Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Is Twitter Becoming the Web's Intentional Layer?

Intentionality is a philosophical term of art, and it refers to or 'points to' the directedness or aboutness of much of our mental and linguistic activity. Of much of our action. But 'intentionality' has also been used by web commentators, John Battelle, for one, when he considers the extent to which Google is striving to build a method of search which captures the user's intent and which is at the same time harvesting and modeling intentions and desires:

The Database of Intentions is simply this: The aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result. It lives in many places, but three or four places in particular hold a massive amount of this data ......... This information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. John Battelle The Database of Intentions, 2003 -- [at that time Battelle gave pride of place in his blog to Google, MSN and Yahoo. I think now he would pick Google, Facebook and Twitter, possibly Amazon and Apple].

My intuitive 'internal model' for thinking about the web is of a constellation of HTML, of piles of content; comparable, and yet exceeding, the largest libraries. But the web is also and quite distinctively a constellation of links, hyperlinks, and these links are intents. Every hyperlink is itself an 'intentional act', a referential act that is also digital, an act that annihilates distance and short-circuits context and time, taking us instantaneously, magically, to the target of the link's intention. Every link that our finger points to on an iPad is the shadow of the intentional act of the author of the link, and the harbinger/blueprint for the intentional act of each user who follows the link. Viewing the web not so much as a static docuverse, but as a dynamic aggregation of usage and process, the intentional power of the web comes from the way it charts and shifts the attention, the intention, and the focus of its users. Google is as much an instrument for choice and for cognitive intent as it is also an engine for search. However there is a case for treating Twitter as a special case, as especially pure and nakedly intentional. Tweets are all about links and intentions and Twitter is building a massive intentional superstructure through the discourse and activity of Twitter users. There are at least three sources for Twitter's pervasive intentionality.

  1. Twitter's atomicity. Twitter's brevity hones the sharpness of a tweet's intentional aim. The 140 word limit forces directedness in tweeting. The character limit requires that the user targets with precision and clear reference the subject that is being tweeted. For a medium with such a narrow bandwidth, Twitter has been extraordinarily effective at finding ways of lassooing content with precision. Think twitpic and A picture may be worth a thousand words, but you do not need a thousand words to reference a picture in a tweet. It is not possible to say everything in a tweet (Godel's theorem and The Whitsun Weddings are just too subtle and long), but there is no practical limit to the stuff that one can refer to or touch on with a tweet.
  2. Twitter's asymmetry. Twitter in a deep way echoes the topology of the web, with the asymmetry of the follower/followed relationship matching the asymmetry of the hyperlink (that which is linked to often does not link back; just as I am more likely to follow Stephen Fry than he is to follow me). This asymmetry leads to a much more interesting network than the symmetrical relationships that were at the starting point of Facebook and Linkedin. Twitter piggybacks on the topology of the web (any url can be linked to as can any place on a Google map) but we should notice that it also escapes the web, since a good deal of Twitter activity takes place without the web, in apps, on SMS and mobile phones. Twitter's capillary vessels can run through the web, but they also allow us to wander off into digital by-ways that are beyond the web. This gives scope for broader digital intent and for a layer of crisp intentional communication which is not bound to the web, though it uses it.
  3. Twitter's syntactic devices. Twitter has a repertoire of formal devices which allows users to harness and amplify the intentions of others. The 'follow' relationship is a primary mechanism of amplification, since the tweeter with a large audience is like a speaker with a megaphone. Following is certainly not the only basis for collective action in the Twitter domain. Users have plenty of other devices for amplification and message modulation: 'retweeting', recommendations, Twitter lists, locations, and hashtags are all mechanisms that enable and allow the Twitter user to deploy collective intentionality. It might be better to say that these are mechanisms that allow users to participate in collective intentionality in a new and inherently digital way.
We should be careful not to give excessive focus to Twitter -- which is just the epitome of many other social internet technologies that enable us to share and focus desires, perceptions, references and approval. But Twitter's pure and naked intentional quality defines its usefulness and attractiveness. There are rumours that next week will see Apple announce that iOS 5 will support system level calls to Twitter. If that happens we will see less talk about the iPad being merely a lean back device.

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