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Real-Time Social Networking

by Paul Rapp on June 13, 2012

Facebook vs. Twitter. They don’t really compete, but I’ve always thought about them in competitive terms, probably because of how they compete for my time.

A year or so ago, one of my favorite people said I was the most “successful” Facebook poster she’d ever seen. I’d never thought about FB in terms of success or failure, although there is a certain charge to posting some stupid photograph and racking up 40+ “likes.” Facebook is just a natural extension of how I’ve used the Internet from the beginning—for sharing weird stuff with friends. My first big haul was in 1995 when I stumbled onto a Russian dating site that featured women who were missing a limb. Page after page of attractive women, dressed nicely and looking demure, but lacking something in the arm or leg department. Under each picture was a caption that simply gave a first name and a weight: “Svetlana, 150 kg.” I was astonished and immediately e-mailed the link to everyone on my small but growing e-mail list. About 15 minutes later my brother e-mailed me back: “How many pounds is 150 kg?” That was it. I was hooked.

For years, when something suitably odd or inexplicable passed by, I’d grab it and forward it on to whomever I thought would get a charge out of it. Then a few years ago I signed on to Facebook, mainly because it was exploding on college campuses and being written about in the IP trades as some kind of phenomenon. It sounded kind of dumb and useless, but I figured it was my professional obligation to at least be familiar with this social-media thing. I got sucked in immediately, and the rest is history. Instead of combing through my e-mail list to figure out who should get what, I hit one button and everybody gets it. This does mean a little oversharing, but that’s OK. People can, and do, comment, then comment on comments, etc. It’s brilliant. Friend me. Dare you.

My friend who mentioned my “success” on Facebook added that I really should be on Twitter, which she said would be better for me professionally. I’ve never warmed up to Twitter, which is probably a good thing. I don’t need to spend more time, OK, make that waste more time, on the web “communicating” with “friends.” I’ve preferred FB for a number of reasons; a big one is the visual aspect. You can post pictures and videos to FB; with Twitter, all you can do is post those butt-ugly little mini-link things. In FB you can write sentences, paragraphs, use big adjectives, proper punctuation, etc. Twitter’s 140-character limit forces a cribbed sort of unattractive nonlanguage, lacking of style or elegance, and with the unsightly overuse of @’s and #’s. Facebook, even with its maddening aspects (which I bitch about here now and then) is more entertaining and infinitely more aesthetically appealing.  Twitter’s also vaguely creepy. As a general matter, I’d rather have “friends” I don’t know than somebody I don’t know “following me.”

I see that, in the three years I’ve had a Twitter account, I’ve posted all of 60 tweets. The vast majority of those were at a Future of Music conference a few years ago where I was conversing with other conferees. Twitter’s great for that real-time stuff, and that’s what I use it for. When big news is breaking, I go to Twitter. I’ll find feeds (or strings, or threads, or whatever the hell they’re called) close to the source (and I always find them) and basically watch the news unfold. If there’s a natural disaster, a riot, an uprising, a protest, the best place to learn what’s happening right now is on Twitter.

And apparently Twitter is about to capitalize on this. It was announced this week that Twitter is adding editorial staff whose job it will be to make it easier for passive users to zero in a topic or an event.  This is one brilliant move, and should reduce the often-frustrating stumbling around that’s involved in finding the relevant Twitter feeds for real-time events.

This will be yet another nail in the coffin for traditional news media. If you can watch the news as it happens, you don’t need to have somebody else tell you about it the next day. When everybody’s a potential reporter, then there’s no longer going to be much of a need for professional reporters. The action’s going to be in curating, filtering, and interpreting. And if they’re not teaching that in J-school already, they’d better start.

Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property attorney who leads a hermit-like life in the Berkshire mountains, and whose Twitter name is paulrappdotcom. Don’t bother following him because he isn’t going anywhere.