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Sunday, July 12, 2009

TwitterWorld - The Reality Show

he success of Twitter - or Twittermania as some of us call it - does not stem from the technology itself. The Twitter interface has been compared to citizen's band radio and chat rooms for teenagers on AOL. But the popularity of Twitter is rather a consequence of the constraints that the system places upon all the participants in their unique social network.

The concept of subjecting one's self to work within the walls and boundaries of externally imposed limitations is not a notion foreign to artists. Artists have long adjusted to adapting their work to the constraints imposed upon them. Paintings need to fit within the gallery space, musical works are typically commissioned for a specific number of instruments and for a particular duration, books should not exceed a set number of pages if they are to find a publisher, buildings need to be constructed on budget and are built specifically for a particular locale, etc.

The information explosion has increased the breadth of what is available to us, but at a trade-off. While the breadth of information has increased exponentially, the depth of information is shallower than ever before. Some claim it is a result the public's diminishing attention span. I think it is a matter of social bandwidth and the politics of fair and equal access to the social network for the purposes of communication. It has major implications for the publication and distribution of art and music as well.

Let me digress for a moment with a hi-tech comparison that will hopefully elucidate my point...

In computer networking, engineers have a term for the electrical process of gaining access to the network. It's called Access Method. For example, the Token Ring 802.5 protocol systematically rotates around a topological ring checking electronically with each node to detect if it has information to send. If an active station does have information to transmit, then that station assumes temporary ownership of the token, and then moves its message across the ring to until it finds the receiving station. Only one message can be translated at a time, but broadcasts to all stations are possible as well.

An interesting point about Token Ring is that all other nodes need to wait their turn in the sequence before having an opportunity to transmit their message (if they have one). Token Ring is a systematic protocol allows all network stations equal access to the token, and the results are that over-all network communications are fast and efficient. It's an electrical engineers' vision of an ideal world. Token Ring performs well in heavily loaded networks and is proven to provide consistent and reliable service for all nodes connected to the ring.

Token Ring, invented by engineers at IBM in 1985, is engineered to perform well under stress. For example, Token Ring has none of the bottlenecks or collisions that have been commonplace with the classic version of the Ethernet 802.3 protocol. Ethernet is random, statistical, and full of "bursty" information. With Ethernet, one station can lose grip with reality and jabber on endlessly - thus bringing every computer connected to the hub to its knees.

So, given some of the various network protocols that are out there, Token Ring has some unique advantages that promote fair and equal access to the network for all users.

Where is all of this tech talk leading? Well, the Token Ring concept is often compared to the African human protocol of the "Talking Stick." Talking Sticks are passed around to individuals at a town meeting. The person who happens to be holding the stick at any particular moment has a clear channel to speak to the assembled crowd. After expressing his or her opinion, they must must pass the Talking Stick on to the next speaker who is granted the same uninterrupted right of speech. It is a human protocol, but not unlike the carefully thought out rules of the Token Ring networking protocol in concept.

No matter what kind of network we are talking about - be it electrical or social - the total amount of bandwidth available is limited. Protocols are needed to manage bandwidth and regulate who can access the medium and when. Communication must be controlled and structured for the common good, otherwise the result will be a crashed network, lost packets, or noise. Hence, by definition, our individual access to the network must be limited, constrained, and rationed. Nobody likes rationing, but there are protocols that will enforce fair and equal access to the network for all. Protocols are designed to place limits on the amount of bandwidth that an individual has a right to, and for how long they can monopolize the circuit. It imposes limitations in a fair and rational way.

Artists and engineers both understand that limitations make it possible for ideas, information, and expression to thrive.

In a sense, Twitter is related to this limiting factor too. In their universe messages must be 140 characters in length - or shorter. The service is often referred to as a "micro-blog." Charles Dickens would not have liked it. He wouldn't have been able to fit a complete sentence into the itty-bitty text box. Tolstoy and Wagner would have felt constrained too. Admittedly, Twitter as an application does not support the 19th century model of expression very well, but our world is much larger today, with billions of people - and like it or not they all have something to say.

The beauty of Twitter is that everyone is kept to the same limitation: senators, congressmen, celebs, multi-national companies, and rock stars all get the same 140 character space to express themselves. The virtual space is somewhat analogous to Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park in London, except that the Twitter soapbox can potentially put you in front of millions of followers throughout globe - 140 characters at a time.

There is a benefit for the passive consumer too. With so much information to sort through from so many sources, people are information-swamped. There is a risk of overload to the system, as in the Ethernet protocol where a rouge broadcast storm can flood the network with meaningless packets.

I think we can agree that everyone citizen of the earth should have access to the Internet, but there is a question about how to manage access to the bandwidth in a fair and equitable way.

The Twitter phenomenon has made me begin to wonder if the democratizing nature of their social network could be applied to brick-and-mortar society. Let's call it TwitterWorld - the Reality Show.

For example, we already have term-limits for some elected officials. The President can serve for a maximum of two terms - eight years. The idea here is that new blood is needed from time to time, and other interests and viewpoints should get a turn with the "Talking Stick." I agree with the limiting nature of term limits. Change is good.

We have already experienced societal pressure to compress information into increasingly concise units. Resumes should be limited to one page (hiring managers spend less than 10 seconds looking at it). People seeking employment rattle off their two-minute elevator speeches like professional Rap artists.

The compression of time into a set frameworks is a human virtue. Less is more.

While on a much longer scale, patent and copyright protection is only granted for a limited time-frame. At some point Micky Mouse will stop being a cash-cow (err mouse) for Disney, and leave the comfortable life of Disneyland to go off to fend for himself in the public domain. This transition will allow other cartoon figures to rise up from the cartoon network and become famous. As a result, their creators will benefit financially as Walt Disney and his successors had.

It is the same concept that the IBM electrical engineers called Access Method, but on a grand scale.

Perhaps the old school, brick-and-mortar social contract that entitled some people eternal access to the "Talking Stick" is nearing an end. For example, consider the concept of university tenure. I don't know of too many jobs in the 21st century that come with a life-time guarantee of employment. Not only that, an argument could be made that those individuals, who form a minority, are given long-term preferential bandwidth to the social network. Sure, it's good work if you can get it, but not everyone is so lucky. It does not benefit society overall.

If TwitterWorld (the Reality Show) were to be instituted, everyone would have an equal opportunity to express themselves. Change would be encouraged by term limits in industry, government, the arts, and academia. This would result in a broader and more focused transfer of information and culture for all.

Individuals who currently hold a monopoly on power will have to move over and share the toys in the sandbox. The protocols of TwitterWorld will limit their access to the network. Everyone will be restricted to only 15 minutes of fame. Period.

Andy Warhol
did foresee that bandwidth would be democratized. However, what he missed was the notion that the 15-minutes could be an aggregate value dispersed over larger time frames. Yes, everyone will receive the electronic Talking Stick for up to 15-minutes over their lifetime, but their messages will be broadcast in the fragments, bits, and pieces. Our notoriety will take the form of sound bytes, tweets, RSS document feeds, and digital downloads. It will derive from the cumulative accumulation of our aggregate thoughts.

I'm not sure if I would be completely happy in TwitterWorld after maxing out my 15-minute time allowance. Yet, there is something to be said about the concept. For the little guy who does not have an advantage of the clout, prestige, distinction, institutional support, or job-security bestowed from the brick-and-motor establishment, TwitterWorld would help to equalize the playing field.

In the brick-and-mortar social network, the same old faces always seem to win the awards, land commissions, gain their bids at reelection, and receive recognition. In TwitterWorld they will have to give up their posts for a time and let new faces have a turn on the stage. I don't think that those who control and perpetuate the status quo will be happy about sharing the limelight. For this reason they will probably regard my concept of TwitterWorld as socially disruptive, disturbing, and strange.

But like it or not, TwitterWorld is coming. It's only a matter of time.