I have had a longer post about twitter brewing for a while now… Sadly, like all my other longer posts, two things get in the way of it actually making it onto the page; an anally retentive inability to be my own editor and the lack of time to write them, even if I didn’t demand so many edits and rewrites of myself.
So, to break the back of this one, let’s just chuck some points down:
Twitter is a despite, not a because application. By this I mean that I love it despite its implementation, not because of it.
This is an anomaly on today’s web. Most applications we love (and talk about) are simple, elegant, easy to use, fill a real need. To find an application that I find utterly compelling (and stick with) despite my huge frustrations is a real eye opener. That said, both SMS and email were nigh on unusable when I first started using them. Which leaves me on to my second point…
Twitter is not a microblogging platform (made all the more obvious by the fact that Twitter themselves use Tumblr for their status blog). Twitter, to me anyway, is like one huge global IRC channel – but with the added ability to tune in and out of people or topics at will.
Those who’ve got used to signing in to tens of channels using screen will know what I mean. Twitter is a handier version of this, with multiple entry points and a better way of searching the logs. A while back Jemima Kiss tweeted (what else) that her IM usage had completely dropped off since she started using Twitter; she’s not alone.
At work where I’m plugged into the Internet firehose in so many ways already Twitter isn’t as important, but it’s certainly the first one I choose to connect at the weekend. So, like SMS and email, the combination of immediacy, ignorability and permanency makes for an extremely compelling communication medium.
What that IM/email/SMS like nature brings is a sense of the private, even though it’s actually very very public indeed. This blurring of the public and private can be dangerous. Someone I follow recently twittered from a meeting: “being asked by xxx at xxx how to evolve a horizonal xxx site to cover the vertical niches they’re losing customers to…”. He’s followed by 350 people, all of whom are in the same industry. 5 minutes later he tweets “i regretted that twitter as soon as i hit enter…”. No shit. This isn’t a private IRC channel or IM conversation. Even I have followers I don’t know (Hi, by the way, aren’t I fascinating?)
The loose coupling between social groups that tempts you into forgetting about the public and private allows for some beautiful serendipity. The use of the @username syntax means that I get to see who my friends are having conversations with, and in turn possibly find interesting people. Generally I don’t start following them on Twitter, but more often than not their blog will end up in my RSS reader.
But, this loose coupling and rapid spread of information has its down sides too. There’s is no such thing as provenance on Twitter. Lots of us got duped by the fake Richard Dawkins. Luckily it didn’t do any real harm; he was good enough to get us following him but then couldn’t really do anything with it. Someone more subtle could be a lot more dangerous. It only took 4 days from me first following the fake Richard Dawkins account (when it had less than 100 followers) to it becoming apparent it was fake, by which time it had 1,700 followers. The desire (even need) to pass on information as quickly as possible will no doubt cause some problems. I’m not sure this is fixable. I’m not even sure it’s desirable to fix it. We just need to be careful out there.
That said, sometimes a fake account would be better than the real thing. My first rule of Twitter was formulated only a few days in… “Just because you’re popular doesn’t make you interesting.” There’s no shame in unfollowing someone. Particularly if they’re dull as ditchwater. Which leads me back to my second point above. If it’s a microblogging platform why are some of the best bloggers in the world the biggest dullards on Twitter? Because they’re talking to their friends. Because they haven’t spent the last two hours crafting those 140 characters into their public persona. And that’s OK. In fact, I think it’s really good.