Archive for July, 2008

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Twitter’s Stunted Growth: An Inference from Muybridge’s Photos

Eadweard Muybridge Camel

Eadweard Muybridge presaged a kind of moving picture with his use of multiple cameras to capture motion. The zoopraxiscope, also invented by Muybridge, brought the images to life in a primitive way. You can think of the web version of Twitter as a bit like a series of Muybridge’s still photos on a page.

The zooproxiscope is comparable to Twitter’s polling method of simulating a live flow of real-time movement. It’s movement done with mirrors.

Twitter (as in Kleenex) with a real-time XMPP flow is a genuine moving picture. It’s hardly surprising that looking at a series of still pictures, the users of Twitter deduce real-time flow of messages and a method of tracking one-to-one and one-to-many conversations. 

By choking off independent developer access to the XMPP flavor of Twitter and attempting to place monetization at this point in the network, Twitter faces a turning point. The service grew like a weed when it embraced the rhizomatic ethic. Now Twitter hesitates, and seems to turn to a classic arborescent play. They turn from the economics of abundance to the economics of scarcity– and scarcity must be created and enforced by contract. By stunting their own growth, Twitter gives Plan B the opportunity to grow like wildfire.

Frippertronics: Two Tape Recorders and an Electronic Guitar

Back in 1979, Robert Fripp demonstrated Frippertronics on a television show. It’s hard to imagine any network program allowing this level of improvisation in performance today. 

TwitterVision: Generative Infotainment

Signal Path for Producing Discreet Music: Eno

I downloaded the TwitterVision app for the iPhone last week. But I didn’t really get a chance to look at it until I had an in-between moment last night while visiting a friend’s new house up on a hill in Fairfax. Left to my own devices for a few minutes, I pulled out my iPhone and touched the TwitterVision icon. Suddenly I was seeing a stream of Tweets from people I didn’t know from all over the world. Seeing those personal moments, many of them in-between moments, brought a smile to my lips– and, of course, started a train of thought.

This kind of engagement brought to mind what’s variously been called furniture music, discreet music or ambient music. This kind of music has many origins, I first became aware of it through the music of Erik Satie and Brian Eno. Eno first discussed the concept in the liner notes to his album Discreet Music.

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

In the liner notes to Music for Airports, the concepts had become more refined:

Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.

TwitterVision strikes me as this same kind of engagement. It accommodates many different levels of engagement. There’s a sense in which it’s always on, and always changing, much in the way that generative music can create music algorithmically that can have a duration of 1 year or 10,000 years. It’s a kind of engagement that works very well for our in-between moments, the moments where the system puts us in a holding pattern. We provide our own hold music.

The pertinent correlation is the input that Twitter provides and the way that it’s incorporated into the loop. This area of exploration was opened by Terry Riley and his Time Lag Accumulator and by Brian Eno’s Frippertronics, signal delay processor. The cowpaths and paved roads from experimental music seem to point to the future layers that will be built out on top of Twitter. Stay tuned.

New Gods of the Network: Propensity and Serendipity


Understanding distance on the Network is a complex thought experiment. While every location is one click away, you need to know the precise name of the place you’d like to go. We think of the universe of the Network as being vast, but the horizon is right front of you– and you can’t see beyond it.

This is why navigation tools are essential to traveling through this kind of space. Visibility beyond the current page is limited to the local hyperlinks. Traditionally, we’d look to Hermes, the god of travel and communication to guide us. 

In the era of SuperCrunching attention/gesture data, we calculate propensities and give you the answer or location you probably want. You probably want to go to the place most people like you want to go. It’s called homophily, birds of a feather, flocking together. This is worshiping the goddess Propensity.

But as Jon Udell notes, recommendation systems that send me further in the direction I’m already going doesn’t enlarge my understanding or my world. This is why we must also worship at the altar of the goddess Serendipity. We need to find a balance between the known and the unknown. Sometimes we talk about these divinities using the words signal and noise, but in that binary opposition we privilege the concept of signal.

As we’ve converged on all the business models that accentuate Propensity, we now need to turn to Serendipity. Perhaps we can start by thinking about John Cage and aleatoric music, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or the experimental poetry of Mallarme.


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