Looking at the many positive responses it received, Pico Iyer’s recent NY Times blog post on "The Joy of Less" appears to have struck a chord:
"But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world)."
I take Iyer’s account as further anecdotal proof of my thesis that we are moving towards a new era of post-materialism, in which the quest for meaning, simply put: collective action for the common good, social impact, sustainability, enlightenment, values, etc., trumps purebred material satisfaction derived from the accumulation of things. If ownership, the tyranny of more, means slavery to objects, the less is ephemeral and offers an infinite number of possibilities.
However, I disagree with Iyer on the role of media stimuli. I tend to have a more optimistic view and believe that Twitter, as the modern, accelerated Haiku, can indeed provide you with that “joy of less” that Iyer describes. To counter Iyer with the very Hamlet citation he uses in his text: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What if Twitter is the impulse purchase of the enlightened digital citizen? What if it has shifted the need for instant gratification from a purely materialistic to a more intellectual realm? On Twitter, the only thing you can truly own is your account; everything else, even your followers, are ever-changing and highly volatile. Needless to say that tweets come and go as much as anything can come and go, and that Twitter doesn’t have a memory, so that all lives on it are limited to the here and now. That’s quite a moment of Zen. And yet, paradoxically, while ‘less is more’ certainly applies to its tweet format, the true attraction of Twitter lies in a ‘more is more’ network effect. The more people join, the more valuable the social conversation becomes.
This weekend, in the aftermath of the Iranian election, Twitter’s ability to build a mass audience by virally connecting myriad micro-audiences through micro-messages has proven again to have real impact. When the Iranian police started cracking down on protesters, CNN chose to air a repeat of Larry King’s interview with the stars of the American Chopper show, which drove the Twittersphere berserk. Other news networks, too, failed to properly cover the dramatic events that unfolded in Iran, but CNN was an easy target because it is so iconic. While the world was tweeting, the ‘most trusted source in news’ misjudged the situation and failed to turn history in the making into a story. In fact, it completely missed the beat and responded somewhat defensively to Twitterers’ accusations:
The anger at CNN may have been collateral damage of Twitterers’ frustration due to having only limited impact over the events in Iran. But the effect was impressive: Within a couple of hours, #cnnfail became one of the top trending topics on Twitter, CNN was faced with a major image backlash, and you could follow the development live on Twitter. Twitter effectively acted as “media watchdog,” as Mashable commented. Citizen journalism outperformed professional journalism - in real-time. When Ahmadinejad shut down all mobile services and social networks, only a few Iranian Twitterers. with just the trusted authority of a genuine voice, were able to stay connected to the rest of the world and report on the frightening events in Iran. Synchronicity, real-time reporting, should have been CNN’s bastion but it didn’t get any of this. Twitter did.
The parallels are striking: The tentative revolution in Iran coincided with a revolution in the American living room. The protests against the Iran regime corresponded with protests against old school gatekeeper media. The social media grassroots campaign against traditional media became a mainstream media story itself. It will be interesting to see if CNN realizes the other startling parallel, the elephant in the room: Both Iran and CNN have cracks in the wall. The days of the old models are numbered. The revolution will happen but it won’t be televised.
The other key take-away from this media weekend is that on Twitter the main story was not the story. The main story is never the story. Twitter is the mainstream for alternative streams. This is why Twitterfall, which displays tweets grouped by trending topics as a top-down waterfall, is the congenial visualization, the most effective user interface for Twitter. Twitterfall expresses the escalation that is an inherent part of Twitter. On Saturday night, #iranelection and #cnnfail tweets broke down in staccato-pace, many tweets per second. It was hard to take your eyes off; it was too easy, too tempting to stand still amidst the constant motion.
Events are synchronous, multi-dimensional, multi-layered, and social, and so must be news. What if the future of news was Google Wave, as Jeff Jarvis suggests, or other "email cum wikis cum Twitter cum groupware"? “Imagine a team of reporters - together with witnesses on the scene - able to contribute photos and news to the same Wave (formerly known as a story or a page). One can write up what is known; a witness can add facts from the scene and photos; an editor or reader can ask questions. And it is all contained under a single address - a permalink for the story - that is constantly updated from a collaborative team.”
Or is there a news model based on a horizontal comparison of real-time and filtered search (Twitter vs. Google), a la Twoquick? In either case, the aggregators will win (or have already won). The only model that would keep mainstream media in the game would be to combine vertical motion (Twitterfall) with contextual content that is carefully curated: immediacy AND accuracy, intimacy AND authority. Mashable gets it right when it interprets this weekend’s events as an opportunity rather than a swan song for traditional media: “While social media sites are both a source of unfiltered information and a venue for public discussion, we still look to CNN, the BBC and their ilk to add context and meaning to this flood of data. And when they fail us, we demand more of them.“
Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.