Of course I’m addicted to Twitter. Why wouldn’t I be?

I’ve always been an information junkie. I got hooked on phonics early, but books were the real gateway drug. They opened portals in my mind, allowed me to transcend the limited sensory data of late 20C suburbia. My body could only walk so far, collect so many tumbleweeds, start so many fires. I needed more data, and I could absorb it faster than any video or lecture could transmit. I read voraciously, chasing the dragon of ink across page after page.

I remember when we got the internet. I was a kid. Back then it was called “AOL”, and it took a hundred million years to download anything cool, but you could read websites if you were patient, and you could talk to some very well-adjusted people on Instant Messenger while you waited. I hand-coded my own “web portal” to keep track of my bookmarks and daily-reader pages. I checked my traps every day. I craved insights and surprises and context, above all context , any sense that the world had some underlying order that my human mind could parse.

I’m a product of generations of people who fled west from the Industrial Revolution, who trampled the societies and ecologies of Turtle Island in haste and callous ignorance. I don’t have land-based traditions. The knowledge that was passed down to me is on the order of “Then we packed up the wagon and wandered over there and that worked until it didn’t and then we came over here and that’s been fine so far. Praise the Lord, pass the gravy.”

So I couldn’t see the way the storms moved north to south against the mountains, or the way that spiders knotted their webs anew every day. I didn’t have the Instead my eyes were trained by the city, by the looming billboards and flickering screens of capital.

I learned the taxonomies of breakfast cereals and shoe brands and Pokemon. My friends learned the intricacies of military planes and Star Wars spacecraft side-by-side. We could get any information, except for metadata about what was important to know. We could ask the Wizard any question, but we were not to look at the man behind the curtain.

Of course, imposition of order leads to escalation of disorder. The propaganda machine is always churning out “rebellious” symbolism in its pursuit of coolness, coyote and roadrunner. If it took anarchy-branded shoes at Hot Topic to reveal the portal to Dialectical Materialism, so be it. Chaos works in mysterious ways, by definition.

i'm not embarrassed by these shoes i swear Class analysis helped me re-frame my world, to see history as a series of decisions made by people, and their ramifications, rather than as Inevitable Progress. Evolution, itself a dialectical and materialist theory, helped me to see the connections implicit in all the living beings around me – to see myself as a process within nature, rather than an individual striving against it. And meme theory showed me the living nature of information itself, the community of ideas and their food web of attention.

Twitter is like an ant farm of memes. You can see individual ideas swarm and feed, populate and die back. They all link to each other in a bazillion confusing ways, and you can twine your own thoughts onto the threads of thought of anyone else. It’s information heaven, except that it doesn’t make any sense, so it’s also information hell.

I think Twitter is confusing on purpose. As a company it’s in their interest to have everyone spend as much time as possible on their site. So they optimize for outrage and reflexive responses, rather than thoughtfulness or care. The default “threading” experience presents fragments of conversation that can be splintered or interrupted or brigaded by any participant at essentially any time. It’s the comment section come to life, swollen with opinions, smothering any puny human it encounters. It’s too much, too fast, with too little context.

I wrote about this vertiginous feeling in SCIOPS 03.15: Sideways Media :

To use an embodied metaphor, Twiettr is usually like walking down a hill of scree. The sharp, loose rock is unpredictable and patternless. You risk at any moment a landslide, where all you can do is try to keep up with the brutal speed and mass of the rocks around you. Tokimeki Unfollow, on the other hand, felt like I had found a game trail sideways across the scree. I could scan the hillside from above, move carefully, consider which path I might tread next. It gave me the time, space, and perspective to rebuild the context Twiester had purposely dissolved.

To be fair, there are many wonderful things about Twitter. Power user [@visakanv] wrote about how threading his tweets helps him build context against the fragmentation of all the different places he writes.

In the same spirit, the note-taking app Roam hopes to thread all your thoughts together on a graph. It’s pretty amazing, from my limited testing. I’ve put volume 3 of SCIOPS into a public database that you can explore, but for now I want to point out a few rather magical features:

  • The basic unit in Roam is a
    block
    a bullet-point, a tweet, a paragraph. Each block can stand on its own or be a sub-unit of a larger block. It doesn’t matter, because
  • Roam has bidirectional linking by default. So any word or phrase can become its own page, and all the pages that include that word will be automatically linked to it. This is insanely cool. It’s like having a search page automatically attached to any tweet, to see any other tweets that link or reference it. This feature allows for deep connections to be made, and for otherwise-forgotten thoughts to resurface when they’re needed.

  • Plus, Roam can do transclusion. This is like the new-ish Twitter feature of “quote-tweeting”: you can directly insert the content of a block into a new slot. This isn’t just copy-pasting, though: if you edit the original block, it will change in all the places where it is transcluded. As opposed to Twitter, where there is no edit function and the only option is to delete your tweet and orphan all the replies and quotes like a coward.

  • If you’re about to edit a block, but don’t want to risk losing what you wrote before, should you copy-paste it to a file called like “intro-backup-14.txt”? Don’t bother. Roam has versioning built in, so you can just hit ctrl+comma and the old version will be backed up automatically! A little bubble appears next to the block, with the number of edits in it, and you can flip through these to see the different versions of that thought you’ve archived. That function seems like it would be especially great for novelists, who may also like

  • Drag-and-drop editing of blocks. You can pop chapters together and apart like Legos, play with time and space like a baby God.

  • Did I mention universal search ? Just hit a hotkey and type your query, and you’ll see exactly where and how it’s used throughout all your notes. Hit a different hotkey and you get an auto-completing command palette like I wrote about in SCIOPS 03.10: Cubicle Farming.

Of course, these are not new ideas. Transclusion and two-way linking were part of the original vision of hypertext, as any Ted Nelson nerd will tell you at length. But Roam have managed to pull it all together into a writing tool that’s actually usable. It feels like the next evolution of the word processor: instead of worrying about imaginary paper “files” and which imaginary “folder” they go in, you just connect ideas directly and on-the-fly.

Roam is still in its early phases, but they’ve got a great publicity push lately ( from bigger bloggers than me ). With plans to enable offline support and inter-blog linking, it could rapidly surpass Twitter as an information source and outlet. You can surf my SCIOPS roam here – make sure to check out the graph view . Right click the graph and click “view cose layout” to get the cooler mode:

If Twitter is a talus of loose rock, Roam feels like wet beach sand. I can clump it, break it up, play with it. It makes me want to build sand castles.

For the full effect, head over to the Roam Research meta-roam and play around with editing and linking pages. You can also sign up at their homepage and start your own roam. Connect those thoughts, build that context. It’s probably even good for your brain!

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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