Friday, November 21, 2008

An Aging Crank Asks...

I was at the grocery store last night, in line at the self-checkout behind a rather elderly gent who did not understand the system at all. He was being helped through the process by a solicitous young clerk, who showed him the card-reader, the little device for the signature, where the receipt came out, and so on. The scene depressed me a bit; the poor old guy had met technology that had defeated him.* He'd lived through a world war, driven increasingly complex cars, used telephones, seen the rise of radio and television, ATMs, computers -- and lived through it all conditioned into the happy confidence that no new thing would faze him. Yet here he was in his golden years, unable to do the most rudimentary task, buying groceries, without assistance.

I'm convinced that with the ever-quickening spirals of development of new technology, this phenomenon of finally being defeated by some new system will happen to us at younger and younger ages. It may not defeat us at the user-interface level -- I see more and more standardization of interactivity in Web design, and innovations that add value without adding confusion -- but I think more and more of us will be confronted at younger and younger ages by some innovation sufficiently baffling that we simply fail to understand why the new thing even exists at all.

I believe I've reached that point.

Can someone please, please, please explain to a rapidly aging old fart:

What the fuck is the point of Twitter?

*The system seems designed to be as confusing as possible, even to young folks -- and no two stores' layout is the same. Awful, awful design, but that's a post for another day.


Unknown said...

When the self-checkout lanes came to our local super market my teenage son and I had interesting generational reactions to them. He thought they were the greatest thing ever because then he wouldn't have to actually talk to someone. I hated them for exactly the same reason.

I'm also irritated by the fact that I'm now doing the work of the cashier, saving the store money through my labor, yet I don't get a discount. Screw them.

JD said...

Can't say that I understand the point of Twitter either. I can't think of more than three people whose lives I'd care to know that much about, and since I live with them, Twitter's not necessary.

The Pop Culture Hymnbook said...

Twitter, like Blogging, plays into the belief that we are all leading interesting enough lives to be of concern to someone else.

However, it's come into its own for emergencies. During the current floods in Queensland, I've been informed where everyone is, and know they're safe, and my friends were able to tell each other which areas were without power, and which roads had been cut off by water.

Getting a message saying "I'm Safe" makes up for all the "OMG! I bought new shoes" crap that flies around.

Anonymous said...

I decided long ago that I'd rather buy my groceries from a bored, gum-smacking, cell-phone-talking post-teen tattoo queen human than from a machine.

But at least an equally brutal assault has been repelled at my local Kroger checkout: 6-inch TV screens airing, I don't know, Fox News or Entertainment Tonight or Survivor Poughkeepsie or some such unseemly spectacle.

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

RobotSlave said...

I'm in that awful generational seam where I still like video games well into adulthood, but I can't for the life of me work the controllers on any of the consoles they've released in the past 10 years or so.

Two joysticks finished me. Just watching the kids these days work 3 of the damn things, together with a dozen buttons in all sorts of unlikely locations, makes me weep with frustration.

Larry Jones said...

Good question. I keep thinking some naif is going to start using it in a completely unexpected and highly creative way, and that will finally make me see how cool it is. Until then, meh.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the self-checkout lanes either. By the time I've got all my stuff, I'm usually in sensory overload, and my dexterity isn't so hot, so the last thing I want to do is bag everything myself.

I haven't gotten into Twitter, my general impression is it's just a "thinner, flatter" version of IRC -- that is, a virtual "room" where you can talk and other people can hear you, but oriented toward a more casual "crowd scene" rather than a "private party".

Anonymous said...

I love Twitter. What is it about? It's about the network, about real-time information sharing, about quick communication. I'm on it mostly for professional reasons -- most of my contacts there are instructional technologists or professors using technology in their classes. Twitter gives us a quick and easy way to stay in touch with one another, to share links of interest, and to live-blog events. Just today, in fact, I noticed that a bunch of my contacts were tweeting about a conference they were attending. Someone posted a link to a live-streamed video of a conference presentation; I hopped over to watch it and participated in the chat on the side of the video, thereby joining a conversation that was going on at the conference and participating, in a virtual way, in something I had missed.

The question, of course, is what differentiates tweets from blog posts, and that answer is the length: the 140 character limit on messages creates a different form of writing than the "long"-form of the blog. To judge that form of writing as "worse" than blog writing is to echo the complaints of dead-tree writers against all forms of web-based communication.

Twitter definitely has many uses for me, at least, and none of them have to do with "playing into the belief that we are all leading interesting enough lives to be of concern to someone else." Or maybe it does, because, frankly, I do believe that others are leading lives that are of interest to me, and I learn from them on a regular basis, through Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Great comment, Matt!

I have a Twitter account but do not tweet (!) because I can't remember my password. lol.

I've just recently become familiar with Facebook. And am getting over my whole "I don't get the point of it so why should *anyone* waste their time on it" attitude.

What motivated me to explore Facebook was reading people rip on John McCain for not using email. I do not want to *not* learn new things because they intimidate me. And then act all high and mighty about it. I also don't want to be left behind at 44! I mean, 29!

I'm with Matt on the whole thing of others being interesting to me. They *are* interesting. Plus, I work from home. Am alone most days and like to check in with people to see what's up. If I worked in an office I'd chit chat every now and then, you know? That's not normally all that *interesting* -- but it is needed.

Anonymous said...

Twitter is kind of fun if you want to keep up with what people are doing, much like with Facebook status messages. I get and send messages on my phone, so it's more of a spur of the moment thing. Hey, I saw an interesting museum exhibit, check it out, that kind of thing. To me, it's just about firing information out there for whoever may find it interesting (presumably friends who are following my messages (I don't like to call them tweets, that just doesn't sound good to me).

Will Divide said...

The question, of course, is what differentiates tweets from blog posts

No, the question is: Does hopping from one disconnected conversation to another, every day, really improve things or just make one feel "connected"?

Connected, like the poor bastard who just offed himself as several watched on a social network site.

And props to the Firesigner who twigged that self-checkout only adds value to the corporation while saving the customer squat.

I swear to god, my code word for this is: unalike.

Neddie said...

Matt, if the Tweeters were all at the same conference, why didn't they make the tiniest effort to walk up to each other and actually say what they thought? D'ye see what I mean?

I think it's the 140-character limit thing that makes me skeptical -- I'm afraid I'm enough of a get-off-my-lawn old poo that I have quite a bit of sympathy for the dead-tree-writers-who-hate-blogs set. The reason I posted this thing in the first place was a post at Pandagon that pointed and giggled at Shaquille O'Neill's Twitter feed -- as you might imagine, not a particularly edifying bit of human-to-human communication. Today, I see, the first "tweet" from Shaq is "I get my neck cracked b4 everygame, today i felt a xtra clikadee clak."

Now, we're all aware that Shaq ain't exactly DJ Marky Proust, but you gotta admit, that's fuckin' vapid. Even ICQ and AIM allow you to complete your mothafuckin' sentences. I'm no fingerwagging schoolmarm, but when that is considered the latest advancement in communication, my instinct is to reach for my copy of À la recherche du temps perdu and suck my thumb and whimper a bit.

A commenter at Pandagon, defending Twitter, points to an article that says, "It is mentioned here that users of Twitter send out ‘Tweets’ or instant messages to other ‘Twitters’, and during the earthquake which occurred in Los Angeles in the month of July, the news reached Twitter users much sooner than it reached those who rely only on traditional forms of news broadcast such as newspapers and television."

Fair enough, but I also wonder how that statistic applies to any other instant-messaging application. Note that they compare Twitter users to "traditional forms of news broadcast" rather than the less traditional ones.

Do you see my dilemma? Here I am approving of AIM and ICQ, but viewing Twitter with alarm. This is, I think, the exact problem I describe in my original post: The advance of technology has finally gotten to the exact moment when I can't see the point in the latest development.

And to other commenters: I love you all very, very much -- you're brothers and sisters, every one of you -- but I hesitantly point out that I have enough going on in my life that I can't pay attention to every last 140-character bit of undigested goo that emanates from your powerful minds. As Will rightly says, it's an illusion of communication, not the real thing.

Unknown said...

Twitter needs just one small tweak: A maximum of 100 Tweets per lifetime.

Wren said...

I recently succumbed and added Twitter to my blog. I "tweeted" three times and decided that ohmigod this is, yes, vapid and boring. Who in the world would want to know what I'm doing at any given moment? Do people "tweet" in the loo?

Anyway, I'm not sure what I think of Twitter or even if I understand it. And Ned, I'm only (!) 52 but I haven't been able to use one of those self-checkout things yet without help from a live person. Something always goes wrong. It's freaky and embarrassing. Erk.

EmployeeoftheMonth said...

I just ate pizza.

thestoic said...

Like you, oh creaker-in-chief, I'm old enough to know that no one -- including myself -- cares what I'm doing.

I've been wandering around the house asking the kids to explain the purpose of Twitter, and 17-year-old (happy bidets all round, btw) says, "It's stupid...go ask Katie, she uses it" .

A crank at 17!

Neddie said...

Stoic: Betty got a kitten for her bidet -- what did her co-birthday-celebrant get?

Anonymous said...

Damn, I hate the self-checkout lanes. Never use them. Whenever I'm in line at the grocery store or Lowe's and an employee says, there's no waiting at the self- checkout, I always ask if I get a discount for using it, for doing a store employee's job. After the blink-blink and stare, they always say no to which I reply, if corporate headquarters were smart, they'd give customers an incentive to use them.

thestoic said...

A much-coveted mandolin -- our home is now filled with the sounds of Bill Monroe...or Earl Monroe...or the Monroe Doctrine. It's filled with sounds, anyway. Can't beat kittens, though. Well, you can, but you'll get arrested...

Anonymous said...

I tend to think that Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace are all just symptoms of just how narcistic our society has become. And...are people that terrified of being alone? I think it is oh so nice to NOT be connected to people all the time. I really don't want people in my business every second. Ugh.

However, in the spirit of open-mindedness AND because I am in the business of designing websites and applications, I am always educating myself to all the social networking options. Go to and view the video (red button, upper right corner of the homepage). Great video that explains what Twitter is all about. In a nutshell, it was designed to allow you to keep your friends and family abreast of all the inane things you are doing, day to day, that you wouldn't normally put in a blog or email (probably because NO ONE CARES!) Anyway... I can see the benefit in emergencies, as one post suggested. And maybe other, more useful purposes for it will arise as people continue to use it. I think it also depends on whether your circle of family and friends are users, so you actually have people to tweet (twitter?) with. The vast majority of my family and friends are just not hanging out on their computer and/or mobile devices all day.

As for self-checkouts... UGH! I refuse to use them. Don't replace people (who need jobs!) with annoying machines!!! I feel the same way about most automated phone menus... annoying and I want to TALK to a real person.

Going to eat lunch now. Do you care?

Matthew V said...

Apparently, this may be the point of it:

And here:

Smashed said...

A friend of mine used GroupTweet to setup an ad hoc communications network for an event. Might be slightly more useful than using an email list.

Chris "Stu" Stuart said...

I use Twitter as a punchline delivery system. I don't update what I do, I just post lines or fragments of things I find funny. Because really, no one cares that I'm in the line for the ATM