On Thursday and Friday I attended some Social Media Week events in New York. It was an amazing experience—not just because of the great topics and smart speakers, but because we practiced what was being preached. A fair number of audience members used laptops, iPads or smart phones during the presentations, live tweeting what was being said on stage and their own responses. Some speakers addressed questions posed via Twitter while on stage, while others took more conventional routes such as hand-raising and comments written on index cards.
I was one of those who delayed joining Twitter because I couldn’t quite figure out what it was about. 140 characters? That’s not enough to say anything, is it? After all, I’d sometimes found the 2,000 character limit of a Blackberry e-mail message restrictive—and I had not embraced IM or text messaging as anything except a quick way to exchange a few words with colleagues when all else failed. (Emphasis on that part about “when all else failed.”)
Then I attended a presentation by Bonnie McEwan at the Foundation Center‘s New York library. She talked about various social media platforms, but it was her recommendation about Twitter that made me reconsider it. “It’s important to tweet what you are thinking, not what you are doing.” I mulled it over and a few days later I signed up for a Twitter account. (On the same day I registered this WordPress blog, because I knew there would be times when 140 characters wouldn’t be enough.)
In January 2002 the thing I wanted most in the world was a “hold” button. But, hey, it was a disaster. I mean really a disaster: I was working for the American Red Cross Disaster Services, we were crazy busy, but I was sharing a phone with four other colleagues in a large, bare-bones office.
I’ve worked in non-profit organizations most of my career, and fortunately for me most of them have been large and well-funded, including the American Red Cross. But comparing my non-profit experience to my rare forays into for-profit work, it is impossible to imagine working in any for-profit corporation for six months without a hold button on my telephone. Never mind that the phone was on a plastic folding table, not a desk, so I didn’t have a desk drawer, either. The cultural divide isn’t always so extreme, but there are certain things that can happen in one world that are unimaginable in the other.
In 1950 Alan Turing proposed a test to determine whether a machine (such as a computer) could overcome the limitations foreseen by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method:
For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words… But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.
Turing called it the Imitation Game; we now call it the Turing Test. Two people—or perhaps one is a machine—sit at teletype terminals and have a conversation. Neither can see the other, but they are allowed to ask each other anything.
In those days it would have been a teletype terminal, not a video monitor, so you wouldn’t have been able to send or request a photograph. You have to determine whether the responses are from a human or a machine based entirely on the text.
Six decades later we actually encounter something similar in online social networking. But I’m not here to discuss “bots” that send automated status updates, advertising, or non sequeters to Twitter or Facebook. I want to talk about humans who, when they log on to their social networking accounts, forget that they are human or social.