Convective Heat of Ideas

For the last few days, there have only been two ideas doing the rounds in my Twitter stream. One of these is the New Aesthetic, the other is the idea that Instagram being bought by Facebook is a sign of the Apocalypse.

Given that I follow more than 900 accounts, that doesn’t seem like many ideas.

On the one hand, that might indicate that my Twitter community is very self-reflecting, or it might – when I subdivide the accounts into different sorts – seem entirely reasonable. After discounting the dormant accounts, the lurkers, the bots and the corporate nonsense, it’s reasonable to assume that I only follow around 300 real, live people. And of those 300, it seems possible that only 10% are in the business of actively propagating big new ideas on a regular basis. So actually, two ideas in the week after Easter – when every sensible person is on holiday – might even be quite a lot. But it’s felt quite claustrophobic – as if the edges of my Twitter world have been rubbing up against each other and that world has become a bit too small.

As everyone knows, Twitter can change like the wind on a beach in Norfolk. This makes it all the more interesting when ideas or concepts persist and dominate. If furious moral approbation on Twitter is a storm, then these more persistent ideas could be described as slow, incoming weather fronts. They may not be a permanent fixture, but they certainly loom with a force that makes them feel as if they’re here to stay.

So it seems (to abruptly change metaphors) as if these ideas move around Twitter by way of convection. The convective heat of an idea gets passed from one tweet to another until the whole pot is boiling with the same heat. And sometimes that pot gets hot enough to heat the ones around it. And by and large this seems to work something like this:

1) Someone has an idea (this might be conveyed in e.g. a tweet, a blog post, a video or a newspaper article)

2) The idea starts to get passed on, being either retweeted or rephrased and linked to

3) The idea then starts to get absorbed. At this point, it might turn into a hashtag – a common point of reference for everyone who has observed the idea go through phases 1 and 2

4) People start to respond with their own ideas, commentary or interpretation

5) The original idea is modified and extended

6) There’s a backlash or a counter-movement

This process could take months (as with the New Aesthetic), days or hours. Inevitably, the number of people who modify or thoughtfully respond to an idea is much smaller than the number of people who pass it on.

Or at least, that is how it works in my Twitter world. Probably no different to how ideas have been disseminated for centuries, but sped up, I think, by the fact that these 140 character molecules can bounce around more efficiently – travelling from head to head until no one can quite tell who thought the original idea in the first place.


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