So... how much do you really want to know about me? And, how often do you want to know it?
I could tell you and the rest of the world about everything, in minute detail, if you like—from what colour underwear I picked out this morning, to what I had for breakfast, to the route I chose to take to work, to what TV show I’m watching.... I can, if you like, spill all the beans. Are you ready to take “too much information” to the next level?
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been diving into what’s been dubbed the narcissystem, looking at Web-based applications that let you provide intimate minutiae about your life to your friends, family, complete strangers—indeed, to the world.
It’s the latest in the revolution that began with personal home pages in the earliest days of the Web, through blogging, social networks and now the always-on life. If you’re a private person, it might seem like a nightmare. But for those who live their lives online, who want to stay in touch with friends and family, and who don’t mind if the rest of the world watches along—or who may have an exhibitionist streak—it can be fun and useful.
At the core of my explorations is a website called Twitter, which has been all the rage among the cool online kids the past few months. You can find it at www.twitter.com.
The best way to describe Twitter: It’s like instant messaging to a public Web page instead of an individual. You can enter brief messages onto your own Twitter page, add “TwitterIM” to your IM client’s buddy list, or send a text message via cellphone, and the result shows up on your Twitter page. Unlike IMs, which are here and gone (or saved to your hard drive if your client logs them), Twitter messages are archived for all time and discoverable by search engines. Your pearls of minutiae can be delivered to others via IM or RSS, saving your hordes of fans the trouble of clicking a link or typing in a Web address. Thank heaven for technology, eh?
However, the second and more social aspect of Twitter is what makes it more interesting. You can designate people to be your friends, and vice versa. When you do, their musings also end up on your page. Suddenly, it’s not all about you—it’s about us, and that raises some intriguing possibilities. As you’d suspect, most of the messages that pass through Twitter are inconsequential. Twitter has a feature called the Public Timeline, which pulls a batch of messages every four minutes. Here’s some of what I’m seeing on that page as I write this column:
librarianaaron: “Mer, do you live right in Northfield, or are you back in the hollers? Either way, Rte 12 and the access road are beautiful in the spring”
rosevibe: “wishing I could get some decent strength painkillers off prescription.”
JonnieJerko: “Hummus and lavash bread for lunch. Yogurt covered raisins for dessert. Maybe I’m a hippie after all? NOOOOOOOOOO.”
These items have the casual feel of instant messaging between individuals. It’s a different kind of communication from writing in a blog, or even an email to a friend. And thinking of it as casual and private can get you in trouble—even if you’re a grizzled online veteran.
Just ask Steve Rubel, considered one of the gurus of blogging in public relations. He recently mentioned via Twitter that he throws away the complimentary copy he receives of PC Magazine, implying he does so without ever glancing at its pages. What he didn’t realize is that the magazine’s executive editor, Jim Louderback, saw the item. Louderback then mused in a guest editorial on a PR blog called Strumpette (www.strumpette.com) that perhaps his magazine should boycott the Edelman PR firm, Rubel’s employer.
At his own blog (www.micropersuasion.com), Rubel apologized, saying: “I learned a valuable lesson. Post too fast without providing context and it can elicit an unintended response.”
The words “providing context” are the key. Rubel does read PC Magazine, but he does so online. His friends may know that, and understood what he meant. The editor of PC Magazine, however, apparently did not.
On the Web, words often have the feeling of impermanence, but nothing could be further from the truth. Just ask college students who have a hard time finding jobs because of photos they’ve posted or things they’ve written on their MySpace pages.
Consider whatever you do on Twitter and other sites like it as part of a permanent digital record. Your life online becomes searchable, discoverable, copy-and-pasteable. How much are you really willing to share about yourself, in perpetuity?
My Twitter page is at www.twitter.com/dsilverman. If you have an account, feel free to add me as a friend. But please understand if I don’t use it to tell all. What I had for breakfast this morning is my business.