Twitter Is Redefining “Attention”

July 13th, 2010

When the telephone was invented, The New York World condemned it in an editorial. “Of what use is such an invention?” they asked. Why would someone want to speak to someone who isn’t there? Of course, history proved that people would find many uses for it, perhaps not what Bell or The World ever could have imagined. So when I learn about new technology, I kind of want to be on the right side of history. Perhaps what it takes is to make sure the question is a question instead of a dismissal. If The World had asked, “What uses will people find for a telephone?” they may have started to see the banal and wonderful things we do with a phone.

It’s with this in mind that I approached the practice of tweeting. Instead of dismissing it with the question, “Why would anyone want Twitter?” I decided to explore with honest curiosity… “Why do people use Twitter?” Instead of a dismissive “Who cares about my tweets?” I decided to ask, “If there is someone who cares about my tweets, who is that?”

I can’t say I’ve pinned down an answer. But I’ve had some fun trying. It seems that Twitter is a game of attention. As I spend my meditation practice on a quest to understand what attention is, what it does and how to use it, I think that mindfully exploring the question of Twitter has had deep implications.

The Diamond Sutra says, “Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.” A bubble or a cloud is not, in essence, a complete and separate thing. But I think it would be a misreading of the sutra to say that Buddha meant we should not pay attention to these phenomena as they come up.

People who use Twitter sometimes complain about other people’s tweets, particularly when there are a lot of them at once. This only is a problem if we think of the tweets as having weight, having an essence, being a thing. But like all phenomena in this world, they’re bubbles.

We can think of communications in two ways: an inbox or a stream. Twitter’s overwhelming if we think of it as an inbox, of a demanding pile of messages that are gathered into a backlog until we can catch up with them. But Twitter isn’t designed to be that, and it doesn’t work like that. It works like a stream; rather than trying to track down what passed in the stream yesterday, to pay attention you see what’s in the stream right now. The stream is useful not because every message gets attention from every reader, but because there are always messages and always readers.

Ganges boatman

I was about to say that new technology is moving toward more streams and fewer inboxes, but then I thought of television. My view of television has changed from a stream to an inbox. Rather than watching what’s on right now, when I go to watch I look for what’s in my lineup of things to watch–and that allows me to pay a different kind of attention to it. So maybe the answer is that we learn there are many more kinds of attention, and the more we know about them the more we know how to use them.

3 Responses to “Twitter Is Redefining “Attention””

  1. encyclops says:

    A stream can still be polluted if there’s too much of a bad thing flowing through it. If you find you’re following someone who says a lot of things that aren’t very much fun to read — for example, a play-by-play reaction to the World Cup — you have to work a lot harder to find the interesting stuff being drowned out.

    Obviously one possible solution here is to stop following that person, but the pollution comes and goes, and in the meantime there’s no clean water to drink unless you filter it.

  2. What’s interesting is that Twitter is set up to make that a mostly bloodless transaction–simply, if you don’t value discussion of the World Cup, then don’t follow people who discuss the World Cup. The format and terminology of Twitter doesn’t emphasize “friendship” in the way that others do. And yet, our habitual social response isn’t bloodless–we either feel too guilty to terminate a social connection when it no longer serves, or we feel like there needs to be some personal judgment, to tell the person, “I’m sorry, if you’re going to keep tweeting all the time about that, I have to stop following you.” I find that illogical, but then again, that’s human social contact for you.

  3. encyclops says:

    Like I said, the pollution comes and goes. If someone’s usual topic is Doctor Who, and I want to read what they say about Doctor Who, I’m not going to unfollow them while the World Cup is going on and then remember to refollow them again later, partly because they ARE talking about our shared interest during that time, and partly because I would have to pay attention to the World Cup to know when it was over and I should refollow that person. It’s a passing problem, but during that time it IS a problem, so it’s not about terminating a social connection so much as needing to suppress intermittent bursts of traffic in order to enjoy the whole feed. It’s more WORK to maintain a stream I want to dip into, and the same person can be contributing very positively and very negatively depending on the situation.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think what you’re saying about inbox vs. stream is a really crucial mind-shift, one that’s especially challenging (but very necessary) for someone like me who doesn’t like to miss things. I’m just saying that there might be better tools for maintaining the quality of a stream than Twitter, but no one has built them yet.

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