You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Retweeting: The Ultimate Comment Compliment?

Regular online comments can sometimes be responded to: occasionally some blog systems allow users to “reply” to previous comments, or commenters simply take it upon themselves to respond to an earlier remark. But Twitter makes commenting on other comments much simpler and more direct. It even provides you with an easy, simple way to include the original comment in your comment. That’s the retweet.

A retweet is just that: a re-posting of another user’s tweet. It’s usually prefaced with RT (for retweet) and includes the @handle of the original commenter (Twitter user). If space allows, someone may insert their own commentary in a retweet, but 140 characters can be a bit tight for that. Still, the retweet is the ultimate comment: a comment on someone else’s comment. A meta-comment, if you will. But it packs a lot of information into 140 characters, including links to the original comment, the name of the original commenter and the retweeter, not to mention what’s actually being said.

This retweet phenomenon has become an amazing way of sharing relevant information quickly. Not everyone can follow everyone on Twitter–there are too many millions of folks to keep track of–but there seems to be almost a “six degrees of separation” phenomenon wherein any popular tweet can get to you pretty easily and remarkably fast. Thus the retweet as comment is almost less a “comment” than a platform for spreading information. It’s not just about the initial idea, it’s about the ease with which it spreads.

There are a number of ways to look at retweeted material. One is to check out the most retweeted people on Twitter. Are these people experts in their field? Do they have the most followers? Are they tweeting on popular topics? What is it about their commentary that makes it spread?

MrZand, a math teacher from Washington DC with a mere 500 followers, is currently on the top 10 retweeted folks according to Retweetrank. Why is this? He tweets often, and many of his tweets are about the topical Iran elections, and the unfortunate killing of a woman named Neda in them. Perhaps it’s being topical that makes you retweeted?

Maybe not. ZnaTrainer posts mostly inane quotations about love and smiling. Arguably topical at all times, but being perpetually topical is almost like not being topical at all. Yet she’s in the Retweet Top 10. Deservedly?

One attribute that almost everyone in the RTT10 has in common: they retweet others’ tweets a lot. Gotta play the game to win the game, right? Perhaps the takeaway message is, the more active you are on Twitter and the broader the audience to which your tweets have relevance, the more you can be retweeted.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Nobody Wants to Dial Telephones: Does Anyone Want to Read Comments?

Yesterday, I lamented the marginalia of commentary, the lack of impact that most comments tend to have. It seems possible that commentary could do so much for us: instigate debate, give rise to new ideas, realize the full potential of the internet. But it doesn’t, at least not in most cases.

To determine why that is, maybe we can investigate the purpose of comments. I referred yesterday to the definition of “comment,” which involves explaining or criticizing an idea. Online comments can certainly do this. But due to their location online, in a space where everyone can see and respond, they seem to take on another dimension: of participating in a conversation.

But what if not every commenter wants to do this? Well, would-be commenters certainly have options: they can email the author instead. They can bring up the subject with a friend in person. They can make a phone call. They can write about it on their own blogs. Nobody has to comment.

In Being Digital, a book from the days before Google and Twitter (hard to remember those, huh?) Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab posits that nobody wants to dial a telephone; people just want to reach people. So do people really want to comment? Perhaps not–they just want to reach people.

So what are some alternatives to traditional online commentary? Twitter replies have become a popular one, enabling folks to show that they read and appreciated (or didn’t appreciate) something without investing the time to craft a lengthy comment. Twitter also offers the opportunity to reply directly to a person/article/idea, or to send your response only to your followers (or anyone else who happens to find your words, perhaps due to a search or a retweet). As with Negroponte’s telephone analogy, no one necessarily wants to Tweet, exactly–but people do want to connect. Twitter has become another, often effective, way for people to do this.

The telephone analogy could be taken further. The telephone reaches out, directly, to someone specific. (In so doing, it’s often annoying: it’s kind of nice that you can instant message with multiple folks at once, while we still haven’t really figured out how to multi-task with phone conversations, except for perhaps in conference calls.) The thing about Twitter–the thing that comments in general really lack–is its directness. But, like instant messaging, you can essentially be “direct” with a lot of people at once. You’re not stuck Tweeting at only one person for a while. You can Tweet in multiple directions, on multiple topics, in the space of just 140, 280, 420, or more characters.

It seems, then, that the directionality–the intended recipient–of commentary might matter just as much as the content of it. What is the best way to target comments? Should all comments be shared? People complain about oversharing on Twitter, but there’s an easy way to combat that: don’t follow such folks. In this sense, Twitter’s other revolutionary capability is that its directionality is multidirectional. Not only can you send a message to somebody, that person can choose whether to receive it and how to respond to it. Additionally, other people can see that message, and respond, but with the knowledge that the message/comment was directed in a specific way. And, most importantly, and unlike phone conversations or even instant messages, people can ignore you. A bummer if they do, but that in itself sends a message.

Thus Twitter appears simple, but it really contains a number of important capabilities that were missing from online communication, or present in different and unintegrated ways. By putting together public, targeted conversations with the ability to choose modes of responding, Twitter has opened up a whole new form of commentary online. And it’s not that we want to Twitter: it’s that we want to reach people AND let others know who we are reaching. That’s really something important, and something that it was harder to do before this tool.

Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

Too Temporary? Why Comments May Not Be All They’re Cracked Up To Be

Commentary is crucial, but it can also be ephemeral. There have been numerous instances of late–Iran elections/Neda, Farrah Fawcett’s death (quickly usurped by Michael Jackson’s death), Walter Cronkite’s death, and so on–that have attracted huge numbers of online comments or, specifically, tweets. However, what’s the power of that commentary, if it’s not harnessed? Does it just fade away and become irrelevant? Or could there be something to tracking and talking about it in more detail?

ReadWriteWeb recently analyzed Iran commentary, attempting to put the commentary into specific groups. Clusters are identified around Ahmadinejad, Khameni, Basij, and other topics; RWW says the research indicates comments moved “from a dispute over the election process involving Ahmadinejad (shown in pink) to a dispute over authority involving the supreme leader Khamenei (shown in red).”

This kind of comment compartmentalization could potentially be valuable. Right now, Twitter can tell us trending topics–but there are more and more services developing that tell you even more about said topics. Some of these come in the form of group-based services (such as Tweetizen) that allow you to form a group of topics that might interest you, while others report data ranging from number of tweets on topics to what those topics actually mean (a godsend for those confused by acronyms that rise to the top of the trends). Tweets, more then blog comments–probably primarily because of their more standardized form and platform–are easily analyzed for content and meaning.

Not only that, they are easily shared. Perhaps one of the best, or at least favorite (for many folks), features of Twitter is the ability to “retweet” tweets that users find funny, informative, or just plain interesting. In retweeting, a comment (in the form of a tweet) gains additional influence and shelf life. In theory (though not often in practice), a phenomenal tweet’s significance could linger on indefinitely as it is retweeted by person after person who finds the information important. In practice, retweets spread surprisingly rapidly, likely due to the very instantaneous nature of Twitter.

As RWW puts it, “Twitter allows these social structures to become data structures by means of the ‘RT’ convention. And this in turn allows us to perform extremely powerful computations on the social structures that underlie the flow of information.” Analysis of tweets may seem inane, but it may actually be the future. The power of Twitter is the power of analysis–and the analysis of data is just as important as the sharing of it.

Filed under: Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

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