History repeats itself

You’ve probably heard people saying that history repeats itself. This saying is troubling because events repeat in different forms, so you can’t look for similar appearances. You can however look for similar functions in the information ecosystem.

I’ve now lived through several cycles of the “this newfangled stuff is worthless” and, in my experience, that reaction occurs because when technologies first appear, people have no idea how to apply them. And if there’s anything that excites me about technology, it’s applying it. Making it address real world needs and functions.

Take for example, Twitter. The service allows you to post “tweets,” or 140-character one-line updates, to your online friends. The old joke was that most tweets were from people in restaurants. “Now at In-N-Out. The cheeseburger with bacon is a better option. Someone swiped my fries.”

That was the early adopters trying to find a reason to hold on to this neat new service. It’s more of a service than a new technology, but we still treat it as a new technology because interface design is what shapes technologies into products, and each product must be adopted just like any new tech.

First, people found out that while prices for texting a group of people on your cell phone are low in Europe, they’re high in the USA, so Americans — many of whom carry smart phones or PDAs — favor Twitter. But that was just an intermediate step to the real use of Twitter.

Remember how I said history repeats itself? That means we can use past patterns as metaphors to describe current ones. Kind of how we might describe an automobile as a chariot or a big military defeat as a Waterloo.

Here’s my metaphor for Twitter as it’s going to be in its second stage: a teletype machine.

In the old days, newspaper offices, government buildings and large corporations all had teletype machines. These enabled them to get updates from all over the world before they had been processed through the newspapers and radio.

Of course, these were terse updates — under 140 characters or less in most cases — because the teletype was a group-directed extension of an earlier technology, the telegram. Mechanically, it was barely different at all; however, since it allowed news to be broadcast instead of directed at one person, it changed society. The pace of the teletype defined how fast insiders were moving on the news, and the rest of society adapted to keep up.

Back to Twitter: it’s the modern teletype. From what I can see, most of the content on Twitter is generated by automated scripts. Your blog can automatically update others using Twitter. If you have a content management system, a bulletin board, mailing list or news service, the same is true.

Like a teletype, the Twitter page spits out these updates as they occur, so if you “follow” the Twitter accounts of all concerns in your life, you’ll be very well-informed and up to the minute, thanks to these automated postings.

cdc_twitterHere’s one I’m using — the CDC’s H1N1 “Swine Flu” page. This box from the upper-right corner of that page gives you numerous options for staying informed without coming back to the page — which, given the amount of information the average person must manage, is an unlikely outcome.

It’s likely that at this point, over half of Twitter’s users are on mobile devices like phones or PDAs, and they tune in to see what the world around them is doing. They also catch these updates while they’re out being good consumers and buying products, which makes Twitter a good medium for making a pitch.

People are using Twitter for their businesses to offer real-time news, and updates like coupons or deal offers to draw in customers. They know that the savvy Twitter user isn’t posting restaurant updates — they’re subscribing to the best news feed you can get outside of a press nexus.

History repeats itself in other ways as well. I could point out how downloading MP3s has become like the new radio, or how the internet itself has become the new television, but you know these things already. Now just add Twitter to the heap.

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