by Dan Herman
I’ve noticed the (to be honest, fairly ridiculous) anguish certain people have been going through lately as they decide as to whether to jump on the Twitwagon, and wanted to work out something that’s been bothering me about the service.
It’s TV news, TV-ified.
Let’s back up a bit. First, we have to define Twitter in relation to the other various types of social media. On the user-interactivity spectrum, Twitter falls somewhere on the other side of both blogs and Facebook.* From most to least, it goes Facebook > blogs > Twitter.
I can see why some people would be surprised to see this, but it’s true. Facebook allows for one party to broadcast their thoughts to a controlled (to the extent that they care) group of people, who can then directly comment on the original post and any response. On the surface, it seems the same as blogs, but because of the audience control (which allows the person to be as free or withholding as they want) and the sheer user base/amount of time spent on the site, Facebook wins as far as total interactivity. As noted, blogs fall slightly on the “less interactive” part of the scale.
Twitter, on the other hand, falls pretty far into the realm of one-way communication. One party can make a broadcast declaration, which other people can then either retweet or comment upon. Though it may appear so at first glance, this is not a conversation. The retweets only allow the message to propagate further; the replies are isolated, usually only make sense to the sender and the recipient (because replies are usually hours later, allowing for more tweets to crowd the space between the original and the reply), and cannot be (easily) viewed in a threaded format that allows someone to easily follow the conversation.
Because of this, Twitter is more of a mass broadcast medium than it is one for interpersonal communication. Yes, it can be used for one-on-one conversation as well, but after a certain point (say, more than 50 people) such personal communication is so intensely targeted it negates the point of people subscribing to the feed at all, effectively killing off the “broadcast” part.
It’s not interpersonal, which is what we’ve come to expect of most services in the times of these tumultuous internets. You can even see it in the way Twitter is being used and referenced — we all hear about the latest Palinism about needing to help overthrow the Egyptian government because Herod tried to kill Jesus**, or how dissidents are broadcasting their grievances to the world. Note how neither of those involves a give-and-take of ideas; it’s simply a person (or group of people) getting their message out.
This is not to argue there are no legitimate uses for Twitter. There are innumerable reasons one might have for wanting a direct line on the thoughts of someone else. It’s nigh-on the perfect Emergency Broadcast System (which I’m not 100 percent sure even exists anymore), as it’s great for getting out small chunks of information (“School two days from now is canceled due to the snow we got today”***) to a large, diffuse group of people. You can also use it a replacement for a website’s RSS feed (if you’re a masochist) by tweeting out URLs all the new posts/articles. On a more personal level, if there are people who you don’t necessarily keep in touch with all the time but want to know what they’re up to, Twitter can (see Appendix) be used to keep yourself in the loop — whether they’re old friends, family members or even comedians.
Here’s where we bring it back to the thesis. I have no problem with a broadcast medium per se; there are moments where one entity needs to communicate its point to many people at once, without allowing the fray to overwhelm the main feed. Newspapers, in fact, are a broadcast medium. Sure, they have letters to the editor, but much like Twitter it’s nearly impossible to follow the thread of a conversation without either a photographic memory or sifting through previous editions to figure it out. But just as TV news needs to condense and simplify news reporting in order to get it across in half an hour (and using pretty moving pictures!), so too does Twitter require an uber-condensing of information.
This is not bad in an of itself — the constraints of a given form can sometimes be the catalyst that provides beauty, as any number of poetic structures prove. When Colbert or Conan to get across a joke in 140 characters, it’s not only funny, it’s impressive that they’ve managed to master the form. It can also be a lifesaver, especially when you follow people who are used to copy-and-pasting obsessively long status updates into Facebook.
But just as the format’s limitations can produce good when used properly, so too can they cause horrible disasters when misused. Twitter should not be a place where any substantive discussion takes place: You can use it to link to much longer, more-reasoned posts elsewhere, but to simply cough up a tweet on your Macbook and call it your contribution to the discourse is despicable (yes, I did have Sarah Palin in mind when I wrote that).
Even more so than that, the real danger with Twitter is its immediacy. Where 24-hour news started to fray the lines between reporting facts and reporting rumor, Twitter has absolutely demolished it. Now you don’t even need to have heard the rumor; a report of a rumor is reason enough to publish, lest you be left out. This applies to more than news organizations as well. Most of the people I follow are probably smart enough (God, I hope this is true) to check sources when a death or major occurrence flashes across the Twitterverse. But so many other people are conditioned to hit the RT button, or to add their own comments to the situation (“Yeah, FUCK MUBARAK” or “THE ONLY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BARACK AND MUBARAK IS ME & U!”), that even the response to the rumor becomes a valid source of legitimation. Add that to the fact that Twitter requires an even more condensed version of information than even TV news and, well … not a good recipe.
All that said, Twitter is still an evolving tool. It can be extremely useful*****, or extremely annoying — much like Facebook. It all depends on what you want to get out of it, and how willing you are to put in the time to prune your sources and customize it to work for you. And, y’know, how willing companies are to step back and see if they’re using it correctly. But, again like Facebook, I’m not really holding my breath for that.
* For all intents and purposes, Tumblr is a slightly more social version of blogging, though not so much as to require its own classification.
** Not a real tweet … yet.
*** This is a paraphrase of a real tweet sent out by WSU.
**** The phrase “objectively cool” means “something that people outside of your industry might find interesting.” So designing a particularly ingenious circuit should probably kept to Slashdot. And as a general rule, your poetry is NOT interesting. Not even to other poets. They’re just reading it so you’ll read theirs. Haiku and limericks, however, are always appreciated.
***** In this case, “useful” means — as so often is the case on the internet — “an entertaining way to kill some time.”
When I state that Twitter can be used to keep in touch, it really depends on the person you’re following and how cognizant they are of what they’re tweeting. In addition to the dependable “I’m eating a sammich” or “On the terlet agin!” tweets, there are those classifications of people who simply cannot comprehend how to use Twitter properly. A brief, non-comprehensive list:
- Passive-aggressive twerps — These are the same people who go post a Facebook status update like, “Man, I really wish people who lived in the room next to mine would do the damn dishes.” It sounds like they’re griping about some anonymous person, but not only does everyone know who they’re referring to, that person more than likely will see the post on their feed … So the same outcome could be achieved by simply talking to that person.
- Attention whores — You’ll notice a lot of these can also apply to people from Facebook; that’s because these people do not change terribly from one social media service to the next. These are the people who post things like, “Worst. Day. Ever.” with no explanation. Now, we all do this from time to time in order to gain sympathy or to prod a friend into asking what’s wrong so that we might vent — this is acceptable. But when you do it every other day (or post cryptic shit like “That was the most amazing food EVER” because you want people to know how good you can microwave Hot Pockets), it’s the easiest way to get un-followed.
- The open book — This is sort of a warped version of the attention whore, in that they want everyone to pay attention to them by tweeting the most intimate details of their life. Trust me, not only will “Oh boy, he fell asleep when he was done AGAIN. Guess I’ll have to satisfy myself with a pint of ice cream. AGAIN” get me to un-follow you, it will also be cause to break out the bottle of drain cleaner to pour into my ears to clean out my brain.
- The tireless self-promoter — Again, bragging a bit is a perfectly normal and acceptable practice. Every once in a while, something you do at work (or as a hobby) is a) objectively cool**** and b) something your friends would appreciate, it’s natural to want to share. If, however, you made a spreadsheet that uses THREE DIFFERENT header colors and computes formulas across four different worksheets, well … maybe just post that on the company intranet. In related news, check out what I did yesterday afternoon.