To tweet or not to tweet

The other day I spoke at a conference for the leading bloggers in Norway.

It was a little unnerving. Bloggers are a pretty fast bunch, so singing the praises of Slow to them felt like barbecuing a steak at a vegan retreat.

From the stage, I could see laptop screens glowing in the dark. An iPhone rang. Members of the audience tweeted my talk, their dispatches scrolling down a large screen behind me. In Norwegian.

Even so, the Slow message seemed to go down well. I was not booed, heckled or pelted with tomatoes. Okay, someone tweeted that I reminded him of Quentin Tarantino. But given the high geek content in the room, I’m going to take that as a compliment.

The surest sign that the Slow philosophy made sense to those Norwegian bloggers is that several of them will soon be blogging on Slow Planet.

But the conference left a mark on me, too. I lost my Twitter virginity there. I decided that the only way to balance all the tweets about me was to start tweeting back.

So what do I make of Twitter? It’s a question put to me a lot by journalists these days. My view is that, like all technology, Twitter is neither good nor bad. What matters is how we use it.

Twitter can be a fun, enriching and provocative way to air views and connect with people. It can even reshape the political landscape, as we’ve seen during the protests in Iran. Sometimes a heat-of-the-moment 140-character missive is just the ticket.

But I think Twitter is best enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. In other words, it should complement – rather than replace – other forms of communication.

The trouble is that it can be very tempting to do everything at the speed of a tweet. And I mean everything.

Two university students are now reducing some of the greatest works of English literature, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, to 140-character tweets.

This strikes me as an amusing parlour game that might inspire some people to read the original books in their entirety. It might even add to our understanding of the English canon.

But it also plays into the cultural pressure to reduce all communication to high-speed sound bytes.

Already, research shows that millions of people are no longer bothering to update their blogs. Why? Because blogging is now too slow. It’s much easier (and quicker) to type a short update on Facebook or to fire of a tweet.

If the Slow revolution stands for anything, it stands for doing everything at the right speed. And that principle holds true for communication. There are times for a shoot-from-the-hip tweet, but there are also times for more reflective – or slower – forms of communication.

I’ll tweet from time to time when it feels right. But I’ll also continue writing blogs, emails, articles and even books.

If you want to follow my tweets, my username is carlhonore.

Are you listening?

The other day I gave a talk at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. It was a bit like entering the belly of the beast. Technology companies worship at the altar of speed and their products are designed to help us do everything faster.

They also condition us to expect everything to happen at the click of a mouse.

A couple of hours before the talk, I was watching TV in my hotel room when a Microsoft ad came on. It featured animated drawings dancing on the screen while an ambitious CEO talked about how Microsoft software was a godsend for his company. I can’t remember the exact wording, but towards the end of the ad he said something like “…in business you have to do everything at the speed of light.”

Not a very Slow sentiment.

So did I get scalped and lynched during my lunchtime lecture at Microsoft HQ? Far from it. The Slow message seemed to strike a chord with the employees who came to hear me speak. The crowd hung around asking questions and sharing their own reflections even after the 90-minute session was over. This morning one of the organizers emailed to say that my visit has sparked a lot of discussion within the company.

I’m not surprised. Increasingly, it’s people inside the technology companies that are realizing there is too much speed in the system – and they’re looking for ways to slow down a little. Microsoft is no exception.

After my event, I spent some time hanging out with some of the company’s researchers. One of them was Eric Horvitz, who specializes in the interplay between technology and culture – how we use our gadgets and why, and how that use affects us.

Eric is overseeing some new research into what happens when people use laptops while attending public lectures. This particular brand of multitasking is now commonplace. At conferences, you see loads of people listening to speeches with their laptops open, reading and typing away in the eerie glow. Some are taking notes on the talk, but many are handling email, surfing the Web on unrelated topics or updating their Facebook pages. Or they’re tweeting.

Is there anything wrong with this? I think so. For a start, it’s just plain rude. When you attend a talk, the least you can do is give the speaker your full attention. Or at least give the impression that you are listening. Just think how irritating it is to share a dinner table with someone who constantly turns away to deal with incoming emails on a Blackberry. Or how important it is to look a person in the eye when you talk to them.

A public talk is different from a social gathering, of course, but don’t the basic rules of courtesy still apply?

You could argue that the world is changing and that people no longer expect to receive anyone’s full attention. But even if that is true – and I hope it’s not – then we should be worried about how that change affects our understanding of what is being said to us.

Back to that study at Microsoft HQ. Researchers are filming audiences during public talks and then asking them questions about the content. By plotting a time-line, they hope to work out how comprehension waxes and wanes during a speech and how those peaks and troughs correspond to laptop-users looking up and down from their screens.

My guess is that people absorb less when their attention turns to the computer – and that their general comprehension of the talk also suffers. I suppose that as a public speaker I would say that. Like anyone else who stands up on stage, I want to feel like I have the full and undivided attention of everyone in the room. But there is more at work here than my fragile ego.

What brain scan research is teaching us about multitasking is that it doesn’t work: that the human brain cannot process two streams of information at the same time, and that attempting to do so is a recipe for confusion, inefficiency and errors.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world where everyone can devote their full attention to everything they do. Some Microsoft employees argue that their workload makes it impossible to unplug for 90 minutes during the day. So they choose to multitask through the lunchtime lectures: giving speakers some of their attention rather than staying away and giving them none at all. Maybe they have a point. Maybe some Slow is better than none.

Either way, I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the Microsoft research and will report back here on the findings in due course.

In the meantime, if you’re reading this blog entry while attending a public talk, you might want to consider…


Slow blogging

Instant analysis and reaction from the front line. At every conference I go to there are always a few people in the audience, laptops open, screens glowing eerily in the half-darkness, blogging away in real-time while speakers strut their stuff on stage. I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, I love the energy and insights that come from an instant reaction. I’ve read these real-time blogs and the best ones are sharp and profound. But sometimes I wonder how much these nimble-fingered bloggers are really getting out of the speeches – are they picking up all the shades of meaning, the different layers of the message? Might they see, hear and understand more if they gave their full attention to the speech, and then blogged a few minutes, hours or even days afterwards? Maybe what we need is a blend of fast blogging and slow blogging. One blogger has already come to that conclusion. Her name is Michele Bowman and you can read her thoughts on slow blogging by clickingHERE.

Read Slow…fast!

It’s been a long, long time coming but I finally have a blog. So that means regular dispatches from the front line of the Slow revolution. I’d like to kick off with something a reader in Victoria, British Columbia told me the other day. In order to circulate popular books more quickly, her local library offers them on a seven-day loan, with each extra day incurring a one dollar charge. So in Victoria you can now borrow a copy of In Praise of Slow with a large sticker on the front cover saying “Fast Reads”. You couldn’t make it up.