Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Fundamental Shift In How We Communicate: George Siemens, Twitter And The Real-Time Web

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Are Twitter and the real-time web a fundamental shift in how we communicate? Or is the real-time web just a fad?

Photo credit: Chris Lamphear

While it is clear that the web has greatly simplified the way you and I consume information, now the problem is how to handle the huge amount of content that is produced.

Just a few decades ago your morning newspaper, TV news and a couple of phone calls with your friends would just suffice to keep you updated on your interests. But now the web has created new scenarios by tearing down the barriers of physical proximity.

People all around the world are forming an army of content producers that upload videos to YouTube, tweet interesting resources and report every sort of thing in an instant fashion, just as it happens.

While it is absolutely great to receive news in a way that old media could never do, rapid information tends also to be less accurate. A news story is frequently spitted out with no regard for the original sources and ends up being just useless buzz.

What is the real-time web then? Is it a revolution or just an involution?

To find out, I asked my good friend and learning researcher George Siemens to share his personal experience with Twitter and the real-time web tools.


A Fundamental Shift In How We Communicate: George Siemens, Twitter And The Real-Time Web

Duration: 7' 05''

Full English Text Transcription

George Siemens: With the real-time-web my experience at least has been that it is a very big conceptual change. But it is not something that is new by itself.

When I first started blogging, for example, the first thing it did to me was it challenged the notion of the newspaper. It challenged the notion that I had to go and get my information at a certain time of the day, in a certain format. No longer did I have to wait until six o'clock in the evening to catch the news program that told me what happened during the day. No longer did I have to wait for my morning newspaper at 7am to hear what happened in the US presidential election.

Now, especially as last several elections have taught us, through just following blogs and following online conversations, I can get a really good sense of what is happening in almost real-time on blogs. And it has even caused now newspapers to have started a huge blog component to their news sharing. Even sites like CNN's iReporter... they have started to incorporate comments that are shared with readers of the site.

Normally, this would be people who would only be readers. Now they become participants. Twitter, Jaiku, FriendFeed and other tools have kind of changed that, again.

I read recently that the big news events, so far at this year, have been first broadcast on Twitter. They have not been broadcast trough traditional media channels. That experience resonates perfectly with me with the Hudson river plane crash earlier this year.

It was within a minute or so there was an image of someone basically sitting in their apartment... watching out their window... obviously being completely startled to see this plane coming in... They grabbed, I guess, a cell phone, took a quick image of it and posted it on to Twitpic... It was that fast. Before the plane was even in the river, somebody was saying: "This is what is happening". It was on Twitter immediately and I followed the initial conversation exclusively on Twitter. The reason was: Nothing else at the time was covering it.

A second much more tragic incident was with the Air France flight that crashed, or disappeared I guess, just a few days ago.

I was sitting in an airport in Winnipeg and I brought up Twitterrific on my iPhone... I was just sort of flipping through and... the first announcement there was: "Plane missing... Air France" ...and so I immediately went to sites that I would normally trust: CBC News, CNN... nothing. There was nothing on these channels about this yet. I kept following the feed on Twitterrific... somebody had, of course, assigned the flight tag already to it... and someone said: "Go to this site to see the most updated news"... I started following the entire incident in about half an hour before I left.

It was only when I got to Toronto, two hours later, that I was able to log on to a computer and then check online to see what was happening. There was a bit of information on some of the main news sites. What was interesting though... I learned nothing new from these news sites.

If I am someone who has a huge interest obviously in what is happening and in the incident unfolding, Twitter is far superior to free information sharing purposes than some of these structured news sites. But that is around a significant event, that is around a once-in-a-lifetime or catastrophic events. That is not the only reason we use tools like Twitter for.

I use Twitter heavily just for sharing information. I will come across a link that I like... I do not want to write a blog post about it. I just want to say: "Hey, this is interesting" and so I quickly share with people who are part of my network. If they like it, great. If they do not like it, no problem.

I think it is the immediacy of Twitter, but also one of the unique things about Twitter is... One of the things that blogs never allowed me to do was to get to know people. You could know them somewhat through their ideas, but you would only know them intellectually or by emotions. They would say: "Oh, this really takes me off... I do not like... whatever..." Also in Twitter comes along and now I could know them by their life. What I mean by that is it became that morning water cooler conversation you used to have. The guy that would say: "I ate bagels... I love espresso... I enjoy this... I saw this movie last night, it was... whatever". Pieces of information that were too insignificant to share on a blog, but extremely personal, that helped me to form a relationship about a human being.

What that end has done, it has generated in a short period of time, a sense of social cohesion that I never had in seven / eight years of blogging.

Now I have found in less than a year on Twitter, that I know people that I follow on Twitter far better, because I know their likes and dislikes. Before I just knew their thoughts.

Now I get to know them as a person, as a personality. That has been one significant change as well. Otherwise...

This is one thing that I find for me at least, was to recognize that Twitter emulates the flow of information, which means...

I used to... I have blogs that I would read regularly... and I go to the site... or my blog reader... I would follow what had been happening... which meant that I could follow the development of a person's thought, consistently.

I would never miss a blog post by certain prominent bloggers... I would follow your work, Stephen Downes, D'Arcy Norman, Brian Lamb, Alec Couros, Janet Cleary who is with Brandon Hall... I would follow these people and I would always know when they had posted.

With Twitter you gain a real sense of how tremendous the information flow is. I have said before that I am OK following just one percent of what happens on Twitter.

I cannot follow Twitter the way I follow a blog. I Twitter, I sample.

When I am on Twitter I read what has happened in the last little bit... and I go on. I cannot keep track of what everyone has done, because there is too much being shared.

I found Twitter to be a big conceptual shift for me and I have had to recognize that I cannot keep track. I have had to be at peace with myself to only follow one percent of what is happened, and to recognize that it is OK... even that one percent is important to me, but I just do not have time to follow the full breadth of it.

Your question of: "What is about the real-time web then? Is it just a fad? Is it something..."

My response would be: Twitter may be a fad. It may come and go the way like many other tools have, but:

  • The notion of being able to connect socially, connect consistently,
  • The ability to connect informally without just being part of my work routine, or having read a blog post to talk about it,

that, I think, is far more than a fad.

I think that:

  • The real-time information,
  • The real-time awareness of what is happening,
  • The close connection with friends and family through a tool like Twitter...

...that, I think, is a fundamental shift in how we communicate.

Video interviews by Robin Good for MasterNewMedia. Article editing by Daniele Bazzano and Elia Lombardi. First published on September 25th, 2009 as "A Fundamental Shift In How We Communicate: George Siemens, Twitter And The Real-Time Web".

About George Siemens


George Siemens is the Associate Director in the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba. George blogs at where he shares his vision on the educational landscape and the impact that media technologies have on the educational system. George Siemens is also the author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and the book "Knowing Knowledge" where he develops a learning theory called connectivism which uses a network as the central metaphor for learning and focuses on knowledge as a way to making connections.

Robin Good -
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posted by on Friday, September 25 2009, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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