Thursday New Tools Feature: Twitter Tracking

It's been a big few weeks for Twitter, which the New York Times technology section yesterday called "the new killer app, the new cool kid on the block," in an article about Facebook having "Twitter Envy."

Last week, San Francisco Mayor and friend of NDN Gavin Newsom announced his candidacy for Governor of California via a tweet from his iPhone before announcing on YouTube or Facebook. Newsom already had 240,000 followers on Twitter at the time of his announcement; he now has 332,000. Here's what Simon had to say in the San Francisco Chronicle about Newsom's tweet:

"The way that Gavin Newsom announced will become standard practice in the post-Obama era of politics," said Simon Rosenberg, who heads NDN, which studies Democratic policy issues. "We're seeing a reinventing of politics ... and in a state as wired as California, and a campaign as expensive as this one will be, the candidates who can figure out how to tap into the power and passion of their supporters will have an advantage."

Oprah also joined Twitter last week, raising traffic 43 percent and almost instantly bringing more than a million new users to the service.

Twitter's also been gaining some attention this week in connection with the swine flu; I wrote earlier this week about how Twitter was being used to track the spread of the virus, and today the top 3 terms on Twitter are Swine Flu, #swineflu, and H1N1. This is not just a gimic, either; real-time monitoring can make a big difference in preparedness and early detection, so this is one case where I think Twitter is a legitimately useful tool. A quick example of how keeping track of what people are talking about helps in these kind of situations -- Wired today reports that, had they been looking for it, Google could have caught the swine flu before the news broke in the media:

Google’s search data may have been able to provide an early warning of the swine flu outbreak — if the company had been looking in the right place.

Last week, at the request of the Centers for Disease Control, Google took a retroactive look at its search data from Mexico. And there the team found a pre-media bump in telltale flu-related search terms (you know, “influenza + phlegm + coughing”) that was inconsistent with standard, seasonal flu trends.

However, even given its meteoric rise in popularity, and its interesting potential applications, many remain ambivalent towards Twitter. I've written before about how I myself am of two minds about this trend, and that seems to an attitude reflected in many other places, from the Daily Show and Colbert Report to Wired and the New York Times; last week, on the same day, in the same section, there were articles in the Times entitled "What Annoys Me About Twitter" and "Why I Am Obsessed With Twitter." The day before, Maureen Dowd wrote an especially snarky column in which she stated that she would "rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over [her] and red ants eat out [her] eyes than open a Twitter account."

Interestingly, at the same time as all this Tweeting was taking place, Adbusters was having "Digital Detox Week," where it encouraged readers to the unthinkable: unplug. Say good-bye to Twitter and Facebook. Turn off your TV, iPhone and Xbox. For seven days, reconnect with the natural world and the people around you. You’ll be amazed at how the magic creeps back into your life. Don’t be afraid and don’t find excuses, just take the plunge and see what happens.

To convince people to do so, Adbusters cited a fascinating article about how the internet is rewiring our brains. I don't want to spoil the article for you, because it's really good and you should actually read it (in its entirety!), but here's a snippet:

We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We’ll become “pancake people,” with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there’s little need to contain information within our heads when it’s so easy to find with a mouse click or two.

I don't consider myself a luddite, and I spend a lot of my time here explaining how technology can make our lives better, but we do now spend one third of our lives in front of a screen, and I certainly notice the effects myself; I find it much harder to read full books or even long passages than I used to. While I agree with Simon that Twitter has great potential for politics, and is quickly becoming an essential part of the New Tools toolkit, I also worry that it exemplifies and magnifies many of the negative qualities of an always-on, technology-obsessed culture that craves instant gratification.