Those who don’t get Twitter

I wrote about Evan Williams and his innovations, including the then-young Twitter, way back in 2007. And it’s my job to be up to date. But I must say that I just don’t … get it this time. Not the technology part, but the sociology. Why?

My editor feels the same way, and we feel guilty about it. So it came as a great relief to see that Jon Stewart is on our side.

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13 thoughts on “Those who don’t get Twitter

  1. I don’t get it either. I think it’s just another distraction that will serve to decrease the general population’s ever-shrinking ability to carry on a meaningful conversation. Most people already have the attention span of a gnat on speed. Of course, I do feel a bit uncool for not having a twitter account and for not conducting most of my conversations via text messaging. When did I get so old? The Jon Stewart segment is HYSTERICAL!

  2. I feel like a luddite when I say that I don’t quite get twitter either.

    That being said, I use it. I use the concept (used facebook status until recently) as a way for quick updates, usually inside jokes or conversation starters. Yet without the context that facebook or a deeper data pool can provide, I don’t see why anyone would really want to follow my twitter feed.

    But I have one, no exaggeration, as a lightweight way for my mother to keep track of what I’m up to. Text messages are hard for her, Facebook is way out of the picture.

  3. Surely if you don’t get it, I wouldn’t either. I liked Sam’s explanation about being a rotting corpse.

    At the interface between people and this sort of technology, I am reminded of The Borg (Star Trek; The next Generation). From Wikipedia: “The Borg are depicted as an amalgam of cybernetically enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an inter-connected collective with a hive mind, inhabiting a vast region of space with many planets and ships. They operate towards one single-minded purpose: to add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to their own, in pursuit of perfection. This is achieved through forced assimilation, a process which transforms individuals and technology into Borg, enhancing individuals by adding synthetic components.”

    If we extrapolate to the limit of Twitter, we are The Borg. Of course, also at the limit, overlapping-Twitter conversations begin to sound like white noise; comforting to some, unnoticeable until interrupted.

    This reminds me of another poem I wrote years ago while on my bicycle and dodging cars during rush hour. (I used to be more sympathetic)

    (sung in nonchalant, Winnie the Pooh sort of way)
    We’re all just beeeees,
    Swarmin’ to the hiiiiive.
    We’re all just beeeeees,
    Swarmin’ to the hiiiiive.
    Everybody wants to drive…
    Home.

  4. I think it’s important to distinguish between status updates and micro-blogging. The “I’m waiting for a bus” tweets are tedious in the extreme, but an enlightened user such as @timoreilly will use the platform to broadcast fragments of his thoughts and ideas to the world at large. Almost all of his tweets include a micro comment accompanied by a link to something that made him think.

    When viewed in this context, Twitter can viewed a bit like a thought exchange, which I think is pretty neat.

  5. There are certainly a few legitimate use cases for Twitter. My family in the States used to use it as a sort of text message-based chat room (so everyone got everyone else’s chat messages delivered to their cell phone). Some people use it as a blog with shorter posts (e.g. @timoreilly mentioned above). It’s a convenient tool for people who need to make frequent announcements.

    My beef with Twitter is mainly that they seem to have done absolutely nothing to improve the user experience of the service since it was introduced. What works in a limited scale early adopter environment is not going to work in the mainstream. Besides the utter pain involved in so many Twitter tasks (finding people, browsing friend lists, etc.), the risk of information overload is going to reach existential proportions pretty soon since they offer no filtering whatsoever.

    Contrast this with Facebook, whose feed is more and more Twitter-like but also offers a stellar user experience. You can find people, you can post pictures and video, the system by default tries to show you only the most relevant stuff and gives you fine-grained control over the underlying filters. They don’t cover all the Twitter use cases yet, but that is changing fast: http://www.insidefacebook.com/2009/03/03/facebooks-redesigned-fan-pages-to-compete-more-directly-with-twitter/.

    In other words, I’m not so much baffled by the utility of a communication tool like Twitter as by the fact that one the sucks so badly could be so successful. My personal theory is that Twitter caters to technology A-listers who love to stroke their ego by pointing at their thousands of followers, and who also get value out of Twitter that none of us mortals will ever experience (they can use it almost like a human search engine since one of those thousands will invariably have the answer to almost any question). These people also have by far the loudest voices in the blogosphere and tech press, which naturally leads to an exaggerated perception of Twitter’s wonderfulness.

  6. I’m a work-at-home freelance web developer, as such, Twitter is a brilliant fit for my life style. However, the features of Twitter that appeal to me, I think are common to most:

    – It’s a virtual water cooler of friends with interests similar to yours. No office politics, no discussion of football results you’re not interested in. Just useful high quality chat.

    – ‘Human Google’ – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked a ‘Looking for a X to do Y’ question via Twitter and had countless high quality responses back within minutes.

    – Networking without the hassle. Link to people in your profession, without the cost and bother. It’s never going to fully replace face-to-face, but I’ve landed contracts, found (serious) investors, made friends via Twitter. IMHO, it’s much more effective than LinkedIn and the like.

    – All of this is in one place, in short format. You don’t have to crawl through multiple separate blogs to find it.

    Hymanroth is correct with his “I’m waiting for a bus” assertion. The best tweets are the useful, non personal ones that would interest or cause interaction with those around you.

    Don’t feel guilty though, it took a long time for it to ‘click’ with me too. Even now I often consider cutting down on the amount I use it, only to once again, be surprised by a tweet containing information about a product, technology or article I would never have found myself.

  7. @Matthew Gertner

    You’re absolutely right when you say that Twitter’s inherent asymmetry really appeals to celebrities. You would think that such people have no need of further ego massaging – but apparently not.

  8. I like to compare Twitter to a party. The celebs are in the back with the supermodels and champagne, surrounded by fawning admirers. Of course they all rave at Sunday brunch about what a great party it was. Then you show up, knowing a handful of people, wrestling your way to the bar and waving madly for 10 minutes at the bartender to get a drink. Inevitably you’re going to wonder what all the fuss was about.

    I do think there is merit to the feed-based approach to keeping track of people (friends or famous), but I don’t think Twitter is doing a very good job of it. Facebook, on the other hand, is doing a fantastic job. As soon as the latter nails the fan page feeds and provides some way of offering people a public profile in addition to their private one, they are going to eat Twitter’s lunch.

  9. Hymanroth and Matthew – you both make good points. I like the idea of microblogging and see Twitter’s usefulness for quick announcements to a lot of people. Still, I will probably just wait until Facebook comes up with some sort of Twitter-like application, rather than starting yet another account.

  10. Imagine if characters in the great works of the literary canon used Twitter.

    Gatsby would not have been shot in Daisy’s pool.

    In no way would Hans Castorp have spent seven years in the sanatorium.

    Twitter is silliness.

    • I’m learning, guys, I’m learning. From you.
      I’m guessing that all of you (being interested in Twitter) have seen Evan’s TED talk in February?
      As a fantastic disaster and emergency communications system, as a medium for insightful Haikus among the poetic and visionary, Twitter is cool! I do get that.
      But as Hymanroth says, there is too much “I’m on the bus”-ing going on. Those are not Haikus. If people have thoughts that they’d like to share, why not get a friggin’ blog and do it properly, as Cheri does? If they don’t have thoughts, wouldn’t they be better off (as Jon Stewart implies) paying attention to what is going on in their real-world lives in order to find thoughts?
      The real, honest draw seems to be, as Matthew Gertner says, for the A-listers, ie celebrities. It lets them ego-cast. Call me old-fashioned, but is that not ultimately and simply vulgar?

  11. Twitter is SMS with a search function. It connects mobile phone and Web, and thus helps unify an aspect of our communications. Juvenal and Martial would have loved it. Plato would have hated it.

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