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A Tale of Two Pies

February 21st, 2011 · No Comments

I peek at Twitter periodically, but haven’t done so steadily. In the last weeks, that’s changed. I’ve been glued to the Twitter feed on my iPod Touch since the democracy protests heated up in Egypt.

Ironically, I first signed up for Twitter some years back because I had heard a tale about a journalist who was arrested in Egypt. The story was that he managed to use Twitter to alert his editor and others outside the country. They then helped him get released. Was that story true, back then? It sure is credible now.

The process has attracted some powerful voices. Scanning Twitter feeds in the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered Twitter had emerged from an early stage I’ll call: “I’m cleaning the catbox right now,” to the major tool for democracy I hoped it might become.

The prompt for Twitter’s 140-character post now reads: “What’s happening?” And a lot is. I’ve read dispatches from Mother Jones Magazine, tweeting updates from the streets of Cairo, and later, from Wisconsin. I’ve found a a link to a YouTube video of Margaret Atwood’s keynote at the Tools of Change conference in New York, speaking about the future of publishing – a hot topic as Borders bookstores enter bankruptcy. I’ve found a link to a photo of Steve Jobs and other high tech titans at dinner with President Obama. I’ve studied up on book design on a linked page showing last year’s most favored font faces and even found a tweeter covering Wikileaks releases.

In short, Twitter is providing, in almost real time, the service editors and publishers – those who decided what was news or publishable – used to be fond of calling curation. But the curation’s in more hands now: It’s in the hands of the tweeters as they describe open cities and the shifting stakes ordinary people hold in the planet’s future. (And by ordinary people, I mean artists, writers, civil servants, laborers, bazaar vendors, bloggers and those who aren’t rich, people who read cereal boxes, news junkies and lovers of books).

Curation’s also in the hands of familiar magazines like Publisher’s Weekly, Salon, Granta, the New York Review of Books; think tanks like the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, and the writers’ organization, PEN. These have ventured to establish feeds among the flock of less traditional tweeters.

The curation’s in my hands, too, as I make cautious decisions about what to skip and whom to follow.

Twitter’s potential to unify a global or a local village was always there. In 2010, our local fire departments began tweeting announcements about which roads were closed – a real service in a storm-prone rural area, where trees smash down in the winter wind. This week, I spotted an icon for tweets covering emergencies in the San Francisco Bay Area and another for San Francisco local news. I saw a picture of the Bay Bridge repairs which will be rerouting traffic and a newsfeed piping up from Berkeley. I saw a photo of a protesting teacher singing outside Wisconsin’s state capital.

This is not your grandma’s 2008 Twitter. Or even your offspring’s. A technical novelty with a lot of promise has hatched into an vibrant, inclusive infrastructure.

In her brilliant keynote speech to the Tools of Change Conference, novelist Margaret Atwood explained the changing economic relationship between authors and publishers. Using her own hand-drawn image of a bulging publishing pie, she traced the writer’s shifting share from the days of illuminated manuscripts onwards.

This metaphor suggests to me an equally ancient pie image – the one from the nursery rhyme. In this, our Twitter era, the pie before the king has been pried open; the crust has split away. The birds are emerging, fluttering. They are spreading their wings. They are singing out. And what a sight it is!
© Shelley Buck, 2011. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of Floating Point: Endlessly Rocking off Silicon Valley, a memoir of living on a boat at the heart of the technical R & D world. You can find her on Twitter.

Tags: It's about time! · Science and Technology

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