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I offer here the notes I made when putting together my talk for Interesting North.

“Interesting North talk idea

Nothing of what follows is true. Unless you want it to be.

In 2000, I was talking at an analyst event in London that had been convened to discuss the future of mobile technologies. A guy from Nokia was on stage before me and showed the sales projections that Nokia had built it’s handset business on. The graph was a typical corporate hockey-stick.

“We thought that by now (2000), there would be 5 million mobile phones in use world wide.” He declared it an “upside miss”, meaning that sales had massively overshot projections. This massive overshoot, which caught all the manufacturers and network operators by surprise was caused by millions of kids discovering that they could keep in touch with each other by sending texts. The companies were anticipating voice traffic and had largely forgotten that SMS existed at all.

Kids leapt on SMS because it was a blank canvas. They weren’t being told what to do with it. They weren’t even told that it existed, except by their friends who had stumbled on it by chance.

Just imagine for a second. Imagine being the first kid to discover that you could text your mates. There must have been one. One single kid who just happened on this ‘Text Message’ function in his new phone and thought, what the hell does this do? Then typed a message and clicked ‘Send’. Imagine how cool that kid must be? There’s a children’s book in this – ‘The boy who clicked Send’. That one kid started a revolution. And we’ll never know who he is. And, worse, we’ll never know how the first recipient felt. Of course, we can be pretty certain that he also discovered the ‘Text Message’ feature pretty quickly. And he must have typed something like “What the hell is this? Who the hell are you?”, otherwise texting would never have taken off like it has.

Now imagine what would have happened if that second kid had looked at that first text message and just thought, “Wow! That’s odd”. DELETE. The first kid would have gone to school the next day, told his friends of his discovery and everyone would have just thought that he was making it all up.

“Hey! I sent a text message last night!”

“Yes, of course you did. Wierdo!”

It’s simple acts like this – clicking ‘reply’ to your first text message – that change the world.

Fast forward twenty years.

We all know Twitter. Most of us are only here because we heard about this on Twitter. I can assume that you’re all pretty Twitter-literate. So let’s fast forward 20 year to San Francisco – California. 14th of September 2010.

Twitter announces a whole load of new services, brands the updates New Twitter and describes itself as “A News Service”.

At home, just outside Sheffield, keeping up with the event via Twitter’s old service I laugh out loud. Not ‘lol’. I didn’t ‘lol’. In fact, I never ‘lol’. I’m not of that vintage. No, I actually real-world laughed out loud.

“It’s happening again”, I thought. “The service owners are so close to what they are doing and so busy looking for ways to make money that they are missing the point!” However, the message from Twitter Towers remained consistent. “Twitter is a news service”.

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

During the ‘New Twitter’ announcement, I was reminded of a vignette on William Burroughs’ Dead City Radio album from 1990 called ‘Apocalypse’. I’d like to read an extract. I won’t do the voice.

“Consider an apocalyptic statement. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Hassan-I-Sabbah, tho Old Man of the Mountain. Not to be interpreted as an invitation to all manner of unrestrained and destructive behaviour; that would be a minor incident that would run it’s course. Everything is permitted BECAUSE nothing is true. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream, art.”

Let’s not forget, Twitter was built on SMS – a blank canvas. The original aim, as I understand it, was to cludge together a kind of ‘reply-all’ function for texts sent to a group of people. Twitter is a blank canvas that was built on top of another blank canvas. It’s not a news service – it’s whatever we want it to be. It’s make-believe, illusion, dream, art.

There used to be rules about what you could do with a blank canvas. It used to be that you were only allowed to paint religious scenes on them. Then you were allowed to depict powerful people – kings, queens, lords and ladies – as well. Then the landscapers came along, and the romantics, and the modernists, and the post-modernists, and the cubists, Dadaists, surrealists and the Saatchi-ists. And now you can do pretty much whatever the hell you like with a blank canvas. Blank canvases are incredibly powerful things. Blank canvases change the world.

When I first started using Twitter, about three years ago, there were rules. Lots of rules. Not official rules, but rules that were made up by people trying to come to terms with the enormous blank canvas that Twitter offered. The rules were made by people claiming themselves ‘experts’ in a thing that nobody understood. These people quickly gathered thousands of followers and adherents to the ‘Twenty-five rules for using Social Media’ school of tweeting.

These people are the same who, 500 years ago would have happily issued an edict about what art could depict. Personally, I struggle to come to terms with it, but we’ve all seen the drivel they espouse.

They love verbless sentences and banal calls-to-action. “75 stunning examples of typography”, and similar drab nonsense, which makes up an alarming percentage of the 100 million daily updates. Dullardry of the worst water. And the weird thing is that those doling out this lethargic drivel often have 10,000 followers and more.

But let’s not be too harsh. Blank canvases are scary.  We need to fill the void – it’s a basic human need. Present anyone with a blank canvas and they’ll feel the need to smear paint over the whole thing. Literally AND figuratively. But don’t worry too much. The world being what it is, the rate of progress is enormous. I believe we’re already through the ‘religious’ phase – all the Social Media guru’s are now busy locking themselves away in conference rooms around the world, charging each other higher and higher speaking fees to trot out their hack-kneed nonsense. “It’s a bubble, guys! A bubble! And it’s going to burst any second now!”

We’ve also seen the rise of ‘the depiction of the powerful’. Celebrities on Twitter with millions of followers. Now, real celebrities seem to be departing Twitter in their droves. Dead and fake celebrities are in the ascendant. And, frankly, they can’t last long. Yes, some of them are funny, but it’s a fad.

What’s coming next will be a terrific splintering in the way Twitter works. Just as the art world shattered into dozens of modernist groups with distinct and dogmatic ideas about what it meant to be an artist.

The way Twitter works now, following someone isn’t as important as it used to be. Because of the ReTweet, trends, real-time search and the enormous number of users, if someone says something interesting there’s an incredibly good chance you’re going to find out about it.

But what’s interesting to you may not be interesting to me. The important thing is that we all get to find out the interesting stuff regardless of who we follow. One of the interesting things that came out of Twitter at the New Twitter launch is that Twitter is useful even if you don’t follow anybody. That’s ground-breaking. It’s permission to do anything.

There’ll be no need for ‘opinion formers’ building great, burning stars in the Twitterverse. Stars of course have powerful gravitational fields. But as they fade and die, people will be drawn together into small, self-forming galaxies of mutual interest. Interesting things, you see, also have a gravitational field. Look around at any party or social gathering – people will naturally be drawn together by their interests; political, philosophical or sexual. And the strongest manifestation of “interesting gravity” appears in our use of language. Everyone is drawn to a storyteller just as the swearing, drunken hobo in the corner repels them.

When you get lots and lots of interesting people saying lots and lots of interesting things, they will naturally be drawn together. So the next phase of Twitter’s development will be dominated by language. Think about that when you’re posting your next update. Don’t be afraid to use vibrant language. Allow yourself to play around with metaphor, adjectives and made up nouns and verbs. Remember, nothing is true. Everything is permitted. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream, art.

irkafirka, my pet project and the reason I’m here, is a celebration of language. We exist solely to celebrate people’s vivid use of the written word. And it’s not just Twitter that will be dominated by language. The entire web is moving away from trying to impress a machine (notably Google’s search engine) and towards impressing each other.

But then, none of this is true either.”


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