Noise as Signal: Why Twitter is Good for People and Companies

Twitter is an incredibly sloppy medium. If you follow more than a small number of people, there’s no way you can keep up with everyone’s tweets. You wake up in the morning and you’re 500 tweets behind. If you take the time to try to read them all, you’re 100 behind again by the time you finish. Much of what you read consists of repeated posts from people trying to make sure you don’t miss what they want to say. The 140 character limit makes it easy to misunderstand someone’s point. The way that conversations get mixed together makes it hard to follow a train of thought. Once you get included in a conversation, you’re stuck with it whether or not you want to participate. At the same time, you can’t prevent other people from jumping in. If you do want to have a conversation with someone, you have to deal with the fact that they might answer you in a minute, or an hour, or a day.

How can this kind of communication medium possibly be a good thing? I’ve noticed some interesting things about myself as a Twitter user. I take things less personally. If someone doesn’t immediately respond to me, I don’t assume it’s because they think my comment is stupid or not worth their time. If someone does respond, and their response sounds snarky, I take the time to find out whether it really was, or whether it was innocent humor, or whether I misunderstood them entirely. If I post something I think is important, I do it repeatedly, though not enough to add too much noise into the system. I don’t get bent out of shape if people don’t respond to my first try, or retweet my post according to some preconceived expectations I have. Finally, I treat the 140-character limit as a challenge to express myself succinctly.

We live in a time when high-fidelity information appears to be immediately and constantly available. We suffer from the illusion of near-perfect control. I rely on Google to point me quickly at exactly the right answer. I get frustrated when I can’t pause or rewind on-air radio like I can Tivo or Netflix. While I’m a big fan of Google Maps’ turn-by-turn directions feature, I’ve noticed that it’s making me lazy. I don’t bother any more reading the directions for myself; I just leave it to my phone to tell me what to do and when to do it. If for some reason I need to understand where I’m going, I’m caught helpless.

It’s for this reason that I think Twitter is a beneficial medium. On one hand, I’m able to use it to communicate effectively. On the other hand, it doesn’t give me any illusion of control or information fidelity. Unlike other media, where fidelity and control fail rarely but catastrophically (Google leads me wildly astray, Netflix goes offline…), Twitter fails constantly but innocuously. Even an extended Twitter outage may annoy me, but doesn’t fundamentally compromise my ability to communicate. Twitter being offline isn’t all that distinguishable from the people with whom I’m conversing being out to dinner, or asleep. In fact, if I’m having trouble understanding or seeing eye to eye with someone, a multi-hour timeout might improve our communication.

Yahoo and other companies are making news for cancelling work-from-home policies. They believe face-to-face communications are more efficient. To some degree, that’s true. But anyone who works in a large organization can attest to the fact that face-to-face communications are far from perfect. They suffer from ‘noise’ introduced by politics, bureaucracy, interpersonal relationships, and simple human misunderstanding.

Those of us who have worked on business continuity plans know that physically colocated organizations also risk catastrophic communications failures due to earthquakes, floods, fires, and other environmental events. The proliferation of extreme weather makes it increasingly important for companies to be able to tolerate environmental outages. In Minnesota this winter, snow storms snarled the morning commute on eight out of ten Mondays in a row, leading to a regular litany of “Working From Home” emails. Reliance on physical proximity thus provides no guarantee of well-controlled, high-fidelity information exchange.

We are living in a time of growing complexity and uncertainty. Ongoing social and technological shifts are creating opportunities for greater and greater successes as well as failures. Traditional strategies to maximize success and minimize failure through coordination and control no longer suffice. Instead, we need to learn to mix success and failure together in our minds and in our interactions with other people. We need to develop an underlying tolerance for loss of control and degradation of information fidelity across physical and digital dimensions. In my experience, Twitter fosters this capability via a kind of “eventual fidelity” that is unique among new communications media.

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