John Tenniel’s illustration reproduced on Wikipedia
There are two ways I think about the development of twitter. One is to think of it as an extension of the status messages people set in instant messaging applications like MSN Messenger. Instead of the bland ‘online’ or ‘away’ followed by one’s screen moniker people started changing their names to convey more about what was happening, or just for humorous reasons. This works, for people on your buddy-list but as we saw with the growth of blogging and live journal it’s often easier to broadcast than to choose laboriously which friends should see something. This sense that twitter was all about broadcasting brief status messages is made obvious in Jack Dorsey’s original sketch for the service that became twitter.
Twitter is not alone in providing an easy and effective way to broadcast your status to your friends. Most social network sites also provide this facility. Facebook does, and it provides an application that will automatically copy any status updates (called tweets) that you put on twitter onto Facebook.
That brings me to the other way of thinking about twitter. Twitter tweets are limited to the size of an SMS message so that the updates can be sent naturally from mobile-phones. That would be 160 characters but I think because of smaller SMS sizes in the USA it’s an 140 character limit. So one can also see twitter as the origin of micro-blogging, not just using tweets for status updates but to use them for anything you can blog about in 140 characters. This artful use of a status broadcast service lives happily alongside status updates, because the distinction between a status updates and other things one might blog about is indistinct, but recently the difference caught me out.
Marcia Adair (aka The Omniscient Mussel) ran her #operaplot competition for the second time. I missed it first time but this time had a star judge and great prizes. The idea is to summarise opera plots as tweets, i.e. to fit the entire plot into 140 characters including the #operaplot tag. You can browse through the amazing results on twitter, or collated into a long list by The Omniscient Mussel here: http://theomniscientmussel.com/2009/05/operaplot-entries-round-2/ and I posted all mine in a blog post earlier. Lots of the summaries people came up with were funny, several limericks, some summaries of the whole ring cycle, etc. For one humorous one I thought I’d do the first opera I remember going to see, Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at the English National Opera. I went with my Mum back in 1984. Now if I’ve got the date right I was 19 at the time and my strongest memory is of the huge sand stage on which the new city that Akhnaten builds was slowly constructed in miniature. Oh, and that Akhnaten was a hermaphrodite. He’s sung by a counter-tenor, but as a young lad I didn’t know that so all I saw was a topless soprano on stage in a loincloth. Imagine my surprise when the loincloth comes of (to make way for ceremonial robes if I recall correctly) and he’s definitely a man! Anyway this could all be my memory playing tricks on me, but here’s the 130 character plot summary I cam up with for Akhnaten and posted to twitter:
Singer with gorgeous tits and loincloth builds new city to new god on sandpit stage. Off comes loincloth and there’s a willy too!
I was immersed in the fun of The Omniscient Mussel’s #operaplot quiz so I failed to remember that this tweet of mine would be picked up and would automatically become my Facebook status. I’m sure you can imagine the consternation of my present (and past) colleagues that I’m connected to on Facebook!