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Twitter: An Asymmetrical Chat Room

Back in July, I wrote a blog post titled “How Twitter has changed my life” in which I stated that the best way to explain Twitter to non-tech friends is to show, not tell. Giving examples of Twitter’s impact on my life has been far more effective than trying to describe the service in layman’s terms.

The blog post has had a lot of traffic in five months, and visitors spend an average of 5 minutes and 17 seconds on the page (for me, that’s a lot). That tells me they’re actually reading it.

Looking back on it now, I realize I left out something really important: images. I went on and on and on about it in writing, telling stories of the great things that have happened to me because of Twitter without actually showing what it looks like to me. Big oversight.

This morning, still lying in bed, I was catching up on overnight messages and thinking about how I’m a lurker in some conversations and an active participant in others. That’s when I realized the perfectly short-and-sweet way of communicating just what this crazy thing is: an asymmetrical chat room. Not everyone sees the same messages, but we see the ones that are important to us. It’s a universe of simultaneous conversations, only some of which we individually see and take part in.

At exactly 10:30am ET today, this is what my friends timeline looked like:

I sent out a tweet asking folks to take a screenshot of their friends timeline at exactly the same time, just to prove this point.

@Yoni‘s friends timeline is below. Notice that he sees the same tweets as I do from @theguigirl, @tbrunelle, and @DougMeacham. Yoni follows @mstephens7 and I don’t, so notice how his tweet appears at the top of Yoni’s timeline but not mine.
Most interestingly to me, both Yoni and I follow @mknell, but his tweet appears in Yoni’s timeline and not mine. That may be due to the fact that Yoni only follows 229 people while I follow 321 so my timeline is naturally more dense — or it could just be that the people I follow happen to be tweeting more this Saturday morning. Either way, I’d have to go one page back in order to see that tweet from Matt.

@Texburgher, who started following me a month ago but with whom I haven’t conversed yet, also follows @theguigirl, but he also follows a bunch of people that I don’t.

I got the @GeeksWhoGive friends timeline via @KaraLaFleur. They’re based in Philly. You can see they’re following @nancymk and @cspenn

…as is @scheuguy, who’s based in Boston:@Scheuguy also follows @awolk, who you can see appears in my friends timeline as well. See all the overlapping going on here?

Now take a look at @DeadLand‘s friend timeline. He follows me, but I don’t follow him. In fact, we had never conversed before today. As you can see, my tweet is there, but the rest of the tweets are from people that neither me nor my friends listed above follow.

If you use @Yoni‘s super cool TwInCommon, you’d find that of the people I follow, only 2 people follow @Deadland, and of the people @Deadland follows, only 1 follows me. I think it’s safe to say that @Deadland and I have the least possible intersecting “Twitterverses” (social circles) while still being connected.

I hope these images help to illustrate the inherent nature of Twitter and what makes it so fascinating. Right now, look out your window. You’re closed off from the hundreds of millions, billions of conversations that are going on simultaneously at this very moment. But on Twitter, you can hear a whisper, and you can follow a path, and suddenly you can be right in the middle of it.

Oh and by the way, follow me on Twitter :)

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  • http://www.texburgher.com Geoff Barnes

    Nice post. Interestingly, the overlapping twitter conversations as you're describing them are online conversational micro-equivalents of IRL relationship maintenance. We have both common and uncommon friends, and we engage them in conversation on different bases and with differing regularity. We've all got friends about whom we only hear from common friends or acquaintances. Some of us talk to our family more regularly than we talk to our employees or employers.

    What Twitter does, that IRL conversations cannot, is remember – for anyone interested to look – non-private exchanges between all these sometimes-overlapping-but-mostly-disparate parties.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      I love that distinction about remembering. You're so right. I try to tell people all the time that Twitter is just real life relationships finally digitally realized, but I think it takes a lot of personal use to see it that way. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Geoff!

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