140 Characters in Hollywood

140Chrtr300Devoted to all things Twitter, Jeff Pulver’s 140 Character Conference landed in Hollywood this week at the Kodak Theater, home to the Oscars. It was a symbolically appropriate venue for a new technology that thrives parasitically on ‘old media’ . . . . you know, the stuff that people used to get paid to make.
Although the venue was conspicuously empty for most of the conference, and eyes were rudely glued to laptops, BlackBerries and iPhones rather than the live human beings on the stage, the fest had a tight-knit quality to it. Jeff Pulver’s rolodex seemed to reign supreme (compare Richard Saul Wurman’s TED) and culled from it were a surprising number of people intent on using Twitter to connect more intimately with humans and to use this short-attention-span technology to perform charitable work.
So, in addition to a marketing panel which included a guy working on the Bentley social media campaign (no mass marketing for Bentley!), there were homeless advocates, distance learning experts, voting rights activists and Twitter evangelists from the March of Dimes and the Canadian National Aboriginal Health Organization (actually, YouTube has proven to be their best outreach tool).

Perhaps most moving was a talk by Amy DeMaria from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I had read several reports about how virtual-world technology like Second Life was a god-send to physically disabled people who can use avatars to run, jump and fly with their friends. But most of us in the audience did not know what a crucial role social media plays in the lives of people with cystic fibrosis. Because all people with cf carry a germ that’s life-threatening to other people with cf, they are not allowed to be in physical proximity with one another. The safest way they can communicate with each other is online. No wonder, then, that the Foundation’s Facebook page has as many followers as there are people with cf in the U.S.
For a two day conference, with no concurrent sessions, there was an alarming amount of information disgorged by the 140 speakers, who were summarily shoved onstage and off at a rate of about five minutes per body. Most of the speakers’ comments were easily tweeted – this is a crowd that has become adept at boiling down ideas to something they believe is essential. Unfortunately, the essence that tweeters choose to relate is often uninteresting to a broader audience, and not just because some Twitter users insist on documenting the diurnal churn of their lives. Some expert devotees have become wizards at condensing into 140 characters the source, path and social web surrounding the tiniest fact, insight or aside. It’s not atypical to see tweets that contain a link to a news story (often about Twitter itself) embedded in a nest of Twitter usernames, all of whom played a role in disseminating (and only occasionally creating) the story being circulated. Not unlike the provenance documents that frame a painting or a sculpture, giving it authenticity and value, this scrupulous documentation of the path of a meme may be interesting to the tight-knit group of friends who crave recognition for everything they post online (please retweet me!) but for most more casual users this information is just noise.
The curious drive to carefully document sources runs counter to the copy-and-paste ethos that defines so much activity on the Internet. The ‘Public Policy & Law’ panel was one of the better ones (in my mind) because of the potential copyright issues surrounding the viral dissemination of tweets. Being ‘retweeted’ is the gold-standard on Twitter, if your aim is to broadcast your idea to the broadest possible audience. But a copyright lawyer might argue that a tweet is a complete work, eligible for copyright protection, which endows the creator of the tweet the power to determine the distribution of her work. The lawyers on this panel suggested that about 90% of tweets are ineligible for copyright protection because they simply reiterate facts (which can never be copyrighted) – but what about the other ten percent? Aren’t those the tweets that are most worth re-tweeting? And who decides just how original an expression a tweet must be in order to be protected?
Ironically, the first category of tweets that came to my mind that might deserve some sort of protection, because of the tremendous amount of work that goes into crafting them, were Maureen Evans’ tweet-sized recipes: how she manages to condense the instructions for an entire recipe into a 140 character haiku is beyond me. But then I remembered: recipes are not eligible for copyright protection because they are merely a set of instructions and not, therefore, ‘original expressions.’ I guess sharing your recipes on Twitter is not so different from doing charitable work. We’ll have to wait and see whether revenue models become sophisticated enough to compensate people for creating valuable content, and whether the noise level can be brought down to a mere hum.

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