurist, a woman so skilled in seeing the future trends in IT and communications that she was consulted by companies about their products in incubation to see whether a new idea or a service will take off or not, for example the future of yet another social networking site like Facebook or a service like Paypal. (If like me you do not know what they all do, either consult your nephew under 16 or look them up in Wikepedia.)

To come back to my experience, she was positing that Twitter had potential, can 'scale' which is the word in Silicon Valley for gathering momentum in attracting subscribers. But its future also depended on more philosophical questions about the nature of human contact and communication in the coming decade, she had said, turning profound. This was, as I said, two years ago.

And how true she was?

Two years later, no longer in Silicon Valley, I read that Twitter has now over six million subscribers, growing from 600,000 a year ago, a ten times increase in a year. I also find that it is big in India and was used by many during the Mumbai terror attacks at the Taj. It is the current craze among the teenagers and not only among them.

So it is time to understand this phenomenon for guys like us, not yet twittering but still capable of reading a column on a Web site such as this one.

Twitter is best understood as a miniblog, a short blast of communication by you to the world in general and all your friends and contacts in particular which can find an outlet on any gizmo -- the mobile phone, the computer or something else. It is similar and yet a different form of service from an e-mail, a text message, a blog or a broadcast and has elements of all of these in a micro format.

Why the word 'Twitter?'Because when you use it, you 'tweet' like a bird and make a short announcement to the world: examples, "Just found the best Dosa joint in all of East Delhi at..." or "sighted Priyanka Chopra at Bangalore airport" or if you are more serious, "Shashi Tharoor is with Fareed Zakaria on CNN right now."

Why so short and not chatty? Because a defining characteristic of Twitter is that your messages or 'tweets' should be less than 140 characters, which is alphabets or numbers. It is thus a small, very small, bit and bite of information or opinion or whatever, but microness is an essential feature.

And if you are a part of the 'Twitter' world it goes out to all the world like a broadcast signal and specially to whoever wants to listen to your 'tweets,' the so-called 'followers.'

Sounds utterly silly and useless? I think so too, but then six million have joined it. So, it is worth looking at these features a bit more.

As one can see from my examples, Twitter offers an avenue for instant and often inane messages to be conveyed to a whole collectivity at virtually no cost. Its basic mantra is to tell the world 'what are you doing?' and this is the default mode.

The underlying assumption is an arrogance that others are interested in what you are doing right now, and day after day. This may be true for followers of Madonna or Obama, but the twitter world is full of messages like 'Just came out of Starbucks,' 'What a party, man, now need to sleep it off.'

As I said, such messages go to all those who are your friends, family, colleagues; to those who want to 'follow you.' You too can follow the doings and sayings of whomever you are interested in the world starting with Obama -- yes he is on Twitter. So is my new Minister of State Shashi Tharoor.

What is new in the technology of Twitter and how it reaches all your devices is beyond my capacity to explain. Nor is it clear as to how it will make money for the people who own it. But like all other Web 2.0 or social networking sites, its business will depend on attracting advertisers who will unobtrusively peddle their wares next to the tweets.

And I read that there is already talk of Google or Facebook wanting to buy off Twitter, given its huge market potential.

I am not a technology sceptic, but frankly I am not impressed by this new toy. At a slightly deeper level what does it tell us -- beyond the 140 character tweets -- about the human condition?

First, it reminds us about our essentially narcissistic nature. The basic premise is that others care about what we are doing and hence the instinct to broadcast. Second, the incessant urge to remain connected, to be part of a network that modern communications tools are driving us towards.

As if being on call 24x7 on your mobile and checking the e-mail four times a day was not enough, came the Blackberries and other such devices which pushed the e-mails to your handhelds, the SMS or text messages constantly bombarding each other, and now the tweets as the next step at constant, instantaneous and inane messaging about our existence and intent.

I also find something disagreeable with the notion of being reduced to describe 'what I am doing' in less than two sentences. If I am listening to a Vilambit Raag, am immersed in the 850 pages of A Suitable Boy, am lost in meditation -- all aspects of Ananda, also all dependent on disconnection with the world, I don't want to tweet about it.

Twitter is another step towards 'attention deficit disorder' an affliction that is gaining ascendancy in all of us. This is what I feel, now. But who can tell how technology will change our lives?

I imagine a familiar scene seen and heard at Delhi international airport when mobiles first came in. I see its new form now being played out on Twitter:

The prosperous exporter waiting for his 2.30 am flight to Frankfurt sending out tweets feverishly, always responding to Twitter's fundamental question 'What are you doing?'

'Just checked in and am now waiting in the lounge, sweetie.'

'Asking for whiskey soda, what else.'

'Flight delayed, asking for the refill of whiskey and soda.'

'What am I doing now? Tweeting my sweetie.'

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at

B S Prakash