Wax Eloquently

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On Twitter and Blogging

November 13th, 2008 · 2 Comments

I can count on two hands how many times I’ve been asked what the “point” was of Twitter.  Why is it useful?  What purpose does it serve?  And normally I’ve had to answer extemporaneously; sometimes more effectively, and sometimes less.

This will be one of those effective times, I can feel it.  Let’s begin.

First, I’ll direct you to a passage from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.  This is a dialogue taking place between the characters of Enoch Root and Randy Waterhouse.  Root speaks first.

“When I phoned you the other day, how did you know it was me?”

“I don’t know. I just recognized you.”

“Recognized me? What does that mean? You didn’t recognize my voice.”

“Is this some roundabout way of answering my question about Athena worship v. Christianity?”

“Doesn’t it strike you as remarkable that you can look at a stream of characters on the screen of your computer–e-mail from someone you’ve never seen–and later ‘recognize’ the same person on the phone? How does that work, Randy?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. The brain can do some weird–”

Some complain that e-mail is impersonal–that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”

“So what’s your explanation of how I recognized you?”

I would argue that inside your mind was some pattern of neurological activity that was not there before you exchanged e-mail with me. The Root Representation. It is not me. I’m this big slug of carbon and oxygen and some other stuff on this cot right next to you. The Root Rep, by contrast, is the thing that you’ll carry around in your brain for the rest of your life, barring some kind of major neurological insult, that your mind uses to represent me. When you think about me, in other words, you’re not thinking about me qua this big slug of carbon, you are thinking about the Root Rep. Indeed, some day you might get released from jail and run into someone who would say, ‘You know, I was in the Philippines once, running around in the boondocks, and I ran into this old fart who started talking to me about Root Reps.’ And by exchanging notes (as it were) with this fellow you would be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the Root Rep in your brain and the Root Rep in his brain were generated by the same actual slug of carbon and oxygen and so on: me.”

I really like this idea.  All of our interactions with another person provide information that is used to form a representation of them in our heads.  If you and I get coffee, or hit a pub, we’ll have some high-bandwidth communication.  You’re seeing me, hearing my voice and my laugh.  But time is scarce, so you and I can’t always be interacting face-to-face.

Then there’s e-mail and blogging.  Interactions lower in bandwidth, but still lending themselves to long-form communication.  As in the story excerpt above, even an email exchange can be enough to form a representation of the author in the reader’s mind.  It just won’t be a complete picture.  Have you ever read a book, then heard the author read it at an event and been surprised by their voice?

I see Twitter as similar to e-mail and blogging (but also different).  Let me explain… no, there is too much.  Let me sum up…

Twitter is a way to provide frequent low-bandwidth data points that help to maintain an accurate “Tom Rep” in your brain.  Reading as other people tweet helps to do the same of them in my own brain.  It can get irksome when one person’s data points are so frequent that it causes others to be missed, but this threshold is pretty high for me.  By using Twitter well, we can keep mental representations of ourselves fresh and accurate.

Which will have to suffice until we’re talking over pints again.

Tags: life · science

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott Robinson // Nov 13, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Nice to know that Neal is making Hofstadter more accessible.

    Twitter is nice; but, I’ll never get over its workflow and close garden status.

    IM status messages work for me, at least right now.

  • 2 Tom // Nov 13, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I almost bought that book last weekend, but got Metamagical Themas instead. All in due time.

    Neal always does a good job of making me want to read more books.

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