I am running a little experiment on Twitter. I have created a new account called askTWIT. The purpose is to facilitate getting answers to questions by tapping into the Twitter hive-mind, by acting as a central point of reference where questioners and answerers can find each other. It works like this:

If you have a question:

1. Follow askTWIT.
2. tweet your question in reply to @askTWIT (eg. “@askTWIT Is Twitter useful or a waste of time?”)
3. watch for replies.

To answer a question:

1. Follow askTWIT.
2. Look for questions you might be able to answer.
3. Reply to the tweet with the answer (eg. “@azizhp yes it haz @Scobleizer duh iz useful”)
4. bask in the warm glow of Karma, Zen, etc.

If someone asks a good question it might develop a whole tree of responses which can be tracked on Quotably.

The idea somewhat borrows from Scoble’s idea of autofollowing everyone who followed him – his follow list is probably the closest to a hive mind as you will see on Twitter, but anyone with a few thousand followers will see a similar depth of knowledge in their crowd (problogger uses this to extreme advantage for all sorts of cool projects). Let’s see if this model for tapping the TwitterMind can scale.

Planet Twitter: twittearth is our metaverse

In Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the Metaverse appeared to its users as a single city strung along a road a hundred meters wide, spanning 200 km around the equator of an otherwise utterly featureless, black, spherical planet floating in electronic void.

TwitterEarth is cooler:

Plenty of others have reviewed Twittearth already (and plenty more have twitterred about it). But what strikes me about it the most, apart from the sheer novelty, is how in a way it really underscores the way that Twitter functions as a universe unto itself. This is Planet Twitter. It’s self-referential, a global conversation focused as often as not upon its own navel.

We aren’t used to thinking about the internet communities we inhabit in a geographical sense. Usually our friends and networks exist as linear scrolling boxes of text. Twittearth takes that line and turns it into a sphere, one we can relate to strongly and intuitively. There’s something utterly captivating about watching that globe spin and tiny avatars spout their profundities in 140 characters or less – it’s real, more tangible, in a way that can’t be felt through the browser window or client app.

There’s a lesson here that the internet tools we use and social networks we inhabit are very much artificial in their presentation. If someone figured out a way to represent, for example, Facebook as a virtual planet, with friends, photos, video, etc all rooted solidly in a where rather than a when. Imagine all social networks, Facebook and mySpace and Google’s Open Social alike, existing on the same world. I think we are further along the path to the metaverse than we realize.

And I have to admit I am very pleased that my avatar turned out to be Domo-kun.

Eliza, 140 characters at a time

Nick Carr has a fascinating essay in Edge Magazine on the history of ELIZA, the software program that simulated intelligence, and its creator Joseph Weizenbaum who passed away recently. ELIZA represents the frontier that computer science must cross if someday to arrive at true intelligence – ELIZA itself is merely artificial, but still certainly intelligent enough to have fooled a lot of (presumably) genuine intelligences.

However, in one of those weird quirks of computer life, Nick appears to have also posted the entire essay about ELIZA onto his Twitter account. Given Twitter’s 140 character limit, this means that almost every sentence in the essay was posted as its own tweet. The effect is strangely hypnotic. Whereas reading the original at Edge gives a sense of cohesion and narrative, reading it on Twitter makes it discrete and disjointed, even though the sentences are still adjacent.

In a way, the context of the content affects its meaning. Is that a limitation of our brains? Or of the medium?

The Twittering of the President

Joe Trippi recently observed on Twitter that both Obama and Clinton have fairly lame presences there. Both seem to be recycling standard issue campaign schedule material, example from @barackobama:

Holding a rally at Penn State University and a Town Hall in Harrisburg, PA today Learn more at 02:46 PM March 30, 2008

Just spoke at Cooper Union in NYC, called for immediate relief for the housing crisis & an additional $30 billion to jumpstart the economy. 11:10 AM March 27, 2008

Holding a town hall meeting at the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, NC. 12:04 PM March 26, 2008

Note that Barack Obama has more followers (20,199) than any other Twiter user, but his campaign has only posted 92 tweets. To say that they are underutilizing the service is a massive understatement.

Meanwhile, @hillaryclinton is no less dry:

Today I’m kicking off a three-day economic tour with “Solutions for the Pennsylvania Economy” events in Harrisburg and Fairless Hills, PA. … 09:56 AM March 31, 2008

Today, I am hosting Economy Town Hall events in Indy and New Albany before heading to Kentucky. 03:01 PM March 29, 2008

Today I’m making stops across Indiana – I’m hosting two town halls, a roundtable event, and ending the day with a rally. 12:11 PM March 28, 2008

Hillary has 2,509 followers and posted 94 updates, meaning that her campaign is utilizing Twitter 10 times more more effectively than Obama’s.

I couldn’t find John McCain there (@johnmccain clearly isn’t official, though there are 40 people following that account in some vain hope).

What would a cool campaign use of twitter look like? To really fit with the tone of twitter (rather than just another outlet where campaign staffers phone it in) I think it would be great if the campaigns actually used it to educate and inform. Anytime a policy issue position is updated on the candidates’ web sites, for example, a tweet could be sent. Likewise, when a transcript of a speech is posted, or a new video uploaded. Rapid responses to attacks from other candidates/opponents could be announced. And, of course, fundraising on twitter would be groundbreaking – I wager that the response rate to a pitch on twitter would be 10x that of email, given the generally more tech-savvy and affluent nature of the twitter userbase. Also note that much of this could be automated, using RSS feeds from the candidate’s website and a service like Twitterfeed.

The pretense that Barack Obama is really twittering just to tell us where he happens to be and what he happens to be doing (town hall X, Y, Z…) is transparently fake. How about the campaigns drop the facade and just embrace the tool for what it can do rather than the cachet it might bring? In some ways I prefer McCain’s non-embrace.

Twitter is a classic example of a web 2.0 technology whose mundane description belies its power and utility. Much like blogs. The power of twitter is in the community, which John Unger has described as almost a sixth sense (scroll down and read his anecdote about traveling to Austin).

If a high-profile candidate were to truly embrace twitter – including a personal tweet themselves once on a while – they’d be opening the door to an entire new realm of potential publicity, support, and grassroots (techroots?) manpower. And more, in ways we can’t even predict yet. It’s inevitable, really.