Tools for Tech Thinking: Andy Crouch on Twitter

Culture Making by Andy CrouchIn the last post, we introduced McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media as a tool for understanding how technology affects us.

This time we’ll look at the questions Andy Crouch has developed in his book Culture Making. He suggests that we should distinguish between “cultural artifacts” (rituals or physical things we make) and the culture(s) that develop in and around them. On his website – www.culture-making.com – visitors apply his five questions to a variety of cultural artifacts, and we’ll apply them to Twitter to see what new things we can learn about it.

1. What does Twitter assume about the world?

  • Twitter – like many of today’s technologies – assumes a world that already has a lot of other technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
  • More importantly, Twitter assumes that lots of people are constantly connected to some kind of internet enabled device, but are physically disconnected from their friends.

2. What does Twitter assume about the way the world should be?

Twitter wants to make the world better by connecting these physically disconnected people. As Twitter puts it on their home page,

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

In other words, Twitter assumes friends should “stay connected” throughout the day and that the vehicle for this should be “quick, frequent” status messages.

3. What does Twitter make possible?

  • Twitter makes it possible to know a lot about what people are thinking and doing without actually being around them. One interesting result is that friends who see each other infrequently can be up to speed about one another’s life when they meet, allowing them to move quickly into deeper conversation.
  • Twitter also makes it possible to send and receive breaking information extremely quickly. Recently, earthquakes in China, forest fires in California, and a plane crash in Denver were first reported on Twitter by those experiencing the event.
  • Twitter users occasionally use their status to ask their follower for quick help with certain kinds of problems (usually technical).
  • Twitter also makes it possible to quickly organize an event or movement of people (see question 5).

4. What does Twitter make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

  • Theoretically, Twitter makes it impossible to be completely disconnected from one’s friends. However, if one were to follow a few hundred people and read every message that came in, Twitter would also make it impossible to do anything else. It would be impossible to do any meaningful activity (at work or in physically present relationships) while stopping to read a short message every few minutes. A quick Google search on “twitter overload” suggests is an all too common phenomenon.
  • Twitter users often find themselves thinking or saying, “I should so twitter about that.” In a way, Twitter makes it difficult to not consider every event as something worth mentioning on the Internet.
  • When a user has Twitter open for several hours and then closes it, it can be difficult not to wonder “What is everyone doing?” or “Did someone @reply me?” Much like the feeling of phantom waves after being in the ocean for a few hours, the waves of Twitter conversation can take time to die down.
  • Twitter also makes it impossible to share any more than 140 characters. Of course, one can still use other tools for more than 140 characters, but this limitation does shape the kinds of communication found on Twitter.

5. What new culture is created in response to Twitter?

Hundreds of new tools and websites (i.e. new “cultural artifacts”) have been created in response to Twitter, some to extend its functionality, others to help with the aforementioned “twitter overload,” and still others that copy its features.

In addition to new artifacts, a new kind of cultural/communal meeting called a Tweetup has been created by Twitter users. A recent example is Train Friday, an event organized in just a few days by Dallas-area Twitter, many of whom had never met in person.

Conclusions

Crouch’s five questions prove to be another useful tool for understanding not just “How can I use a technology?” but “What does it mean to use this technology?” and “How will this technology change me and the world?” Of course, this is not an exhaustive look at twitter or use of Crouch’s ideas, but I hope it gives you a good start.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

6 thoughts on “Tools for Tech Thinking: Andy Crouch on Twitter”

  1. Good questions! We’re learning new questions as well — have been exploring a new [i]Biblical worldview of high tech.[/i]**

    As I read your summary of Twitter, another “enabling” aspect surfaces: Twitter, like many virtual relationship tools, enables selective transparency–a powerful mask. By omission, users are enticed to imagine their “masked” friends are the real deal.

    **http://blogs.icta.net/slty/2009/02/04/another-way-1-of-2/ — Mind-bending for some, so for now you must be logged in to read the whole thing or comment.

    1. Pete, your comment on the “masking” is right on – good stuff, brother!

      Your blog looks like it has some great content, but I would recommend removing the login requirement and overlay animation. It seems like it will ultimately keep more people away…

      1. Thanks, John!

        Yes, the overlay and login do keep some away. It is worth asking: [i]what is the goal of a website?[/i]

        We’ve already blogged about the sign-in requirement. It’s not particularly controversial– some of the most popular sites on the planet (think [i]Facebook[/i]) have similar requirements, for similar reasons: creating a “safe” environment for interaction.

        The overlay is most definitely more controversial. I’ve written about it in the past but your question is a good reminder to blog about it now! Thanks.

        If you don’t mind, I’d like to consider adding a link to your site on ours. Not many are discussing these topics :)

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