Tweet wars: The limits of debate in 140 chars. or less

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Over the last day or so there has been quite a little debate about the importance of Domain Knowledge and Product Management Skills in #prodmgmt (most of you will recognize that as the twitter tag for the Product Management topic, folks. If not, tune in!).

While the discussion itself was interesting, I found myself thinking about the medium as much as the message. How can we have meaningful dialog in 140 characters exchanges? We ended up debating in titles and, I think, really missing each others’ points. Any good dialog requires us to walk down something called the ladder of inference. At the top of the ladder is your position and my position. As we walk down the ladder, we meet at the level of positions, conclusions, and actions.

In a good dialog, we offer to walk down the ladder with each other. We examine assumptions, and affixed meaning, and selected data. If we are really lucky, we can take one more step down the

Example use of ladder of inference

Example use of ladder of inference

ladder and look at real world data. (Immanuel KantΒ argued that real world data can never truly be known, for the viewer always interprets.)

But here’s my problem: In twitter, we are all tweeting at the top of the ladder. There is no real ability to walk down the ladder together. Twitter constrains expression so tightly that real dialog is impossible.

I am a Twitter fan for many things. But not for debate, discussion, or dialog. Give me an ale house any day.

– Alan

PS: to my fellow debaters: I am not nearly as rigid on this topic as my tweets may suggest. I suspect that if we got in the same room, we’d find a lot of common ground. As an example of where PM Skills trump Domain Knowledge, I would hate to hire an IT practitioner who could do IT Systems Management, but not teach the organization to build and sell a product in the field. In my view however it is too easy to say “a good analyst can learn any domain”. I liked Peter Hanschke’s comment that certain broad domains are important. For example, I wouldn’t hire a great B2B PM to run a B2C product.


22 responses to “Tweet wars: The limits of debate in 140 chars. or less

  1. Gwen Gyldenege

    That is an excellent and well stated point. I think many of us are frustrated by trying to say more about why we agree or disagree and end up making new words less all the vowels and replacing phonetic words with numbers (guilty!).

    The more I use social media, the more I think, Twitter is an excellent place to start the conversation. A blog is a great place to carry it further. Finally, I agree with your point, there’s nothing better than debating in-person over your favorite beverage. You discover so much more through body language and intonation. Thus, maybe it is that Product Camps were born… Ha! Necessity is the mother of invention, eh?

  2. I agree with Alan and Gwen. Google Wave seems like a great technology for these debates, when we can’t co-locate in the same pub or at the same time.

    I do like the ‘conversation starts in twitter’ dynamic, because, combined with the #prodmgmt tag, it helps us discover each other.

  3. Scott’s comment is spot on.
    Unlike other networks Twitter is open and hence get to know/follow people of your interest.
    Yes. Twitter is a conversation starter. But when others chip in it might actually bring a whole new perspective on the discussion.

  4. Maybe it’s the marketer in me but one of the things I really like about Twitter is that it forces us to distill complicated things down to their bare essence. I agree that it’s hard to have a shades of gray conversation but sometimes I really appreciate that folks are forced to just plain spit it out rather than making mealy if/then/but conditional statements. That isn’t always the way you want to debate something but for a lot of topics I’d take that over a lot of the protracted multi-page pointless blog posts I’ve read (and btw I’m not talking about any PM bloggers out there when I say that ;-).

  5. Great observation. From my perspective, I saw the date as a start and I think it should be vetted out through other venues. As an example, I have started email discussions with some of those in the debate to see if we could take this to a webinar venue. This is obviously a topic with interest, passion and differing views so if presented back in a structured format others can benefit. The power of Twitter is that this type of debate would not have likely sparked in a normal Q&A or even comments from a webinar.

  6. All valid points, and as a member of the group in the debate that spurred this post, I can understand your perspective.

    However, I find incredible value in Twitter being the conversation host. Whether it is to start, or on occassion to drill down. Being forced to articulate your position in 140 chars only makes our communication more effective. Are things going to be missed? Of course. Will we “tweet” over each other? Yep. But, I would rather have the conversation even at 140 chars at a time than not have it all.

    And, that said, I would prefer to meet you at an ale house to discuss this further. But, since we are not co-located, it is not a possibility.

    Twitter has its place, face-to-face has its place, and the two can coexist very peacefully serving different needs, but building one community.

  7. πŸ™‚
    Completely agree with April _when_ people use the 140 char format to distill to a clear message and point of view.

    There are a lot of times when people react to the constraints of Twitter with sound-bites instead of shortened insights.

    Gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

    Scott “long winded, but not mealy” @Sehlhorst

  8. β€œI didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain

  9. BTW – The clever writer can pack a lot of nuance into 140 characters. Whether the reader can unpack that nuance is, as always, suspect.

  10. Interesting that with the exception of Bob Corrigan, none of the comments on the post could be tweeted in whole. This comment included.

    WRT Twitter vs. other media, it’s not an either/or scenario. Constraints have their benefits and being forced to focus commentary into short bursts helps increase signal/noise, but it removes many of the nuances that are critical for real dialogue and understanding.

    Yesterday’s Domain Knowledge vs. PM experience discussion degenerated quickly into a fairly clear set of camps, with Twitter providing little ability to bridge the gap. A more nuanced medium would have enabled deeper or clearer discussion and minimized, if not eliminated, the gap.

  11. I have enjoyed Alan’s post, the comments and have thought about; “How can we have meaningful dialog in 140 characters exchanges?”

    For me, the exchange happens when I follow (or connect) with a person. I try to keep my thoughts simple and the conversation the same. When the 140 characters limit the conversation or adds a “gray element” as April mentioned, then I move the conversation to other tools. Yes, email still works, but its non-interactive. So, I usually schedule time and connect via phone.

  12. Worth pointing out, when tagging each tweet with #prodmgmt at the end, you only get 130 characters.

    I have been frustrated by conversations on Twitter where we keep “just missing” each other’s points. Sometimes it is like we’re talking in two languages. Twitter does force you to pick black or white, because there’s not enough room for grey.

    I like it when a conversation sparks up in Twitter and then moves to a blog or LinkedIn group discussion. Maybe we should be more disciplined to “take this offline” to another online venue.

  13. Another thought: I have seen a lot of very conversations and discussions on FriendFeed. Here’s one example:

    When we have one of these brilliant conversations spring in up Twitter, it could easily be moved to FriendFeed.

    This is almost like what you might see in Google Wave.

  14. Wow, awesome comments! I basically agree with everyone.

    I love the point of how 140 characters requires a focusing, which is very useful. Quite a change from the listserv and usegroup diatribes of yesteryear.

    Also love the idea of Twitter as discussion starter and fire lighter. For some conversations we need another forum (Wave does look promising), but without Twitter, we probably wouldn’t find eachother and pick the first fight.

    I remain a huge Twitter fan. I am overwhelmed by the ability to connect with individuals I would never have encountered. Also discussing micro-topics, in discussions that would never have gotten started.

    In engineering speak, Twitter is like a mega-to-mega multiplexer-demultiplexer.

    And yet even this awesome tool has its place and its limits. Yesterday and this morning, the debate started to rage about
    – location independence of PM, and
    – the relative value of domain knowledge and PM skills.

    It felt very restricted. I could see everyones’ points, but knew we wouldn’t reach mutual understanding in that format.

    Anyway, awesome discussion!

  15. Great post … agree with all points of view, but I’ll save my deeper comments for my next trip to TO and we can have a multi-beer discussio

  16. Might have 2 settle that Twitter is convo. starter, not finisher. As pointed out above, ancillary svcs. help: twitpic, Screenr, blogs, etc.

    Did it in 140 πŸ™‚ Well, except all this of course… agree with the above – forcing us to be a bit more to the point can be a good thing – heck, you could argue that would be the “agile” thing to do, no? πŸ˜‰


  17. I love it. I just love it. All because of Twitter us #prodmgmt yahoos (I say that with much affection) are here exchanging ideas and discussion topics we are passionate about.

    I agree, April, distillation is needed. Forcing me to do so gives me pause for thought before I tweet. And pause for thought is the point I’d like to raise. What twitter & all other social media forms offer us that we don’t often take when meeting F2F is time. Time to think about our response. Time to consider the other person’s point. Time to cool off. Time to ramp up. Time to get fired up, like our favorite cartoon charcter has said with such a passion, “Mah biscuits are burnin!” ~Yosemite Sam

    Plus, the cool thing about twitter and much of social media is that it eliminates many barriers. Gone are the elite, gone are the untouchables with their opinions. the playing field is significantly leveled, if you will.

    And, yes, I find it a big challenge to consolidate my thoughts, but a worthy one. I like that Twitter helps me define what is MOST important for my audience to know.

  18. all this said…what’s interesting is that while there seems to be general consensus that Twitter is a great conversation starter, most feel the conversation should move to another forum.

    However, using this blog post as an example – this forum is a one-way dialogue. There is no conversation occuring. At least when we used Twitter yesterday, we had short blips of a dialogue.

    I stand by that while f2f is preferred, in our expanding #prodmgmt (the product management hashtag used on Twitter,) community, we 1) would not have found each other to have a dialogue w/o Twitter 2) our arguments would have been much longer and involved, when the short points seem to work fine, and 3) it was a multi-person chat, not person, but interactive.

    Blog postings, LI group discussion, etc do not do that. And, we risk the drop-off rate when we move to other technology choices.

    So, from where I sit, what we have is not perfect, agreed, but it is a lot more than what we have had in the past and we are learning how to make it work for our community in a way where we can all grow and learn.

  19. Yes! Totally agree with jidoctor πŸ™‚

  20. A lot of good points. I’d add for people who are interested in the conversation but may not have anything to add (or time to participate) that it’s more convenient to watch the conversation unfold on Twitter as part of a stream you’re monitoring than it is to either check back at the individual blog or check email for follow-up comments.

  21. I need to learn how to multitask better… My typing stinks when I’m trying to squeeze in some quick comments online! My apologies. πŸ™‚

  22. Trying to have a detailed discussion using Twitter reminds me of those NASA discussions after the Challenger disaster.

    Sure focusing is good (in this case PowerPoint was being used); however, what they found out afterwords is that things became TOO focused and all of those little critical details got skipped.

    Twitter has its place; however, not as a detailed discussion tool!

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental PM Blog
    “Home Of The Billion Dollar Product Manager”
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