(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)
I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.
But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.
The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:
The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold. The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses. Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable. And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.
The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.
The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?
So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.
Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.
All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.
Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.
And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.
Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath.
The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.
That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.
Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.
So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.
I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.