By Harry McCracken | Monday, May 11, 2009 at 5:01 am
Poor Twitter! It may be the hottest service on the Web, but it’s also profoundly misunderstood. Lots of people cheerfully admit they don’t get it. Others emphatically believe things about it that aren’t true. I encounter confusion over Twitter every day, especially in the real world as I chat with folks who have either never used it, or have tried it and then walked away. It also pops up on Twitter itself (where, incidentally, I’m @harrymccracken and a feed of all Technologizer stories is available at @technologizer).
I don’t claim to understand everything there is to understand about Twitter. (If you don’t understand that it’s impossible to fully understand Twitter…well, then you don’t understand Twitter.) I have, however, formed some strong opinions about what I call Twitter mythperceptions. After the jump, my stab at addressing ten of ’em.
Reality: I’m not sure if I’ve convinced a single soul of this, but I stubbornly maintain that Twitter is a whole lot like the CompuServe forums that were once the dominant hub for online discussion–it’s just tweets are faster, shorter, and more flexible. What I mean is that Twitter is ultimately a tool for sharing information, advice, and opinion about just about any topic you can imagine. It’s a community with lurkers, friends, astonishingly helpful strangers, and the occasional jerk. In short, it has much in common with every other online community that’s ever thrived over the past few decades. My advice: If you find yourself discombobulated by Twitter, focus on the aspects of it that are familiar rather than those that aren’t.
Reality: Even if ninety percent of tweets and twitterers weren’t worth anybody’s time, Twitter would only be following Sturgeon’s law. And even then, it would be a mistake to judge Twitter by what it’s like at its worst. Like novels, magazines, and movies, Twitter is a judgment-neutral container. Some people fill it with garbage, others with wonderful stuff. I wouldn’t judge Twitter based on tweets I find annoying or boring any more than I’d form opinions about American cinema in its entirety based on, say, this.
Reality: Maybe–but only the first time they do it. After that, it’s your own dang fault for continuing to follow someone who you find boring. Twitter, unlike a crowded airplane, is not a place where anyone is forced to listen to someone else blather; you’ve got complete control over whose tweets you do and don’t read.
Reality: Narcissists, I’ll concede, may well use Twitter in a narcissistic fashion. But Twitter isn’t much fun unless other Twitterers take notice of you–which they won’t, if your tweets consist entirely of navel-gazing. The people who get the most out of Twitter over the long haul are those who figure out how to reach out and engage their fellow human beings in conversations. Painfully obvious observation: Being interested in other people is far more likely to get them interested in you than being interested in yourself is.
Reality: Explain to me again the logic behind that contention? I love Sarah Vaughan’s music but haven’t listened to all of her albums. I subscribe to Fortune magazine, but don’t read every article in every issue. I dote on Mitchell’s Ice Cream, but have tasted maybe fifteen percent of the several dozen flavors it sells. More to the point, there are many bloggers whose work I admire, but not one whose output I read in its entirety, down to the last syllable. Tweeting is a form of (micro)blogging; when you follow someone, you’re simply saying “I find what you have to say interesting enough that I want to be able to keep tabs on it easily.” Or at least that’s what I’m saying about the 1260 Twitterers who I’m following at the moment.
Reality: One of the best things about Twitter is that you don’t have to follow everyone who follows you, and vice versa. It’s fair to say that the most rewarding Twitter relationships are those that involve both parties following each other and interacting, but I’m not presumptuous enough to believe that everyone whose tweets I like reading has the time or interest to pay attention to me. Or to put it another way: Oprah Winfrey has more than 944,000 followers, and is following eleven people. You’re telling me that Oprah is boorish?
Reality: I blame Twitter itself in part for this mythconception. Here’s how it defines itself on the homepage you see the first time you visit, before you have an account:
I’m not saying that’s not an accurate explanation of one legitimate way to use Twitter, but it surely doesn’t explain the service in all its diversity…and it’s more than a tad intimidating. When I recommend Twitter to some friends and acquaintances who aren’t current users, they get panicky looks and say they’d have trouble recording their every move via Twitter. I explain that you don’t have to tweet frequently, and you aren’t required to tweet your mundane daily activities. Actually, the best twitterers I know tweet only when they have something interesting to say. And that something is often an opinion, an observation, or a link to something worth sharing, rather than an answer to the question “What are you doing?”
Reality: When you sign up to use Twitter, the service not only comes up with a list of suggested folks for you to follow, but defaults to checking them all off, so one click of your mouse lets you follow all of them. Many of these people have one thing in common: They’re really, really famous.
The fact that you’re a celeb doesn’t mean you’re bad at twittering–@lancearmstrong, for instance, is pretty darn good at it, even if he does tweet about what he ate for breakfast. But some of Twitter’s suggested users are interesting only because they’re well-known. If @mariahcarey was named, say, Cariah Marey, I have a hard time believing that a third of a million souls would be paying attention to her.
It’s not just that people with a lot of followers aren’t reliably interesting; there are also scads of people on Twitter who have one-tenth of one-percent of Mariah’s followers who know what they’re doing and are fun to read. As good as Twitter is, one of its major failings is still that it can be a challenge to find the best twitterers; I don’t have a pat solution on how to solve that, but I do know that the service’s suggested users feature, in its current form, may actually be eroding any relation between quantity of followers and quality of tweets.
Disclaimer: The fact that I find Mariah Carey’s tweets tedious doesn’t mean there’s anything offensive about her use of Twitter, or objectionable about following her. (See Mythconception #10.)
Reality: Look, I’m not saying that having so few characters to work with can’t be frustrating, and I hereby predict that Twitter–sooner or later, in one fashion or another–will lift the limitation. But in most respects that matter, I think the 140-character count is one of the best things about Twitter. It forces people to get to the point. It helps them become better writers by forcing them to delete superfluous words. It makes tweets–the really good ones, anyhow–into a sort of poetry. You ever hear anyone make the case that haiku would be improved if it involved twice as many words?
Reality: Okay, there’s one profoundly wrong way to use Twitter–as a vehicle for spam. (While writing this article, I signed up for a new account; within moments of its creation, it had three followers, at least two of which were spammy, and one of which had a pornographic, Britney Spears-related avatar.) Beyond that, though, I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as an objectionable method of using this service–and while there are things you can do with Twitter which I think are exceptionally nifty, it’s fine if you disagree. If you don’t like the cut of a particular Twitterer’s jib, the proper response is not to squawk but to stop following that person. If one of your own followers offends you, you can block him or her. Beyond that, I’m in favor of Twitter libertarianism: I won’t tell you how to live your life on Twitter if you won’t tell me how to live mine.
Anyone have any other Twitter mythconceptions–or want to tell me that I’m mythtaken about anything I just said?