Friday, March 6, 2009

Reporting live from the NanoTwitterVerse

Yesterday's headline in The UK's Guardian blared "Nanotechnology goes to war."

The story is about how the Pentagon is using small tech for improved sensors, robotics and other applications. The only trouble is that very little of the information there is new and, aside from the headline, the article contains no examples of actual nanotechnology. Much of it was about labs-on-a-chip, MEMS and other technologies you read about on this site every day.

But, in an age where print journalism is dying and online journalism is still trying to define itself, the Guardian article is not the last word. It is, in fact, only the beginning of the conversation about the news.

Ideas today are circulating in 140-word, self-contained blocks -- mostly via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Yesterday's Guardian piece was just a few hour old, when the NanoTwitterVerse chimed in -- the opening shot coming from British nanopundit Tim Harper, who Tweeted that the "nano" piece was not about nano.

Harper was answered by prolific Twitterer Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington. On Twitter, he is known by the name of his blog: 2020science. His response to Harper: "Hate to say it, but nano-promoters have been piggybacking on MEMS for some time - not surprising that journalists mix'n'match!"

Harper: Thought it was the other way around -MEMS have been trying to get their claws into sexy nano funding 4 years

2020science: think you're probably right - from a distance, thinks get a little blurry!

The exchange was important for a few reasons. First, despite the appearance of a cozy two-way conversation, it was read by their thousands of Twitter "followers," or other people on Twitter who are interested in their updates. Any one of them can "retweet" the conversation and the word can spread virally. It also was a necessary counterpoint from two nanotech "insiders" to the viral spread of the story outside the world of nanotech experts.

The Guardian story was also posted on the news networking site, with readers' comments indicating that they couldn't care less about the accuracy of the headline, but used it as a launching point for their own personal fears or hopes for however they define "nanotechnology."

Through Twitter and Digg, what we're still talking about here is not even the "blogosphere," but a new layer that has emerged -- quick, opinionated, emotional, probably unfair, but increasingly responsible for what becomes widely circulated and commented upon by the public at large.

Comparitively, blogs are practically "the establishment" now. And they're so damn wordy. (Looking back at my first month of blogging back in 2003, it looked like I was going for "War and Peace" with each long-winded post).

For the Guardian story, Harper saw something deeper in the misuse of "nanotechnology" in the headline and needed the longer blog format to express them.

"There's no space for more considered opinions on Twitter so you need to combine it with other media," Harper told me in a brief interview I conducted with him yesterday on Twitter ("Twitterview"?)

What resulted was a post on his blog called "politicizing nanotechnology," in which he discussed how nanotech is viewed through the prism of political agendas.

In comparison to his "Tweets," Harper's blog posts require an attention span and the ability to follow more than one simultaneous theme. That's not to knock Twitter at all, though. Sifting through dozens of Tweets every day -- or even hundreds, depending on how much time you have during the day -- on a nanotech theme, you can get differering views on the same topic.

Harper's Tweets are enjoyable because, aside from his usual rants against the "nanobot crowd" he'll slip in a few personal tidbits -- like how he sat near Jacques Chirac at a Paris restaurant. I can picture him sitting there, noticing Chirac and the first thing he thinks of is Twittering the news.

The largest criticism I have of the NanoTwitterVerse is that it at times can be a feedback loop -- the usual suspects talking inside baseball to one another, or "retweeting" one another to the point where only one point of view bounces around an echo chamber. That will change as more nanotech voices join the conversation.

Another notable nano voice on Twitter is Kristen Kulinowski, executive director for policy at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology. She recently Tweeted the Rice Alliance Nanotechnology and Sustainability Venture Forum, giving live, as-it-happens updates.

The live events are enjoyable, although sometimes a bit cryptic, since 140 words a pop seems limiting for an on-the-spot reporter. Maynard does it, too, and knows when to Tweet (Congressional hearing on the Toxic Substances Control Act) and when not to Tweet (NNI exposure assessment workshop).

Like blogging about five years ago, Twitter is something that you either "get," or you do not. A great many believe that, in the words of Houston Chronicle Science Writer (and prolific Twitterer) Eric Berger, "it was mostly people posting pics of their breakfast."

Well, yes, there's that, too.

But amid some of the silliness, there's substance in Twitter when taken as a whole. Does it stand alone as a source of news? Of course not. Does it give more people a chance to participate in the discussion about the news? Maybe it will, someday, but for now it is another way to interact with the world by telling it to others from your own perspective -- a kind of Seussian, "we are here" for journalists, too, who sometimes forget about all those Whos down in Whoville.

Oh, and speaking of kids' stuff, have you heard about that "nanosong" video that explains nanotech with music and puppets? It was first spread virally via the Twitterverse.

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