A little over a year ago, Jack Schulze of Berg wrote a must-read essay called Incidental Media. “All surfaces have access to connectivity,” he wrote. “All surfaces are displays responsive to people, context, and timing.” The video accompanying his essay was full of living-in-the-future examples of this idea, but now a designer named Mike Bodge has hacked together something just as clever, right in the here and now. It’s called Chirp Clock. It’s a clock whose interface isn’t powered by gears or digital numbers, but by the social media activity of Twitter.
Bodge realized (god knows how) that “nearly every second, a user on Twitter tweets about what time it is.” That means that every single minute of the day, Twitter can be datamined for tweets containing the correct current time–and that’s exactly what Chirp Clock does. But its display, or “surface” in Berg-speak, is what makes it interesting. By harnessing live social media activity to the purpose of timekeeping, the app becomes much more than just a clock. It becomes an ambient window onto the hundreds of tiny micro-stories unfolding this very minute, all across the world. “It could be groaning about waking up, telling a friend where to meet, [or an] automated train scheduler alerting when the next one is coming,” Bodge writes.
Chirp Clock fits Berg’s idea of “incidental media” more or less perfectly: A formerly un-networked, “dumb” device like a clock becomes an ambient companion, capable of quietly telling stories in the background of fulfilling its primary function. One could imagine installing an app version of Chirp Clock on an iPad and letting it sit on the mantel or coffee table. In that regard, the whole idea of “a clock” becomes philosophically fluid. Which is the “actual” clock: the iPad displaying Chirp Clock, or the ambient, invisible network activity of Twitter itself, regardless of how, where, or if it’s visualized? You can even think of the app as the web geek’s equivalent of Christian Marclay’s seminal masterpiece, The Clock, which assembled a 24-hour montage using specific time references in movies throughout the ages.
I didn’t go to grad school, so I’ll let the semiotics majors handle that one. In the meantime, next time you wonder what time it is, just check Chirp Clock — and let your mind briefly wander about what those ineffable “someones” out there in Twitterland are doing, right this minute.