Is Twitter reading my mind?

“I can’t see the point in Twitter, I mean who wants to read silly little updates about the mundane details of stranger’s lives?”

That is the response I get from a lot of people when I tell them I’m not on Facebook but that Twitter is all I need. I generally respond along the lines of, “You couldn’t be more wrong”

  1. For me it is a real-time news stream, constantly taking the global pulse and blood pressure like a bank of monitors on a hospital patient. If there is a story I will want to know about, I will probably hear it first on Twitter.
  2. It is a way of narrowing down the massive tides of the info-ocean to ensure that I the stuff I want comes to me and it therefore saves wasting time surfing, searching and sifting.
  3. It is a great way of networking with like-minded people worldwide.

Twitter has brought about an enormous shift in the way that I access and manage the information superhighway. But lately, I have been treating my Twitter feed with an air of superstition. A strange thing keeps happening. As the update bubble bursts on my desktop, it is uncanny how often the latest tweet seems to be relevant to exactly what I am thinking about at the time.

Is Twitter reading my mind?

No, of course not. This effect is actually a reflection of the fact that I tend to subscribe to tweets from people who have similar interests to me and are tending to be thinking (and tweeting) about the same sorts of things. The feed of information is like a stream that meanders more-or-less alongside the path of my life. It is never far away for me to dip my toe in, take a deep draught or go for a dip. If it starts to get too muddied with irrelevancies then I just need to adjust my following profile accordingly.

Bell Curve
Image by hardeep.singh via Flickr

On reflection, a twitter user’s stream is anologous to many other things in life. The content has a quality of appearing random but is ,nevertheless, being governed by underlying bias and constraints. The “content” or “stimulus” of our lives is fed back from the choices we have made to live where we do and to do what we do – we shouldn’t be surprised by happy coincidences, we have consciously or unconsciously positioned ourself in their path.

Information on the Bell Curve

Information filtered through a social networking medium such as Twitter should resemble a normal distribution; that is a “bell curve” with relevant and useful stuff being clustered at the higher frequency of occurence. Of course there is the odd anomalous piece of text which is the exception that proves the rule (coming from one of the long tails of the curve).

I had a conversation with a physicist this afternoon who is working on generating “random” numbers to model the position of atoms in a cloud of atoms and suddenly I was seeing this effect everywhere. There is something very satisfying about experiencing the world in this “random yet governed” manner and artificial systems that emulate this are most likely to work for us in a satisfying way.

Selective Breeding

Here is another way of looking at it as a way of imitating the processes of nature. A twitter user selectively breeds their feed using a similar algorithim to natural selection. It is an information eco-system. Some tweets don’t survive, we select against them by ignoring them or unfollowing their breeders, other ones we propagate by retweeting or by subscribing to their source and so the river runs on, diverse yet personalised.

I have a similar experience listening to music via LastFM. I love the fact that I have no idea what tune is coming next but I can be assured that it will be based on my listening preferences in the past. It is the same “governed randomness” that makes it the perfect sound-track for my life.

As the the amount of information available on the web grows exponentially in the coming years with virtually no quality control, the only way we can possibly keep afloat is by using the kinds of organic, ecological processes that produce a personalised and normalised output and keep us happy with their apparent synchronicity.

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