Archive for November, 2009

Why Twitter is like, and not like, living in an intentional community

My attitude to Twitter and the concept of microblogging has changed dramatically in the last 18 months. I’ve gone from “that’s stupid, why would anyone use that” to “I would find living without Twitter very difficult indeed”.

In the last month or so, I’ve started noticing some similarities between using Twitter, and living in an intentional community. There are also some marked differences. I tweeted these thoughts today, but here they are in an expanded form.

First, a definition of intentional community. Wikipedia defines it as:

An intentional community is a planned residential community designed to have a much higher degree of teamwork than other communities. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and are often part of the alternative society. They typically also share responsibilities and resources. Intentional communities include cohousing communities, residential land trusts, ecovillages, communes, survivalist retreats, kibbutzim, ashrams and housing cooperatives. Typically, new members of an intentional community are selected by the community’s existing membership, rather than by real-estate agents or land owners (if the land is not owned collectively by the community). Though intentional communities do not claim to be utopias in the sense of perfect places, many do attempt to live a different and better sort of society, and as such many draw on historical utopian experiments, and ideas in utopian fiction.

For my purposes intentional community also includes families cohabiting, and sharing a flat or house with others. I’ve not personally lived in intentional communities outside of family, flatting, and annual week long residential retreats. I have however talked with a number of people who have lived in various forms of long term residential communes/settlements/intentional communities.

Here are what I see as the similarities, i.e. why why Twitter is like living in an intentional community:

  1. You know what time people get up, and what time they go to bed
  2. You  know what a number of people in your community people ate for breakfast and dinner
  3. Most of your news about the world comes via your social network
  4. You overhear lots of conversations between people you know
  5. People repeat to you what they’ve heard others saying
  6. You can choose to participate or not participate in social interaction at any one time, by entering or leaving the shared social space

Here are what I see as the differences, i.e. why why Twitter is NOT like living in an intentional community:

  1. There is no assumption of shared property
  2. When people repeat what they’ve heard others saying, they do so accurately (i.e. they normally retweet your text exactly)
  3. You can remove someone from your community without having to leave it yourself
  4. You add someone to your community without having to have anyone’s agreement (except theirs if they are protecting their tweets)
  5. You can have private conversations without any chance of anyone noticing
  6. You spend little or no time negotiating social norms or dealing with conflict

A lot of the second group are related to the differences between a single cohesive community, and a social network. Twitter, as a social network, seems to be giving us a lot of the benefits that come with living in a single community (the awareness of others daily activities, opportunities for serendipitous conversation, efficient filtering of news and content based on reputation and trust), without a lot of the downsides.

It will be interesting to see how this medium evolves, and what social needs it begins to meet.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Muhammad Ali