The Twitting Point

mcluhanBill O’Reilly has the last word on Twitter for today. He thinks the Twitterati is crushing talk radio, by sucking up all our listener time. He thinks that’s bad; I hope he’s right and it drives Rush out of business. It won’t drive The View out of business if Barbara Walters has a say; she regularly tries to shut down the Twitversation.

We’re becoming a nation divided along the Twitter faultline, forced to declare which side we’re on. This morning I felt a jolt and reached for my iPhone to check in with my wife on the highway. She immediately asked whether it was on Twitter, and by the time I checked 10 seconds later there was three screens of earthquake tweets. Jeremiah Owyang was on the phone talking to someone in San Jose who felt it five seconds before it reached Jeremiah in the Valley. How long will it be before we’ll see an app tied to the accelerometer that registers each temblor into a realtime grid to track the pattern?

Tonight I read that Twitter has changed replies to mentions, mapping more accurately to the use of the @ sign anywhere in the Tweet. This morning received a $2 million round for its url-shortening/data harvesting service. Not slowly but very surely the 140 character landscape is being carved up and sold off at auction. Tim O’Reilly’s VC arm led the round, yet another marker of the attention economy carved up into discrete chunks.

Now that the VCs have corralled the @ signs and the URLs, what remains? The body of the text, the domain of Track and its wannabes. Glam Media’s Tinker is one such parlay, virtualizing keywords into event clouds and then distributing them via widgets around the Twitter nervous system. TweetDeck gives you yet another column for targeted searches, and who knows what we’ll see soon from FriendFeed and then Facebook.

When Bill and Tim O’Reilly converge, you know we’re at a twitting point, where the metadata orbiting the message stream is more valuable than the initial data itself. The recent Cloud Manifesto brouhaha underlines the tactics and deceptions of the players as significantly more important than the words of the original document. When we understand our metadata, our attention breadcrumbs, our gestures can and are being harvested, syndicated, and metered back to us, will we one more time leave it to the professionals to steal all our money and our childrens’ future?

Something tells us it may be different this time. It’s not that we’re smarter or more willing to do the hard work of paying attention. It’s not going to be easy to harness this out-of-control stage coach as it barrels down the trail on the way out of Dodge. There’s still plenty of anger, about too much Twitter, about our roles as consumers and the apparent lack of a connection to our jobs that pay for our room and board. Are we supposed to save or spend? Read or write? Eat or be eaten?

No, we’re no more clueful than we were a Tweet ago. Nick Carr will still have plenty of opportunity to mine the ineptitude of our crowd sourcing, the pathetic noise of our social mediocrity. But what the pundits don’t know is something we do: the more we are challenged about the value of our intuitive meanderings, the more we know how lucrative they are becoming. Over and over again, these systems are bending to our will, ill-defined, untamed, irrational, whatever.

It’s precisely this kind of civil disobedience that is our real job. On the Gillmor Gang this weekend, we argued about whether Darwinian brute force was appropriate, or whether we should just sit back and leave the driving to others. Is it rude to not believe the patronizing platitudes of IBM as they try and stuff the Manifesto down our throats? How beautiful was it when Amazon said, ever so politely, thanks but no thanks: We’ll just continue to rock around the clock on this cloud thing, and oh by the way, eat our dust.

These Amazon guys ain’t afraid of nobody. Not Microsoft, not Google, certainly not SAP and Sun and Cisco all busy puttying up a nice complexity firewall to slow the kids down. So we ultimately see the real work being those folks – Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, Amazon – who aren’t signing. They prefer to keep tweeting, keep connecting, not locking us in to complex derivatives it will take trillions to unravel.

You probably couldn’t find two more different people sharing the same name than the O’Reillys. But they both understand how powerful the Twitting Point is. One is the classic negative gesturer: when Bill buys, I sell. The other is going public as a lead investor while maintaining his role as a publisher and event producer, thereby sending the significant message that transparency can validate complex business relationships without conflicts of interest. Again, the metadata speaks louder than the details of the individual perceptions.

We will still suffer the arrows of the change-phobic for some time. But it was only a few short years ago when the notion that markets are conversations was revolutionary, or that Superman had to use a phonebooth to change the world. Today we each are broadcast networks: Bill O’Reilly said that. The new Marshall McLuhan. Go figure.