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The Asymptotic Twitter Curve


We've all been at the brain bandwidth breaking point for the last five years. Email is out of control. IM'ing sucks up half the day. And how can we not read our RSS feeds, post to our blogs, and check our stats? If my Cingular cell phone sends me a MySpace alert and I'm not there to get it, do I exist? But email, IMs, social networking, and blogs are nothing compared to the thing that may finally cause time as we know it to cease. I'm talking, of course, about Twitter.

For those of you who don't know about Twitter, it has one purpose in life--to be (in its own words)--A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? And people answer it. And answer it. And answer it. Over and over and over again, every moment of every hour, people type in a word, fragment, or sentence about what they're doing right then. (Let's overlook the fact that there can be only one true answer to the question: "I'm typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now... which is typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now." Or something else that makes my head hurt.)

Twitter, it seems, is the solution to the one problem we all have: it's just too damn hard to keep updating our blog every few minutes to tell the world what we're doing at that very moment. Twitter lets you make tons of nano-posts (postlets?) to a kind of nano-blog (bloglet?) And indeed, it's every bit as stimulating as it sounds. Here's an ACTUAL SAMPLE from earlier today:

(names removed to protect the utterly bored):

"Missed the bus again."

"Attempting to figure out why the cat is hiding."

"I'm signing off."

"On bus going in to the office."

"Scanning pictures of 12-year old girls in mini skirts..."

"Going to bed now."

"Thinking about eating."

"About to start a conference call."

"I'm watching my dog chase the reflection from his tags and wish I had a laser pointer!"

"Feeling so bored at work I'm going to die. Wonder if it is my attitude or the work."

"Washing hair. Fetching groceries."

And there you have it. But don't take my word for it... go to the Twitter Public Timeline and find out what people are doing... right now. Right this very moment.

I'm making fun of Twitter, but this isn't really a funny topic. Moore's law for the brain doesn't quite work. We're evolving much, much, much too slowly... Brain 2.0 isn't coming anytime soon. And we're all feeling the enormous weight of not being able to keep up. We can't keep up with work. We can't keep up with our social life. We can't keep up with the industry, our hobbies, our families. We can't keep up with current events. We'll never read a fraction of those books on our list. And we are hurting.

Worst of all, this onslaught is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.

Lots of people are talking about this, and perhaps nobody more eloquently than Linda Stone. Linda talks about the problem of Continuous Partial Attention. She says:

"To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking."

Read more on her wiki!

But this whole problem is also tied up with the notion of Alone Time, something Jason Fried believes is absolutely essential to both creativity and productivity. I strongly suggest reading his post on How to Shut Up and Get to Work (don't forget to look at the comments).

Joel Spolsky also appreciates the value of Alone Time, and makes sure that those working for him have a chance--and a space--in which to think without distractions.

And finally, a lot of other people are musing about the effects of Twitter, including Kevin Tofel who wonders the same thing I do--Is it Too Much Information? (The answer, Kevin, is YES. I know enough about the brain and learning to recognize that sucking the last bit of mystery and curiosity out of our lives is not a good thing.) Also Frank Paynter, who talks about the distinction between multi-tasking and Linda's Continuous Partial Attention, and where Twitter might fit in to this.

A few of my earlier posts on this (pre-Twitter, when I still had hope) were:
Multitasking makes us stupid? (a follow on to the earlier Your brain on multitasking) and The Myth of "keeping up" (which is where I created the book picture I re-used in yesterday's big book list).

Also, this post helps explain some of the science behind why we really ARE addicted to checking IM, blogs, email, and now Twitter. The most important thing, I think, is to stop being in denial about the profound impact this is having on us and those around us. Until we stop seeing interruptions as something that happens TO us, and understand the role we play in causing them, we're in big trouble.


Fortunately, there's help... a kind of 12-step program for geeks who want to stay connected but also get something done (and without losing our minds completely). While you're out surfing, you might as well check out the tips and techniques on 43 Folders, Lifehacker, and Steve Pavlina.

So, OK, yeah, I stretched a LOT on my Twitter curve (I'm determined to make an asymptotic curve once a year whether I need to or not, and I hadn't met my quota for '06). Obviously the time between interruptions is not asymptotically approaching zero.

Or is it? ; )

[cue end-of-world sci fi music, with maybe a voice-over of Terrence McKenna discussing Time Wave Zero]

[UPDATE: Against my will, I found myself reading the Twitter timeline again after I posted this (I told you it was addicting) and had just about the biggest laugh of the week when I found people Twittering about... this post on Twittering. ; ) I love you guys (Sarah and Arabella you made my night!) And I can think of dozens of reasons why Twitter is a wonderful thing (like for separated families, etc.) But talk about an event horizon... Twitter is the new Crackberry.]

Posted by Kathy on December 7, 2006 | Permalink


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OK, who would take the time to actually stop doing what they're doing to post to this site? You would have to be pretty bored, or really geeky to take time to go to the site, login, and post what you're doing. (While looking at Twitter)...hey that guys in my town...I'll have to catch that movie later...chasing a cat?...where's this person at?...I've been there...working on php?..wonder what site?

Never mind. :)

Posted by: Jeff Utecht | Dec 7, 2006 10:30:04 PM

I think this really emphasizes how much more important personal filters are going to be. It's a simple matter to subscribe to all these streams of interruption (open your email app, set your RSS reader to refresh every 10 minutes), the tough part is filtering out all of the things that you "care" enough about. How many RSS articles do you skip over after reading the title? Matt of 37signals recently went over the RSS issue specifically. I'd like a filter that learned ("oh, everytime an rss article has the word 'fish' in it, it gets opened/read"). I've done some work with neural networks, and it shouldn't be all that tough - I just wonder who will be the first one to do it right.

Posted by: Jake Ingman | Dec 7, 2006 10:46:48 PM

Right on Kathy. I was just thinking about this today. There's a Zen book that talks about time as our most precious resource. To that end we have to choose to spend our time on things that add value to our lives. The choice is to spend time and not just waste time with value-less activities. When I am plugged in I am feeding myself with the value added activities (like reading your WONDERFUL blog) that advance my personal goals. When I am not plugged in I try very much to just 'be' in the moment, with my young sons or my wife, with my books, with my running, etc. Its funny and I dont believe it to be coincidence that our wonderful pattern matching brains make connections between important patterns when we allow ourselves to be truly present. Its like the laws of attraction that Steve Pavlina talks about. You've got to strike a balance between being actively engaged and connected and then doing what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls active inactivity.

When I read your posts, when I post, etc, I see ideas that have coalesced, patterns that have manifested into something cogent. Expressing those ideas is both joyful and somewhat cathartic. But you need the downtime to allow proper germination. I also see shades of what Dewey spoke of in Art as experience. He talked of conceiving an idea, developing it over time like some sort of aesthetic gestation period, and then finishing it to consummate the experience. He argued that these consummate experiences where the only true arts. The key to it was the cycle of conception, gestation, consummation. Without gestation, there's no consummation and we're left with simple consumption. Twitter then seems like the fast food restaurant in the marketplace of ideas.

Posted by: Greg B | Dec 7, 2006 10:47:39 PM

I understand the need for silence and focus, and for me I find twitter is a great way to keep in touch with people I've met without necessarily interrupting their day or mine with chitchat.

Occasionally we have conversations over Twitter, and sometimes it's just mundane bits and pieces. I *choose* whether or not to subscribe to someone's feeds, and I also choose whether to be interrupted by it. I have the discipline to switch Twitter off, knowing that if I want to, I can always go back and skim over the conversation later. Sometimes it can prove useful in getting near-instant feedback from your peers who have also chosen to allow themselves to be interrupted, allowing for people to bounce ideas off each other.

I don't subscribe to the public timeline, mostly to people I've met and/or would like to meet (with the occasional friend of my friend to fill in gaps in conversations).

Mostly though, because I work by myself from home in a small, fairly geekless country town, sometimes it's nice to have a little hubbub of conversation in the background of how other people's days are going. Sometimes it's nice to know they're also frustrated by bugs in IE or having difficulty with their server, or that they're excited because they're seeing a loved one for the first time in ages. In some respects I guess it takes the place of morning tea with my colleagues and friends.

You're right Kathy - we all *chose* to be part of it, and for some it's too much. But for me it's a little replacement for something that's just not possible right now.

Posted by: Sarah | Dec 7, 2006 11:09:31 PM

Sarah: If you're the same Sarah that just posted the "laughed at the irony of twittering about reading Kathy Sierra's latest post...", you just made me laugh out loud! (thank-you for that).

Now you might ask yourself... how exactly did I know what was on Twitter two seconds ago? ; )

But at least I admit my powerlessness. Twitter is inexplicably compelling and Arabella is right -- we're all dooooomed!

But Sarah, I actually think you give a perfect reason for using Twitter, and there are plenty of others -- I can think of separated families, especially, who WANT to feel like they're part of someone's every day life. If my daughter starts Twittering, I'll probably be there. No, I take that back. After one "accidental" look at her MySpace page, no, I think I'll just skip that until she's about 30.

JAKE: You're so right -- filtering is probably the only thing that'll provide a real solution. I hope you say more about that (and thanks for the pointer to the 37 signals post).

GREG B. Thank-you! I like the fast-food metaphor, and sometimes that's exactly what you want -- especially when you're deliberately TRYING to give your brain a break. The hard part is not getting stuck there.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Dec 7, 2006 11:21:11 PM

I just turned off my Google Reader Notifier because of this.

Thank you, seriously.

Posted by: Henri Weijo | Dec 7, 2006 11:34:26 PM

Kathy: yes, I'm guilty, and very glad I made you laugh. I was a little nervous about responding to your post after the Twitter and so I'm happy that you saw it as the fun it was meant to be. :o) It just struck me as very funny.

I'm comfortable with Twitter, but oddy enough MySpace scares me (I think it's the flashing pink glitter badges). I guess this is why I have (or rather make!) time for Twitter over MySpace etc.

As far as noise levels go, I'm also pretty selective in the blogs I read and don't stress if I miss posts here and there. It's really just a balancing act to get the right amount of "noise" without drowning in it.

Posted by: Sarah | Dec 8, 2006 12:22:22 AM

Twitter is another waypoint on the path of technological brinkmanship.

We're seduced by the power of now-information and no one wants to be the first to back down for fear of being called "chicken."

Posted by: Harry | Dec 8, 2006 12:55:26 AM

So, I follow your link and what do I read - Hugh MacLeod is waiting for his laundry to dry - I'm sending you the therapy bills! I am so not addicted!

Posted by: John Dodds | Dec 8, 2006 3:58:56 AM

This came up during lunch during the HF bootcamp I was at:

"I don't get it! Your screen's so small? How could you ever do anything?"

"I basically do one thing at a time. Otherwise it's really easy to get distracted and do something else which I'll ultimately justify in some clearly delusional way."

"Really? I've got to be working on at least 4 different emails, reading 10 tabs in my browser, and working on n+1 other files doing ..."

"Yeah man, I don't think I could do that and actually get things done. It'd be really hard."

While doing one thing at a time seems almost contrary to OS X's designs for our workflows (note the lack of fullscreen in most applications), I'm a little curious as to what the folks in charge of this decision were like.

PS: shameless self-plug on information production inertia

Posted by: Edward Ocampo-Gooding | Dec 8, 2006 6:45:17 AM

You're skating on the brink of a very deep truth and just might fall in ;-)--that the human psyche (I'd say soul) needs time "offline" to reflect, gestate (as someone points out), think about larger issues, etc. But most people avoid this like the plague, because it would force them to think about the shallowness of their lives. All these technological twittings only serve as a distraction from the deeper realities that we all need to attend.

Posted by: Chris Ryland | Dec 8, 2006 7:11:26 AM


No, no, no! I did NOT see you write "Twitter is inexplicably compelling" did I??

I'm sure I just don't "get it" but I don't find Twitter compelling at all. In fact, I think it's ridiculous.

Posted by: Jesse Ciccone | Dec 8, 2006 7:39:42 AM

Great article (as always)!

This seems like twitter is going to stay and continue to develop... soon, people will know everything their mates are doing, as well as where they're doing it with whom! Look out for nice sociological issues... :(

Also, about multitasking, I myself recently posted a blog entry on the subject: http://blog.guillaumebertrand.com/2006/11/20/multitasking-vs-multigoaling/

Posted by: GB | Dec 8, 2006 7:48:12 AM

Matt from 37signals (Jake linked to one of his posts, above) also has a great post from Nov. 2, Get Off. It's a brilliant invitation to reduce our consumption and increase our production, specifically by removing ourselves from the web.

See, there’s an inherent problem with always being online: you’re too connected. You wind up in the role of passive observer. Things come to you. You react instead of act. You can easily spend too much time “marking things as read,” reading RSS feeds, watching YouTube clips, or whatever else.

When you go offline, that equation changes. You have to be active. Since you can’t input, you output. If you don’t do something, nothing happens.

Posted by: Charlie Park | Dec 8, 2006 7:51:49 AM

* stands up and looks around the room *
Hello, my name is Kevin and I'm an information addict.
* sits down while other "IA's" intro themselves*

Once again, you hit the nail on the head Kathy. I'm doing my little Twitter experiment for just a week or two and even after a few days, I feel like I have another job. Who's doing what now? Did I tell them that I left my desk to go to the bathroom? Oh shoot, I said we're having salmon for dinner, but we really had tuna. What do I do?!?! ;)

In all seriousness, I recognize my multi-tasking tendencies and highly recommend many of the sources you point out for productivity methodologies. Quick fixes are to only synch & read e-mail at regularly scheduled intervals, plan the daily tasks in advance and avoid IM at all costs. Well, those were working for me before the Twitter experiment anyway...

Posted by: Kevin C. Tofel | Dec 8, 2006 8:04:04 AM

Wow! Twitter sure has everyone twittering!

Posted by: tamarika | Dec 8, 2006 8:10:07 AM

Right on once again, Kathy. I think it's about time we get to using external filters as some of the previous posters mentioned already. I use RSS specifically to filter out all the content that I don't want to see and purge it maniacally every so often. If it doesn't give me any value, it's done.

I think Getting Things Done is perfect for this type of overload thing. I sometimes get caught up in all this web stuff. All these books, all these movies, all these TV shows, all these online videos, all this everything. I've used GTD (in conjuction with Backpack) to manage everything. Whenever I have something I want to read or watch or whatever it goes on a list so the stress is gone. I don't stress it because I know it's still going to be there, so I can come back to it later whenI have some free time (weekends).

With all this information, we need a smart filter. I personally think GTD (which also takes into account the problem of always-on attention) is perfect for managing this life style we continuously find ourselves in.

Posted by: Glen C. | Dec 8, 2006 8:26:22 AM

A few weeks ago I deleted all of my RSS feeds - over 300 of them - and just did without for a while. Amazingly, the world didn't end. I've been slowly adding some feeds back in, but I have a much higher threshold. "Entertaining" doesn't cut it - I can get entertainment anywhere at any time. A feed has to be useful to me before I'll subscribe.

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Dec 8, 2006 8:50:41 AM

Technology is my slave not my master.

I can see some people would just love Twitter. I am not one of those people. I just doesn't fulfill my needs at this time.

At home I have my email set to check once an hour, and the computer is OFF at night.

I dropped RSS as it was eating too much of what limited time I have.

I scaled way back on posting and commenting for the same reason.

I use IM at work occasionally if we are apart and need to collaborate.

I don't bother having a cellphone.

I do use my iPod to make my commute more productive by listening to audiobooks and teleseminars.

I want my technology to make my life better not more cluttered. I use a Mac because Windows and Linux are just too time consuming for me now.
I burnt myself out a few times trying to keep up with too much. Now I have a pace that I can stand.

Posted by: Stephan F | Dec 8, 2006 11:45:36 AM

I can't wait for the day when babies will come with built-in Web access ;-)

Posted by: Marc Duchesne | Dec 8, 2006 12:10:15 PM

I don't understand the need to "twitter." Seems like a profound and senseless waste of time. Just say no!

Posted by: Mike in Arkansas | Dec 8, 2006 12:19:36 PM

This is becoming very very important in our daily lifes. My Google Reader list is ever growing because of references to references that I keep adding in there. However, as Jake said previously, a right filtering mechanism is needed but it must be enabled on demand and by the owning user. While I'm taking the bus going to work, I don't mind being notified of all the things (interesting or not) happening to my friends. In this regard, Twitter and competitor Jaiku (www.jaiku.com) are actually accomplishing this. However I think, because of the easiness with which you can update your "mood", you get deluged with a bunch of not-so-interesting comments: I'm in the bus, Bus Stopped, Car crashed, At work etc etc. Without any reference points, i'm not sure these are really valuable. I think what's needed is that, this same information be overlaid on top of your location. That's what Jaiku is trying to accomplish but without real location data. Adding real-location data, like we do, provides a proper context and a better understanding. Take the previous examples and overlay it with this: I'm in the bus (At the corner of 1 and Maple), Car Crashed (in front of 364 Main Street), At work (162 Bank Street). By adding location, you just expanded the context and now this is becoming valuable for a much greater audience (the car crash example). I would be interested in hearing your ideas on such. Thanks - Martin

Posted by: Martin Dufort | Dec 8, 2006 12:19:53 PM

Thanks for the wonderful thoughts. I keep telling people that not doing ________ (you fill in the blank) is probably more important that continuously doing _______(again, you fill in the blank). Getting away from it all allows your mind to settle and your subconscious to work.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 8, 2006 12:27:59 PM

I agree that twitter is taking microblogging to the rediculous extreme, but isn't this the same thing people were saying about blogging, then myspace, then texting?

"who really cares what you're doing right now?"
"such a time waster!"
"it's ruining the art of TRUE communication"

and fwiw, I don't know if most people are twittering things like "eating a bagel." most of the time it seems like fleeting humorous moments that you say to yourself, "I wish so and so were here, they would get a kick out this."

Posted by: Sam | Dec 8, 2006 12:44:39 PM

I posted a response on my blog: http://romeda.org/blog/2006/12/on-twitter.html

(full disclosure: I am an employee of Obvious, and work on Twitter).

Posted by: blaine | Dec 8, 2006 1:41:06 PM

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