Meg Fowler threw up her hands and finally said, “This is what I do.” She was trying to explain how Twitter goes to some new users. It’s a question that surfaces naturally with the uninitiated. They examine the “rules” and the capabilities, and then answer the question “What are you doing?” But somehow that doesn’t seem to adequately represent the buzz of talk surrounding Twitter.
The first thing new users observe, once they start following veteran users is that the question about what one is doing is only occasionally answered. What are the rules they ask, what are the rules about what to put in to those 140 characters, if you’re not answering the question?
This is where words begin to fail us. How to explain all that is not answering a question? How to explain who hears and who doesn’t? How to explain the river of talk that one follows? To explain one’s experience of Twitter, is to explain one’s self. Everyone’s experience is slightly different.
Meg Fowler’s description brought to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discussion of how we learn and use language in his book Philosophical Investigations. Certainly we can talk about rules when we speak of language. But that’s not how we learn and eventually use language. Rather than learning a set of rules, it’s more a case of “this is what I do,” and you must do what you do.
Asking what one should fill the 140 characters with is like asking what words one should fill one’s voice with. Many social network sites attempt to provide context and set the rules of engagement. Following rules is what machines do, not what people do. I’ve often thought of human-computer interaction as the encounter between a world purged of ambiguity with a world filled with ambiguity. Twitter thrives on the ambiguity of its purpose, it’s a machine that leaves room for the human.
And Meg Fowler, why look to her as an authoritative voice? In a medium where most of use are finding our way and learning the landscape, Ms. Fowler has filled in those 140 characters more than 11,646 times.