Twitter and The Web of Flow: Talking with Stowe Boyd & Bruce Sterling about Microsyntax, Squelettes, Favela Chic and the State of Now

Sun, Jun 28, 2009


I met Stowe Boyd, of at Jeff Pulver’s 140 Characters Conference which convened in the middle of a perfect storm for the State of NOW (more mundanely known as the real time web) as thousands of tiny Twitter pipes became a vital conduit for the historic events occurring in Iran (picture on left, Stowe Boyd, from Brian Solis‘ Flickr here, and on the right, Bruce Sterling, presenting at reboot11 from scriptingnews‘ Flickr here).

But, as Clay Shirky pointed out, re Twitter and Iran:

“It’s incredibly messy, and the definitive rules of the game have yet to be written. So yes, we’re seeing the medium invent itself in real time.”

Stowe Boyd is managing director of, a non-profit investigating the embedding of structured information within microstreaming applications, particularly Twitter. It is a communitarian project so if you are interested you should get involved – see Stowe’s #140conf. presentation, “The evolution of Microsyntax.” Stowe is an architect of “flow” and a webthropologist of the State of NOW.  I had the opportunity to talk with him at the conference (see the full conversation below). We talked not only about some of the practicalities of implementing microsyntax but about how “the web of flow” produces a fundamental shift in how we communicate, and who we are.  As Stowe Boyd put it:

“You use these tools, and you are changed. And it’s just a question of how long you use them and the longer you use them, the more you use them, the more changed you are. When people shift to a basis of sociality around connection with other people as opposed to mass affiliation, it’s different. It’s completely different. Your whole system of ethics, the way you judge the world and decide what’s important is different. And not only different it’s better. It’s a better way to deal with the world.”

As Wyclef Sean (@wyclef) remarked at #140conf, “Twitter just cuts the middle man in everything.”

At the 140 Characters Conference it was hard not to be captivated by the energy and optimism arising from the successful use of Twitter by Iranians to communicate in the aftermath of the election.  But the subsequent repression in Iran, in which the regime took advantage of central infrastructure controls to silence Iranian twittering (we have similar network technologies in place here in the US), leaves a big question that came to the fore after the conference:

While these real time applications give us the ability to leverage network effects in totally new ways, and they have enormous potential to make our lives better, do we need to give more thought to the infrastructure they rely on?

The videos for the 140Conf are up now. If you haven’t already seen them, after watching Jeff Pulver’s intro to The State of NOW a great place to start is the “Twitter as a News Gathering Tool” (Part 2).  Also see Ann Curry Defends Foreign Correspondents, Twitter; Rick Sanchez Defends CNN and Brian Solis’ post on techcrunch. Christopher R. Weingarten (@1000TimesYes), “Twitter and the End Of Music Criticism,” and Moeed Ahmad’s (@moeed), Gaza in Focus, are two of several must see presentations. The #140Conf was an extraordinary event.  Jeff Pulver orchestrated a brilliant cast of characters and a manifestation of social media “hybrid vigor” that was exhilarating to be part of.

A “Director’s Cut” of #140conf will be re-broadcast (Monday, June 29th and Tuesday, June 30th) at 11AM EST / 8AM PST – Some of the speakers will be tweeting while their session is being re-broadcast (see The Jeff Pulver Blog for more).


(picture above from Brian Solis’ Flickr here)

In a serendipitous convergence of events I found myself in the front row taking photos for Brian Solis (@briansolis) see Brian’s post, “Is Twitter the CNN of the New Media Generation.” I like my photo of Jack Dorsey (@jack) Twitter founder – the lens of my own camera would never have allowed for this one!

I was also sitting close to Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd), who out of all of attendees at this jam packed event was one of the people I had most hoped to connect with.

Talking with Bruce Sterling about Squelettes, Twitter, Favela Chic, and Gothic High Tech

I have been following the effort that Stowe has been leading since this post by Bruce Sterling (@bruces) on Pachube Feeds which contained this challenge:

“(((Extra credit for eager ubicomp hackers: combine this [pachube feeds] with Googlewave, then describe it in microsyntax. Hello, 2015!)))”

Stowe pointed out in our conversation at #140conf, that is in one sense a very narrow project but on the other hand it’s very broad, because every sort of information that you can imagine is going to be streaming through Twitter and related [real time] applications.

Or as Aaron Straup Cope put it to me: “This is ultimately the “magic word” problem, which is essentially the semweb vs. google-is-smarter-than-you problem.”

There are a bunch of crystal ball posts up at the moment looking into the future of the real time web…. for example, this post on (via @timoreilly and @buckybit) asking whether we need page rank for people and not just sites…..and this post on readwriteweb that asks is the state of now the harbinger of doom to walled gardens like Facebook. And there seems to be an arms race starting around real time search.

But Bruce Sterling (@bruces) in his cover story for Interactions Magazine examines some of the blinkering on “two inherently forward looking schools of thought and action [design and science fiction].” He writes:

“We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of search engines and cross-links, of keywords and networks, the solid smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out.”

While I was writing up this post, I found myself up at the crack of doom (4 am EST) with insomnia I attribute to a tweet from Mark Vanderbeeken @vanderbeeken which I (@tishshute ) retweeted:

“Internet of Things – An action plan for Europe,” (This EU Doc. cites @agpublic ’s Everyware) via @vanderbeeken

(I wish I had used the new microsyntax in Tweetdeck RE (for more on RE see Stowe Boyd’s post here) then I would have been able to find @vanderbeeken’s original tweet just now.)

So after a quick scan of the EU paper on the internet of things, and in a “here comes everybody” pre-dawn state of mind, craving oracular pronouncement, I impulsively shot an email to Bruce Sterling.

[Note: the following is an asynchronous exchange – not synchronous as a Google Wave would have made possible. Also I have pulled the conversation out of the original email format. Lars and Jens Rasmussen of  Google Wave seem to have hit the nail on the head when they “set out to answer the question: What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?” (see this excellent post by Tim O’Reilly on Google Wave)]

Tish Shute: I shouldn’t be up at 4am EST sending you more questions but I began reading The “Internet of Things – An action plan for Europe,” before I went to sleep and woke up thinking: “How can we work on an action plan for everybody?” ((Another highlight of 140Conf. was Kevin Slavin’s talk on “Things that Twitter –  “sensor aesthetics are streamy”)).

Bruce Sterling: *Everybody?  What, all 6,706,993,152 of us?

Tish Shute: How does, “it’s all about the data,” and “google’s smarter than you” thinking versus “bottom up”/”personal informatics”/”sem web” get worked out in the internet of things?

Bruce Sterling: *I’d be guessing via mergers, acquisitions, lawsuits and police crackdowns, but you never know.  You might have a massive financial collapse where innovations like this start coming out of slums and favelas.  I heard such a great term at LIFT last week:  ”Favela Chic.”  That’s when you are totally penniless and without commercial prospects of any kind but still wired to the gills and big on Facebook.


Photo of Bruce Sterling at Lift 2009 by Centralasian

Tish Shute: Could you elaborate on your comment:

“Also, this stuff they’re discussing: this is like all kindsa trouble ten years from now.” (from your post

Bruce Sterling: *Okay: you know how much trouble SMS messages are in Iran right now, even though ten years ago, cellphones were only for foreigners and rich guys in Iran?  Kinda like that.

Tish Shute: You wrote here:The idea of living in *abandoned prototypes* or giant failed larval  husks is very contemporary, very New Depression. Very “Favela Chic…”



“Ocasionally squatters move into “squelettes” and bring in some breeze-block, corrugated tin and plastic hoses, transforming squelettes into high-rise favelas. This doesn’t work very well because it’s tough to manage the utilities, especially the water.”

Tish Shute: So what happens when we rely on Google & Twitter repurposed as our main means to access our government?  Not only repressive regimes can cut these utilities off, even though Twitter was asked to delay maintenance so that the Iranian Twitters could keep flowing, Michael Jackson brought Twitter down.

Bruce Sterling: *Google and Twitter aren’t going to last long enough to become main means of an access to government.  It’s not that Google and Twitter go away and we return to a previous status quo, however.  It’s that they are ramshackle digital expedients that get replaced by  even more ramshackle digital expedients.

In the meantime the stuff we used to call “government” gets similarly destabilized.  It’s been privatized, or offshored, or turned into a hollow shell.

Tish: Shute: So is Twitter a squelette (like all our favorite internet platforms, including Google Wave which we haven’t even had a chance to squat yet)? And is microsyntax our breeze-block, plastic hose and corrugated tin-  – very Favela chic but vulnerable to the vagaries of Michael Jackson’s life and death, and deadly shut downs and snooping by repressive regimes that control the underlying utilities? (Squelettes, as Bruce Sterling points out, are:  “one of those coinages like “Prada Goth” that spring out everywhere once they are pointed out.”)

Bruce Sterling: *We can draw a distinction here:  “Gothic High Tech” is the top-end version, while “Favela Chic” is the low-end.  “Gothic High Tech” would be the likes of a “repressive regime” which finds itself forced to conduct cruel, secret, spooky, Guantanamo cyberwars… it’s pretending to transparency, accountability and open elections, while below that surface is a weird, torchlit, Gothic hall of mirrors where invisible hands wreck banks, impoverish the civil population and kidnap people.

It’s “Gothic” because of its magnificent, elaborate appearance — very “Castle of Dracula” — but that no longer maps onto its panicky, extremist, transgressive behavior.

Gothic High Tech doesn’t live in “squelettes.”  Gothic High Tech lives in fancier, more respectable structures called “stuffed animals.”  A stuffed-animal used to be a functional building. From the outside it looks pretty much like it always did, maybe even “conservative.”  Inside it’s half-retrofitted with aging, Frankenstein machineries, already outmoded, rapidly decaying.

A “stuffed animal” might, for instance, be a “savings and loan” where the behavior of the present-day inhabitants involves no actual saving and no actual loaning.  Instead the inhabitants are on television negotiating a position in a crisis narrative and living on bailouts, while, every day, the cobwebs get a little thicker.  “Regulatory capture” is stuffed-animal activity.  “Failed states” and “hollow states” are stuffed animals.

“Favela Chic” is the same basic activity, but with much less money and institutional clout.  In “Favela Chic” nobody bothers to ask for bailouts.  They know the state has failed, or they themselves are engaged in weird activities they prefer to hide from the authorities.   “Favela Chic” lives within openly failed structures, or else in half-structures that are in “permanent beta” and falling down as rapidly as they can be erected.  Favela Chic is bottom-up, open-sourced, heavily networked, subversive and piratical.

There’s a certain amount of class-transition between Gothic High Tech and Favela Chic — like, Twitter was Favela Chic and is heading straight for Gothic High Tech.  But there’s much less transition than there used to be, because of income differentiation — the tiny faction of Gothic moguls “own” what’s left of most of the wealth, which they themselves are rapidly destroying.  The general trend is not toward increasing global prosperity.  The precarity is becoming general.  The Favela beckons for everybody.  That’s where most of the planet’s population lives already, and it’s certainly where most of the young people live.  The idea of a “developing world” needs to be reversed; the end game is in the “developing world” and the rich nations are heading there.

Tish Shute: It seems to me that Twitter and the real time web of flow is a revolution in our means of communication presenting awesome opportunities.  But, are we squatters in an infrastructure that is hard to manage?

Bruce Sterling: *Yes. I’d go farther and say that we are squatters in an infrastructure that methodically destroys previous systems of management.  Especially itself: the closer you are to a revolutionary real-time web flow, the faster you have to reboot.

Tish Shute: And what is the answer to the question at the end of your cover story for Interactions:

“The winds of the Net are full of straws. Who will make the bricks?”

Bruce Sterling: *I frankly have no idea.  The storm-gusts are rising in a hurry and we are in for a whole lot of straws.

*I would point out that, if we could make up out minds about what kind of bricks we wanted, we could make them at tremendous speed.  We’re not helpless: our productive capacity is frankly fantastic.  Clearly we’ve lost the thread and can no longer explain what we’ve done to ourselves or how we get out of our fix.  But we might surprise ourselves.  21st century Favela Chic is no mere favela, and Gothic High Tech isn’t just Gothic, it’s also very high tech.  We’re in a Depression and it’s gonna last, but this is no 1930s Depression.

Talking with Stowe Boyd


Photo from Stowe Boyd’s Flickr stream, “Little” Tower Of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Younger. It is also a slide from his presentation, “The evolution of Microsyntax.”

[Note: Most of this conversation took part in a busy foyer at #140conf and various people joined in the conversation at different points.  I have cut out these other conversations and tried to maintain the thread of my own questions in the transcription.  But this may have resulted in a sense of choppiness and discontinuity in places.]

Tish Shute: You have been on the front-line of so much web innovation, but, perhaps, you could give me a little back story on how you came to take the lead with

Stowe Boyd: Well, I’ve been on twitter 990 days or something. But long before Twitter became a commonplace household word, I’ve been advocating what I’ve been calling flow application, based on the streaming metaphor – the notion that you’d have a stream of updates coming from people that you chose to follow, which is now being called the asymmetric follow model. Years and years ago I postulated that that model was going to come along and completely change all future significant social applications. Back in the late nineties, I introduced a term “Social tools” and said social tools were going to come along and change the way the web worked. So I have a history of being 4 or 5 years ahead of what actually happens.

Microsyntax is sort of an interesting outgrowth of that. In a way it’s a very narrow area, in the sense that it’s focusing on these information patterns, the way that people want to encode information in the twitter stream or in the realtime stream of other apps. So it’s very narrow in the sense that it doesn’t immediately include all sorts of other things like these sports figures talking about how to market their services or whatever. But on the other hand it’s very broad, because every sort of information that you can imagine is going to be streaming through twitter and related applications.

We saw examples today of plants demanding water or DJ’s posting their set lists as they’re playing them, devices or equipment talking about its status, video stream from surveilance cameras. Everything you can possibly imagine will find it’s way in that stream. It’s all going to be encoded in different ways and grappling with that is actually an interesting problem. But more importantly it’s better for us as a community of users if we try to approach it in some systematic fashion. That’s the purpose of – this nonprofit. The concept of microsyntax is immediately evident to people who use Twitter, and that is we have a whole bunch of conventions that have emerged, and we have some places where it would be nice if conventions did emerge, but we don’t have them yet. And the idea of creating a nonprofit to do it is a sensible thing to do. So I decided I’ll go along with the request that others have made, because other people asked me to do this. So that’s a little unusual for me.

The Web of Flow

Tish: What first attracted my attention to was Bruce Sterling’s post suggesting combining pachube feeds with Googlewave and then describing this in microsyntax. Why do you think Bruce Sterling posed this particular challenge?

Stowe: Well, because he sees that everything is moving into the web of flow. Everything is moving out of the web of pages. In the next ten years we’re going to cease to experience the web as we do now, which is as a bunch of pages and we move around from link to link. And that’s what browsers are about. They help us move from page to page on the web. But Twitter, and before it the minifeed and instant messaging and a handful of other really interesting applications, have suggested a completely different web where information flows from other people to you through streaming mechanisms.

And the really interesting stuff that comes to me now on a daily basis is streaming to me through Twitter, not through my RSS reader, not me wandering around figuring out what to google, news or something. And that’s an indicator of the fact that that’s the hottest, coolest way to do it now, and means that in the future it will be “the way” that it’s done. So there will still be a web of pages out there, but it’ll exist like an archive. And we won’t experience the web that way in general because, “why would I go to the web page and see the guy’s blog post on his page, when it’s been served up to me 16 other ways?” And most importantly I’ve found it initially in some client, because somebody recommended it to me, and I resolved it in a hover window in my Twitter client. I’d never go to the page. I comment on it here…

Tish: I like your framing,  “the web of flow…”

Stowe: Well it’s also that one of the characteristics is the tempo is different. I actually wrote a post about this, that I think it’s fundamentally important. It’s not really gotten much drift yet. I think it’s too hard for people to think this way. They just can’t get it.

The dimension that’s really most interesting is the transition from secret to private to public. The fact that Twitter is inherently public as a default is a breakthrough. I mean there’s nothing else like this. The first time that the idea, except for the blogosphere itself which is the concept it’s built on,  the inherent notion is that you’re publishing stuff and anyone can get access to it. But the tempo thing really matters, the fact that it’s near synchronous so your perception of what you feel like you’re doing is you feel like you’re in a stream of updates from friends. We know that. But the sensation is dramatically different than your close personal relationship with your inbox, which is email. Email is secret, closed, and the sense is the context is that it’s an inbox, like the one on your desk. And you are boxed in by that, and you’re not actually feeling like you’re dealing with people. You feel like you’re dealing with the inbox.

Tish: This was only present in boxes as you say – chat rooms, IM, IRC, MUDs, Virtual Worlds but they all had that realtime experience going on.

Stowe: Yes instant messaging, chat rooms, etc. they were private. You had to invite people. The update paradigm on instant messaging was backwards. It said I want to follow this guys updates, but you had to get his permissin to do it. That seemed like a sensible thing in the mid ’90s when people worried about privacy and so they made it private. And private is not good, actually.

Tish: IRC is exactly like twitter but it’s off in closed worlds…

Stowe: Yes you have to know about them. You can’t just stumble across them, you have to be invited or give the password. It’s another closed model. But instant messaging is the father of all this, or the mother, depending on which way you look at it. But that fundamental last thing, it’s based on a quote by Gabriel García Márquez which is, “All people have three lives. they have a public life, a private life and a secret life.” And we are philosophically moving from a time where things were primarily secret (pre internet) to a time where things were primarily private which is web 1.0 into this new web where things are going to be primarily public and open and immediate. So we are building the scaffolding real fast to allow that to happen. And it’ll take us away from the old web. The old web will go down there. Everything’s built on dirt right? Do you see very much dirt in cities? No. No. The dirt is all concealed. It’s down there. If you want to go find it you can dig underneath the floor, and there’s dirt under there. But most people don’t spend very much time down there we send professionals down there to put plumbing and pipes underneath and we experience the world like this.

Tish: I met Eric Horvitz (Microsoft Researcher) at Where 2.0.  He is interested in community sensing and ideas about how people can share data in a win win way (see here). Do we need to work out ways to make sure people’s relationship to their data is not just to have it harvested by others for profit or repression?

Stowe: I’m interested in this actually. I recently wrote a piece about the governance of Twitter and for the purpose of your question let’s just go along with the premise that Twitter’s going to continue to be benevolent, and everything will be open, and everything will be public and everyone can do whatever they want with it. Well there’s a tremendous amount of things that people will want to do, but most of the things that they will set about doing to begin with will turn out to be irrelevant.

People will want to measure sentiment and all this other stuff, for example. And they’ll do that and they’ll coerce a lot of big brands and so on to pay money for these services. But the thing that’s going on with the now web, my web of flow is that people are disconnecting from self identity based on mass affiliations. So ultimately the more you spend your time doing this, you don’t give a s**t about brands. Nike – I could care less.

So there is defection from the mass media. We heard it today. There’s people here who were like booing these media guys, who think they should be held up as gods because, “Oh I’m one of the first to use Twitter on TV.” Well F*** you, I don’t give a s***. I don’t watch television. Every hour that people spend on the internet is an hour they do not spend watching television. It’s a direct and one to one correlation. Sure people still want to get their fill of whatever, the NBA playoffs, but significantly less than ever before. Which is why they’re increasingly irrelevant.

So the idea that some magicians are going to come along, figure out how to mine this data to find out how I feel about my automobile? I do not have a close personal relationship with an automobile. I don’t. And increasingly people won’t affiliate that way. They won’t bond with their stuff like that. That’s why I say most of this information won’t be helpful. It’ll be interesting sociologically. Webthropologists will be able to make it interesting – and marketing people, who are trying to figure what’s going on, might be able to do the right thing. But if they’re trying to take it and make it do something for them… They’re going to try to take it and use it to change us? To control us? It’s like that line in The Labyrinth,  “you don’t have any power over me anymore.”

Tish: You are actually saying something much more radical than say community sensing or that we need to store our own data. You seem to be saying that in some ways it doesn’t matter whether you store your own data or your data’s in the cloud (although Iran seems to be showing how centralized network control can be a powerful tool of repression).

Stowe: Most of the things that they’re going to try to use it to do won’t work because we’re not the same anymore. It’s inevitable. You use these tools, and you are changed. And it’s just a question of how long you use them and the longer you use them, the more you use them, the more changed you are. When people shift to a basis of sociality around connection with other people as opposed to mass affiliation, it’s different. It’s completely different. Your whole system of ethics, the way you judge the world and decide what’s important, is different. And not only different it’s better. It’s a better way to deal with the world. And these guys are still hoping that the old rules hold, but they don’t. They just won’t.

Tish: This is  rather a broad question. But one of the things that Kevin Slavin brought up in his talk is about things that tweet – your plant is tweeting, your shoes are tweeting, your house is tweeting. Twitter is a natural medium for the internet of things and what Kevin Slavin calls the “streamy aesthetics of sensors.” But with all these things that are tweeting people have had a lot of problems with filtering that kind of flood of tweets.  For example, I may want to listen to a tweet from my plant telling me it needs water when I am actually at home and can do something about it. But I may not want to listen to my plant whining about being thirsty all the time. Can microsyntax help? Or is this a place for those appliances you mentioned earlier?

Stowe:  There’s a whole other category of stuff having to do with priorities – this isn’t really a microsyntax – of different times of day when you’re involved in different activities. You may be more or less interested in different collections of Twitter streams. And the notion of how you go about dealing with that is – it could semi-microsyntactical, but maybe it isn’t at all. Maybe it’s all just having to do with the way that clever client apps work. So maybe if you have a super duper Tweet Deck, and you say it’s evening time and I’m in my evening mode, so a whole bunch get blocked and a different group of people, for example, your Parcheesi evening friends get enabled, and at the weekend when you have time to do house care you listen to your house.

I don’t think this is a microsyntactical issue. I don’t think this is an issue of what’s embedded in the stream except as a notion of priorities. There’s a lot of people who would like to have a mechanism to indicate priority. But I can’t think of any effective way to do it that wouldn’t immediately be abused. Of course anything can be abused. This guy thinks that this is high priority, but maybe once again it’s one of these sort of mutual dimensions where they want to indicate it’s high priority but I say I only believe in priorities from certain people.

But still there might be a case to be made for allowing people to put some kind of indication of priority in a tweet, so that there is a hope that it could rise out of the clutter. I talked about some things that I’m interested in that are just purely operational. One of these things I want to get people to build, in Tweet Deck, but it could be in any kind of a client, I want to be able to say don’t let this tweet go away. So I’m getting them to build the pushpin. So I can put a pushpin in the thing and it’ll stay at the top, or stay at the bottom, wherever I put it. And then I can respond to it later, because if I don’t respond to it right now, in most places it goes bye, and then you’ve got to go search for it – a pain in the ass.

Then I say if I’m going to have pushpins I want to have a record of all the things that I’ve push pinned – a history of pushpins. But it’s all client based. It’s got nothing to do with what’s in the text.

Tish: And knowing how many of your followers had already got a particularly tweet from somewhere else which would be very useful has to be done as an appliance…

Stowe: Yes that’s sort of a downstream metrics kind of thing.

Microsyntax is not the answer to every kind of thing. Like, appropriately dealing with hash tags in a sensible fashion is not purely a function of how we use them. But some of it is the structure itself. That’s why I came up with the subtags model. So everybody at South by South West tagged everything southbysouthwest, so if you searched for it there were 150,000 hits a day. So it was useless. But if people had used the subtags model, or something else like that, you could have searched for the subtag. So you could have searched for south-by-southwest.parties or south-by-southwest.thirtytwo-bit which was a particular party.

And so if you have sensible tools that are doing a better job of aggregating information around more complicated ways of structuring hash information, then we can get past the fact that brute force search just isn’t going to work. It just won’t work. For example somebody going through the stuff from today all the stuff that says #140conf but they want to find just the stuff that had to do with media, they wont be able to do it. They’ll have to do it manually. So some of that is better syntax. But some of it is better tools. I mean somebody should go build a better

Tish: And in terms of creating a web of flow not all of what we need can been done within the Twitter messages – it has to be done in the client and external applications

Stowe: Yes, there’s this class of applications that listen very diligently to what you’re doing in Twitter. The primary mechanism of how you influence the app is doing stuff in Twitter. You can always go to the app and look at it and fool with it. But, if in fact, the preponderance of your interaction is, it’s listening or talking to you in Twitter – I call that an appliance, to distinguish it from these other apps. Any external application might provide you with the mechanism to dump information into Twitter, but you have to go to the app to do the primary kinds of interaction. In fact major functionality may not be available at all in Twitter or maybe no functionality, except for like Brightkite allows you to dump stuff into Twitter. But the idea is that primarily you do it there. Or there’s a very limited thing like you get with Brightkite, you can send a message saying, “I’m somewhere.”

Tish: Should location be put into tags?

Stowe: I don’t think that location should be put into tags. In other words, if I talk about Paris, then using hashtags is sensible. Or I’m talking about Sherlock Holmes and his relationship to London. It’s a conceptual thing – like talking about Heaven. It doesn’t actually have to exist on the planet somewhere. But it’s really different if you say I am in New York City right now or the more interesting case I think really is, “I am going to be in Boston colon next week” or June 15 dash 17. And I want that information to be available to everybody or a select group of my friends, or just to myself and have it find it’s way into my calendar. But that’s really different than saying “I’ve always enjoyed it when I visit HASH New York.”

Tish: I liked Kevin Slavin’s  phrase “the streamy aesthetics of sensors.” I guess streamy aesthetics is something you have given a lot of thought to?

Stowe: First of all I read a lot of poetry, so I believe in poetics in reading and writing. But I don’t think punctuation marks really degrade that dramatically. I mean it’s OK to have periods and exclamation marks and commas, and things can still be poetic. I think it’s important to try to dream up microsyntax that doesn’t take your eyes off the content, the stuff that people are really trying to say. So that’s why for example I hate L: as a location queue because anything that has letters in it, if you’re not supposed to say them, – if you’re not mentally supposed to say them, or if you’re not supposed to say them if you read it aloud, causes you to do a stutter step when you’re reading the tweet.

But if you use punctuation marks, special characters at various points or placement conventions, like where do things appear in order in a tweet, those things don’t have the same toe stub, that I think really ugly syntactic conventions would. So it’s possible to make these things pretty. For example I’m testing out trying on various conventions for what do you do with a re-tweet. If you want to re-tweet it, if you actually want to have people see it, and then you want to make your own comment. So the question is how do you separate the two? So, RT – guy’s name and then text. Well then how do you know where his text ends and my text begins. So certain things don’t work for me. I mean like a comma is not enough because there might be a comma in the text. And a period doesn’t work because there might be multiple sentences. So it has to be something else.

Tish: And aren’t there confusions that arise because there are already conventions of usage…

Stowe: Yes, I have problems with angle brackets, for example. Sometimes when the tweets wind up in not particularly smart rendering systems, it gets confused because it thinks they’re html. For example, somebody was using the open angle bracket, and even though it’s just text, and it’s not html, when I took that tweet and put it in a blog post, it thought it was the start of an html tag, and so it disappeared. You could use an html escape character but that’s the kind of thing that causes problems. The other problem is there are other ways that it’s been used a lot. People have used this as the thing to introduce the comment that they’re making after a re-tweet.

Tish: There must be very few characters not being used for other things?

Stowe:  Yes but for example, when we use geoslashes there’s a blank in front of it, or it’s the first character in the tweet – so in that particular example  it is similar because slash is used for other things. But, in all the places where it is used, generally there’s a character that precedes it – like “w/o” for without or a fraction or a long list list of  these options. [Geoslash is microsyntax for user location using slash (‘/’) — as in ‘just arrived /SFO’ or ‘heading to /New York: tomorrow/’ for more see Stowe’s post here.]

When I was rooting around for a character I looked for a long time.  And also I wanted to make sure that the slash was easily reachable on cell phones, which, for example, angle bracket isn’t. So if you’re on a phone and you want to say I’m here – I don’t know how far you have to go on your phone, but it isn’t in the first eight characters of Symbian. I looked carefully to make sure it wasn’t a common character that people use widely in everyday speech like commas and semicolons and exclamation marks, but was still easily used. There are still other alternatives. It’s not the only one. There are cases to be made for all of these things – pros and cons for all of them.

Anyway I was making the case of experimenting with different things for this re-tweet, “Here’s my comment.” And I was trying all sorts of stuff like double colon, I tried all kinds of things I wanted to see what it looked like. So starting this week I used the solid bar, the upright bar. It sets it off. It really feels like there’s a divide. There’s a cleavage point, and that’s that guy and this is this guy. So I’m going to write it up as one of the candidates. Some people use square brackets and many other things. There are many personal conventions but nothing has become a real convention, accepted as the norm.

[ Note: Our conversation ended here as the presentations had resumed at 140 Characters Conference ]

categories: Instrumenting the World, internet of things, new urbanism, ubiquitous computing, websquared, World 2.0
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