Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Twitter and "Every Minute Accounted For"

I've been using Twitter for the last several weeks and I find it interesting, though I'm not yet at the point where I see breakthrough applications for it. They may be out there; I'm just not experienced enough to see them.

(For the uninitiated, Twitter is a micro-blogging tool that allows you to send 140-character notes from your PC or mobile phone, and for others to view them. You are asked a simple question: "What are you doing?" and your answer is broadcast to the community. You can also subscribe to others' Tweets.)

It's such a simple and open tool that the possibilities for using it are almost limitless. It may go without saying that most of the applications will be better at wasting time than improving productivity. Yet, Twitter has real potential to increase connectedness.

For example, I work with a team of people that are spread out across the US, UK and Ireland, and frequently shift from one location to another. It would be helpful to have Tweets updating where they are so that I can know when to call them (given that there is a 6-hour difference between Chicago and England), or when they're in transit.

You can imagine a million such applications. And right now hundreds (thousands?) of people are doing just that.

I find it fascinating that answering the question "What are you doing?" over and over again can create a life narrative--an autobiography of trivia, as it were. Which reminded me of an article I read in Harper's Magazine more than ten years ago about a guy, Robert Shields, who kept a moment-to-moment diary for more than twenty years ("Every Minute Accounted For" by David Isay--access free with magazine subscription). A sample is below:

10:00-10:05 I groomed my hair with a scrub brush
10:05-10:10 I fed the cat with tinned cat food
10:10-10:20 I dressed in black Haband trousers, a pastel-blue Bon Marche shirt, the blue Haband blazer with simulated silver buttons, both hearing aids, eyeglasses, and the 14-degree Masonic ring.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One: Shields could really have benefited from Twitter. And two: is Twitter growing more Robert Shieldses? How many people out there are notating their lives down to the minute and sharing them with the world?

The last paragraph of the Harper's article poignantly explains why anyone might want to leave such a record. (It is from a passage in the diary where Shields describes an interview with Isay, the author.)

I said I did not know why I kept it, especially since it is doubtful if anyone would ever read it. It is a compulsion. [Isay] asked whether I intended to keep it up until I die and I said yes. It is impossible for me to give any motivation for it, except that when I am gone, the words that I have written will be the only thing that survives.

Another article about Robert Shields is available here.

Related post:
Everyday stories hold great insight

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