[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]
A number of people have remarked recently that the environment in which someone can switch from being a Twitter neophyte to a true believer is a business conference. Conferences give Twitter users the opportunity to provide commentary (and factual corrections) to what is being presented; to provide updates to a remote audience; and to engage with one another on a number of levels from professional networking to semi-anonymous flirtation.
It's fascinating that the feeling of a 'back channel' can provoke not only a more open and participatory discussion, but can also license behavior that would otherwise be frowned upon. A 'kids at the back of the class' mentality can develop, wherein the shortcomings of the presenter's style or of the venue are called out. These kinds of things would not be considered appropriate if they involved passing notes or calling across the room. But Twitter doesn't just make these things surreptitiously possible; it is also so new that the ground-rules for social behavior have not yet been established.
But part of it may be that the medium itself allows such a broad variety of messages that social norms can never become established.
Within this, of course, lies that rather tedious discussion about the extent to which one's online identity -- masked by some measure of anonymity (or, at least, not-there-ness) -- can exist distinct of one's "real-world" identity. But it's telling that several newcomers to Twitter ask questions about whether they should establish separate accounts for personal and professional identities. That's part of the appeal of a Facebook app like Selective Twitter: it allows you to filter your output for potentially different audiences.
But as you spend more time with Twitter, it becomes clear that people's expectations of the media are that it provide a constant mixture of personal and professional. It isn't at all unusual for you to learn what a business contact ate for dinner, or to read a friend filtering a technical business conference. Part of that is the openness of the platform: you can choose who to follow, be it Neil Gaiman or your best friend. With that range of participants, what kinds of social rule set could we collectively agree to apply?
These are, of course, just a handful of the social reasons for Twitter's popularity, quite distinct from its more frequently cited technical adaptability. It provokes an extra level of interaction that simply didn't -- couldn't -- exist before. And it may remain, to some extent, permanently wild.