“Let them eat tweets”

I recently came upon a New York Times Magazine article by Virginia Heffernan regarding Twitter’s “claustrophobic” feel; an experience where the constant chatter of strangers’ tiniest doings finally becomes mindless noise. At the center of that experience is an emptiness: the realization that we are alone in many ways.

The meanness, the smallness, of our connections becomes apparent. A deeper connection is independent of our Facebook friends or Twitter followers. Were I to imitate Bruce Sterling, I might refer to this as “poverty.” Where is the richness in life that comes from deep, satisfying relationships with others?

Using Twistori to observe Twitter’s emotional zeitgeist, Heffernan writes,

The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter…

“I wish I didn’t have obligations,” someone posted not long ago. “I wish I had somewhere to go,” wrote another. “I wish things were different.” “I wish I grew up in the ’60s.” “I wish I didn’t feel the need to write pointless things here.” “I wish I could get out of this hellhole.”

The inner vibe hasn’t changed. No matter how much or how long we distract ourselves with it, interesting technology is an empty shell. As an end in itself, it will never, ever satisfy.

What is a widget?

I’ve been asked a number of times what a widget is, and my answers have changed as widgets have changed.

We’ve all heard the term used in manufacturing; you manufacture a “widget,” when you don’t really care what it is you’re manufacturing. It’s a “widget.” A thing.

Then it was repurposed for use in developer circles when referring to GUI development. A widget is one of a set of decorative and functional pieces for a user interface. For example,

  • A scrollbar
  • A button
  • A dropdown list

Now it’s been repurposed again, and made weirder. Perhaps this is better than creating some meaningless neologism, though.

A Web “widget” is a bit of third-party code you can copy and paste into your page, thereby bringing some outside functionality into your site that you might not already have. They’re built with JavaScript or Flash and incorporate some interesting feature limited only by the imagination of the people who create them:

  • Allow you to submit your credit card number to donate to a cause
  • Browse an online catalog in a very small space
  • Flip through a photo album
  • Play or download music
  • List news items from an RSS feed
  • Edit a wiki or keep track of recent changes
  • Share files

For example, Cory Doctorow writes a new fiction book titled Little Brother. He wants the widest possible audience for his work, and assumes that people will pay for certain versions. So he releases the content under a Creative Commons license, and has a widget created that allows people to listen to the audiobook.

A widget popularizing Cory Doctorow\'s recent book, Little Brother.

They’ve been confused with “badges,” which display an affiliation but generally don’t do anything other than link to an external site.