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A Separate Reality: on the Brink

A Separate Reality

Sometimes it takes a few days for the dust to settle, for all the threads to become untangled, and for the bright lines of an event to emerge. BearHug Camp defined the silhouettes of two alternate futures.

To paraphrase a politician’s recent comment, the fundamentals of microblogging are sound. The 140 character standard message length seems safe for the moment. But one senses there’s an uncomfortable feeling about the randomness of that specific constraint and its origin in SMS. Access to APIs and the ecosystem of multiple end clients providing and discovering unique new value propositions filtered from the fire hose of the full microblogging stream is pretty stable. But there’s a fear that access may be cut off, or that the economics of API access may change radically. System stability has improved measurably, but is still below acceptable major league standards. Real time messaging and track are still on the critical list, either absent or cobbled together as a pencil sketch (everything works for a small N).

Convergence on a unified microblogging standard is key to the foundation of a larger ecosystem, what Dave Winer calls a coral reef. Currently that convergence owes its existence to the mirroring of Twitter’s feature set. The distribution of power within the political economy of the system leaves this as the only avenue for progress. An open standard that departed from Twitter wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

The first possible future belongs to Twitter. It’s a future where scaling a real time microblogging messaging system with track is key to success. The transition of the economic model of API access from free to one with some kind of usage tax will lay the foundation for a potentially dominant business model. As long as the tax is low enough and the volume high enough, Twitter will prosper and the friction they’ve introduced won’t slow down viral growth.

Oblique Strategy: Think Garden instead of Architecture

The second possible future belongs to a distributed network of players. The big scale required by Twitter’s architecture is redistributed to multiple players with different roles and responsibilities within a networked system. It’s not that competes with Twitter, but an ecosystem of sites that cooperate to provide the identical feature/function set along with a fertile ground for new innovation. But there’s a fly in the ointment, there is no ecosystem. Currently there are only unscalable instances of that don’t connect to each other very well. In order for there to be viral growth in the Open Microblogging ecosystem the individual nodes actually need to form a network of connections. Today they don’t. The nodes aren’t nodes so they can’t grow as a network. Many aren’t competing against One.

There are couple of things missing from this garden:

  • Name resolution across Open Microblogging nodes
  • Inter-node real time public and direct messaging
  • Full network real time track (Aggregate XMPP Firehose)
  • Multiple clients for multiple devices

To the extent that these items aren’t at the top of the Open Microblogging project priority list, and Open Microblogging stand on the brink of an abyss. The “growth” of disconnected nodes is the illusion of growth. In a few weeks Twitter will turn on all services, introduce a small tax and the game could well be over. The acolytes of Open Source believe they will win the war because they have a structural advantage that over time will prevail. The metaphor that was used was “flipping the iceberg.” Except for the fact that there is no structural advantage and they don’t have a critical mass of users, nor a method to virally attract them. They’re living in a separate reality, their watches have stopped and their eyes aren’t on the prize.

BearHug camp showed us all the shape of the playing field, that the game was underway, and the ball was pointedly handed to the key players. Can they keep their eyes on the prize? From the opening gun, this game is being played in sudden death. The next move is crucial.


Micro-Objects: I have no mouth and I must scream

I have no mouth and I must scream

The analogy to Harlan Ellison’s classic story isn’t there at all. But somehow the phrase fits anyway. As I think about Jessie Stay’s post about the implementation of the “in_reply_to_status_id” parameter in Twitter, and the matching of the metadata element by, I keep coming back to J.L. Austin’s idea of the speech act. This new parameter is a connector that enables a network of conversation. The elements of a conversation are not objects, but rather speech acts of the subject.

“What does it matter who is speaking,” someone said. “What does it matter who is speaking.”

Samuel Beckett
Stories and Texts for Nothing

The 140 character limit of the Tweet and the Dent ties the form to the SMS. The SMS is tied to the phone and the transmission of voice. It’s the writing that’s closest to speech and the performative utterance. The Tweet/Dent is the combination of the speaker and the spoken. Identity is implied. When a micro-object speaks, does it remain an object like any other object?

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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.

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Sketching a TinyURL Strategy for Twitter

Etch a Sketch

Take a hypertext link, some ajax and a little Jquery and shake them up and you get a sample of what a transaction might look like in the Twitter stream. This is just a sketch, a visualization, of one way placing your cursor over a hyperlink that might expand into an offer that you could respond to with a single click.

In the sample Twitter page below, go to the first entry and place your cursor over the hyperlink in the first Tweet.

Add to the list of Twitter’s possible business models: a proprietary URL shortener that expands into a special offer. Just a thought.


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