Starting to Twitter — and I think I know why

In Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age, John Seely Brown outlines some work at Xerox on training for copier repair technicians (the story starts half way down the page)

First of all, what happens is whenever a tech rep gets stuck he calls in another tech rep and then, standing around the problematic machine, they start to weave a story, a story that starts to explain some of the particular symptoms of the machine. And then some fragment of the initial story reminds them of something else which suggests a few more measurements to make which in turn produces some more data that reminds them of another fragment of a story, and so on. Troubleshooting for these guys is really just weaving together a narrative, a narrative that eventually explains all the symptoms and test data of this machine. And when they have made sense of all the data, the narrative is finished and the machine is diagnosed.

To make a long story short, what did we do? What kind of system did we design, because of course as a technologist I was expected to build a system? We created a beautifully simple system, one that involved using two-way radios and no computers. We gave everybody in our tech rep community-of-practice test site a two-way radio, a radio that was always on, with their own private network. Because it was always on, they were always in each other’s periphery. When a tech rep needed help, other tech reps in his community-of-practice would hear him struggling and if one of them had an idea he could move from the periphery to the (auditory) center, adding his fragment of “story” which usually suggested a new test to run or part to replace, and so on. And so basically we created a multi-processing, multi-person storytelling process running all across this initial test site. It worked incredibly well. In fact, it also turned out to be a powerful way to bring new people into the community since a novice could, as I mentioned earlier, lurk on the periphery and hear what was going on and in so doing could be a virtual cognitive apprentice. He could also move from the periphery to the center when he had something to contribute, very much like today’s digital kids are doing on the Web.

Another story comes from the description of George Hotz’ work in summer 2007 to hack the Apple iPhone. He blogged the work, but one can glean from the narrative that he was also on IRC with a group of fellow hackers.

In each case, there is a community of practice and it is communicating with a high bandwidth tool. In Hotz’ case, there was also a following on his blog, getting a lower bandwidth experience.

So contrary to the recent Doonesbury cartoons, the point of the examples above seems to be to have a community of practice and to use Twitter as a way to have your radio always on. So, Twitter’s tag line should be more like “What are you doing that matters to your community?” And in all likelihood, you won’t have a following of thousands, but a small read-write group, that links via its members to other small groups.

Had Twitter been a phenomenon when I did my analysis for Pandemic Flu preparations, I think I would have added it as another of the recommended tools for keeping track of the class during the diaspora.

For the record I’m NilsPeterson on Twitter.