Twitter Social Proprio… Proprio… What Clive Said

I’ve not thought much lately about the phenomena of the twitterverse, in fact, using twitter has become part of my regular routine antics that it really becomes less of an object of attention itself- its the flow that means something to me.

This came to me during some reflection at the NMC Regional Conference at Tulane last week, not because it was obsessively tweeted. Actually it was seeing and connecting with colleague Kevin Creamer from University of Richmond. We’ve crossed tracks the last few years, some blog comments here and there, and I’ve read a few things on his Pandaemonium blog. Pretty sporadic. We may have had 2 RL conversations, or less.

But following Kevin’s twitter this year, I had this compendium of more bits of Kevin-ness than previously possible. I knew some places he goes for coffee, some activities he does with his kids, the technologies he was researching at University Richmond, his interests in acting, his joy of using an iPhone, and much more. It’s less about the kind of voyeuristic peeking that people worry about happening in online social places, and more than I had this flow of things Kevin decided to share with others.

It is nearly impossible for me to describe this incredible net of flowing, moving information, from a network I choose that provides the input. It is the continual state of subtle bits about the lives and work of people I respect (and like).

But someone did outline this very eloquently- It was Clive Thompson in the June 2007 issue of Wired, writing How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense — a slide I used to death in my “Being There” presentation:


As he wrote (emphasis added)

Individually, most Twitter messages are stupefyingly trivial. But the true value of Twitter is cumulative. The power is in the surprising effects that come from receiving thousands of pings from your posse. And this, as it turns out, suggests where the Web is heading.

When I see that my friend Misha is "waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop," that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.

It’s like proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are. That subliminal sense of orientation is crucial for coordination: It keeps you from accidentally bumping into objects, and it makes possible amazing feats of balance and dexterity.

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

I cannot even pronounce this “proprioception” word, but as described, it is to me, the most clear explanation of the “twitter effect” and I like “weird, fascinating feats of coordination” and see immense value in “an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me”.

And its this kind of phenomena that is hard to describe to someone who takes one sniff and dismisses the potential in narrowly casting it as people twittering about what kind of pizza they ate or the news that they are washing their socks. There is a lot more than that, though there is a lot of noise. I like some of the banal banter, the people I follow often have a similar snarky sense of “humor”– this is how we are in real life. If that were stripped away, it leaves a mostly naked personality. Maybe.

I can deal with the noise, as long as I get some good signal among that, and I do.

Yes.. yet… there is much more to it than that. When I see the people I follow on twitter, like Kevin, this proprio.. propio…pro…. that “subliminal sense of orientation” thang, provides us a different, higher, or deeper, or just richer, level of conversation to have.

And experience is backing that up.

As a footnote- Wired brings this “p” word back again in the October issue — see number 3 in Three Smart Things You Should Know About the Senses.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Powerful. This may be the thing I need to sell Twitter as non-trivial. That is, if people ‘get’ the concept at all. But look at it this way – it’s just another means of having small hallway and office-cooler conversations, the daily “heyhowyadoin'” that leads to knowing folks.

    Or at least, as much of folks as they want to expose.

    Which is all you’ll probably ever know anyway.

    …or want to. 😉

  2. Yay! Glad you blogged a bit more about this Alan. Many thanks 🙂
    You really got me thinking when you talked about this in your recent Oz tour presentation – I had a mini epiphany you could say!

  3. I never knew that word, but the concept makes perfect sense. Your point about the individial messages being “stupefyingly trivial” and yet the overall network of communication being so valuable has also been my experience. It’s impossible to get Twitter on a small scale.
    I also related to the comment about signal to noise… an appropriate metaphor. I must admit I sometimes find the streams of comments about the US football scores, people making dinner for themselves, and inane chatter a little trivial, even annoying, but when taken as a whole it forms an important part of the rich tapestry that is a Twitter network. I have recommended to teachers for many years that they join online communities, and have even convinced some to give it a go… joining a mailing list of forum or online community. It’s frustrating when the come to me two days later and say “how do I get off this thing! I can’t deal with all these messages!” only to find out that they had 4 emails in a day. Sigh.

  4. Alan, this is so timely as I’m preparing for the up coming NYSCATE conference.One of my main goals is to increase the proprioception of conference attendees (and non-attendees alike) to enhance the experience. I’d love to be able to quote you during my presentation and throughout the conference as I speak with those that “take one sniff”. I invite you and your readers to follow the conference at twitter.com/nyscate.

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