tweet ontology

First the background. Minor kerfuffle among the techies: Google has recently announced a project called the Google App Engine, which allows the easy creation of web applications and provides hosting for them as well. Google had some of its employees create a few demonstration applications and is featuring them them in an App Gallery. But one of the apps, an online group chat environment called HuddleChat, was an absolute clone of an already existing product, 37signals’s Campfire. Arguments ensued, some saying that Google can do whatever it wants to do because competition is good, others saying that ripping off every detail of someone else’s work is bad. John Gruber, who writes Daring Fireball, possibly the most widely-read Mac-centric blog, opted for the latter position. (and by the way, Google has since taken HuddleChat down.)

And here’s where I made my mistake: I follow Gruber on Twitter, and impulsively tweeted him to agree with his stated position. Soon thereafter Gruber pointed the whole Twitter world — he has over eight thousand followers — to my tweet. How did I learn this? I got back to office after teaching a class to find that about thirty people had started following my tweets in the past hour, and I had about thirty tweets directed to me, most of them saying that I’m an idiot.

Whoa. An interesting Twitter moment, and not an especially pleasant one. My first reaction was to send out an APB tweet warning people away. But why was that my first response? I think because until that moment I had thought of Twitter as a largely private — or rather semi-private, or semi-communal — form of communication. I was tweeting for friends and acquaintances, and while I knew that other people could listen in if they wanted to, I didn’t expect that anyone would want to, or would even be likely to find me in the vast Twitterverse. It was like enjoying a dinner with a bunch of friends and then having people from nearby tables pull up their chairs and join in. Disorienting. In Cardinal Newman’s terms, I had been giving notional assent to the public character of Twitter, but suddenly I was forced to give real assent.

I don’t think I have an argument to make here, I’m just recording an experience. But I think it perhaps says something about the plasticity of certain new technologies, the way they lend themselves to multiple and varying uses. The question for me is whether I can easily go back to thinking of Twitter the way I did before yesterday. My new and more public Twitter-awareness isn’t as much fun.