Twitter and Time Scale Management

Over at the Inverse Square blog, Tom Levenson announces that he's started Twittering in a post that contains, via Carl Zimmer, the best argument for why Twitter matters:

Carl laughs me out of my seat. He points out that he tweeted his visit to my class, and received in return a couple of requests to pass on hellos from blogospheric friends I haven't seen since January (hello back, Dave); that a growing audience exists to feed him almost real time reactions to questions; that whatever I might think there is a hierarchy of information, and if I ignore the swift and the short, then I lose my chance to talk to people in conversations each party values....

It's as strong an argument for the worth of Twitter as you'll find, and similar to what I realized about the usefulness of FriendFeed back in September when people were using it to record and discuss the Science in the 21st Century meeting. It also contains the core of why I am unlikely to ever use Twitter much.

The key problem, for me, is one of time scales, something I didn't really appreciate until Cameron Neylon laid it all out:

But while everyone is focussed on "real time" I think it is starting to reveal a more interesting problem. One I've been thinking about for quite a while but have been unable to get a grip on. All of these services have different intrinsic timeframes. One of the things I dislike about the new FriendFeed interface is the "real time" nature of it. What I liked previously was that it had a slower intrinsic time than, say, Twitter or instant messenging, but a faster intrinsic timescale than a blog or email. On Twitter/IM conversations are fast, seconds to minutes, occassionally hours. On FriendFeed they tend to run from minutes to hours, with some continuing on for days, all threaded and all kept together. Conversations in blog comments run over hours, to days, email over days, newspapers over weeks, academic literature over months and years.

Different people are comfortable with interacting with streams running at these different rates. Twitter is too much for some, as is FriendFeed, or online content at all. Many don't have time to check blog comments, but perhaps are happy to read the posts once a day.

This is the essence of my problem with Twitter. The way I work means that I really can't keep up with conversations that take place on the time scale of Twitter. I can't even keep up with active blog comment threads-- I barely look at Making Light any more, because in the time between a post going up and that post turning up on my RSS feed, fifty comments have been posted. And by the time I read all of those, another twenty have gone up, and by the time I can formulate a reply to any of them, three other people have said what I was going to say. I can barely manage to keep up with the comments here.

I haven't really experimented with Twitter, other than catching a little bit via FriendFeed. Dave Munger is one of the people I follow, and the vast majority of his FriendFeed traffic is really from Twitter. And I'm seriously considering hiding it all.

The problem is that what I'm seeing on his Twitter feed is one half of six different conversations. It's like living inside Overheard in New York, only with fewer crazy people. And yeah, I can follow links to piece together more of the conversation, but when I do that, I find myself wasting an hour clicking through random Twitter feeds instead of doing anything remotely useful.

Especially since the arrival of SteelyKid, my work pattern just doesn't let me fit in with these rapid-fire conversations. I'm actually just about the opposite of Walter Pincus's typical online reader, who mostly reads web sites between 10 am and 4:30 pm-- when I'm at work, I limit myself to only GMail, and maybe Facebook and FriendFeed. I need to monitor my email to watch for students in distress or spam attacks on the blog, but anything more than that is too much of a time sink. When I really need to get work done-- book revisions, say-- I print it out on paper, and go to the campus center or some other location where I don't have Internet access at all.

The bulk of my blog reading is done in the morning before work, and in the evening after dinner. Which means I'm only really comfortable working with information streams that have a natural time scale of several hours. Twitter is just incompatible with the way I have to work, by its very nature.

Ironically, a big part of the problem I have with fast information streams comes from spending too much time online. After fifteen-plus years on Usenet and blogs, I actually write more slowly than I used to. Watching thousands of promising conversations go horribly wrong thanks to somebody taking offense at an offhand remark, I've become an obsessive reviser-- I re-read, re-edit, and re-phrase my writing almost compulsively, in hopes of avoiding some grand blow-up.

This has, at least, kept me out of debacles like RaceFail, but it also keeps me out of things like Making Light and Twitter. There are no fast comments in my world any more, which means that blog reading needs to be sharply curtailed during the hours in which I'm trying to be productive.

So, while I can see the positive features Twitter has to offer, its short intrinsic time scale means that I'm unlikely to be able to take advantage of them. By the time I get to read them, let alone formulate a response, the conversation has moved on to other things.

More like this

I'm there with you, and I think it has a lot to do with having small kids around the house. You just don't have time to keep up with Twitter conversations when you'd rather be playing horsey with your kid. You have to set your priorities, and SteelyKid appreciates your choice, I'm sure!

Well, I'm with you (two) too, and I don't have kids. Partly it's because I often can't respond instantly whenever a new post goes up. And partly it's because I need to think about what I'm going to say first, which is a serious liability for commenting usefully in the high-traffic comment threads.

I'm not sure how commenters keep up with discussions at high-traffic blogs like Making Light, Whatever, or the Tor re-reads from Kate and Leigh. Moreover the comments are typically thoughtful and (even harder) conversational -- they aren't simply multiple independent responses to the initial post. I doff my cap to them; I just can't keep up.

As cisko said, it's not just a matter of having kids, even if that's what sets the limit for you personally. Most of us have to get actual work done, which is hard enough with e-mail and blogs around. Something like Twitter would wreck whatever is left of my ability to concentrate. I need time (even if it's only a few minutes) to think of what I'm going to say, and like you I am an obsessive reviser.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 May 2009 #permalink

I struggle with Internet addiction. Currently I participate in one VR community (text-based), follow about 15 comic strips and blogs (not the same thing, but clustered under the same bookmark heading), and read two news sites consistently and an additional two sporadically. Oh, and a handful of weather sites. If I log on at all, I'm sucked in for at least 30 minutes, and often an hour. Can I really afford this kind of time sink several times a day? (Answer: No, I cannot.)

For a while, I forced myself not to log on until after supper each day. My days were enormously productive! This lasted for maybe a couple of weeks, and then I fell off the wagon, EVEN THOUGH the evening check did not once contain something that would have made a significant difference had I checked it a few hours earlier. But here I am, alas, logged on and posting at ten o'clock in the morning. Bah.

I don't do MySpace or Facebook (privacy concerns), and the very last thing I need is another kind of thing to check -- Twitter would be the end of me.

All this to say, Right On! It's nice to hear from someone else who has good reasons not to Twitter, and who has to physically absent himself from Internet access to get some kinds of serious, focused work done. Thank you for this post.

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 11 May 2009 #permalink

My reason to be on Twitter is simply a matter of my line of work. I write full-time, and so I need to be where readers are. I don't try to write meaningful tweets; mainly, I link out.

We had a cool Twitter/living in the future moment at Potlatch. A couple of us Twittered that we were at the panel discussing the Scalzi Rule and Scalzi jumped in with a "What the heck is the Scalzi rule" and when it was explained to him he had things to say, which I relayed to the panel/audience as he said them. So he contributed to a panel half a continent away in real time. It was way cool.

I like Twitter, but I don't have a busy life with an infant.