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Twitter sucks, so change your friends.

March 16th, 2009 | 113 Comments | Categories: Geek |

screengrab image of a twitter search for solobasssteveIt’s a while since I blogged anything about Twitter, so maybe it’s time for a response to a couple of the prevailing misconceptions about the micro-blogging service that has substantially improved my life over the last year.

There are three broad themes coming out in the Twitter critique:

  • That it’s full of trivial rubbish
  • That’s it’s reality TV without pictures
  • That is for narcissists and fosters mental ill-health (WTF??)

To which I, not surprisingly, say ‘Bollocks’.

Let’s start with the bigger question of how anyone could come to that conclusion. What is twitter. It’s two things:

  • You post your own messages (which can be stand-alone thoughts, or replies to things people have said)
  • You read the messages of people you CHOOSE to follow.

No-one can force you to read anything. They can’t spam you like email (even the direct messages on twitter are blocked if you’re not following the person trying to message you), and you can “unfollow” someone just as easily as you “followed” them in the first place.

So how does one make a meaningful assessment of the value of that kind of simple yet broad approach to online communication? By trying it. As Blur said, There’s No Other Way.

So here’s mistake #1 made by almost everyone who’s been commenting on Twitter in the press (or posting nonsense comments about it on facebook)

  • Social Media in general and Twitter specifically, are practitioner spaces first and foremost.

Some things work great from a theorist’s angle. Things for which there are solid metric data available that corollate in anyway to ‘value’. Economics is a good theorist space. Genetics isn’t a bad one. Social media is a bloody awful one. Why?

  • Because twitter is fundamentally about conversations.

And conversation is not an art that can be ‘learnt’ in a day by dispassionately observing other people do it. If you suddenly change the parameters for conversation, it takes a while to adjust.

Commenting on twitter without having used it for at least a month is like dismissing German as a ‘shit language’ after trying it for a 24 hours. “So, this morning I got up, I asked some people for some good German words to use, but all I got were swearwords and ways to ask for beer. OK, so I asked a bunch of drunken German football fans in London, but it still means that the language is officially shit.”

On Twitter, You choose who to follow, you choose whether to start – or continue – the discussions about things that interest you, and you have to take the time to think about how you’re going to get your point across in 140 characters. So, if it’s full of trivial rubbish, it just means you’re following the wrong people, or are yourself failing to inspire anyone to write anything meaningful.

The flip side of this is of course that much of what makes life interesting and fun is the trivial stuff. What are the top 5 things you remember about being at work last week? Chances are most of them aren’t related to the ‘big’ stuff of your job, but are more to do with the connections you have with the people you work with. Why?

  • Trivia is the context that fosters the big stuff.

People who do nothing but talk about big ideas and big concepts can get pretty dull. Sometimes you really do want to know what their favourite record to dance to is.

So, trivia is good, and it paves the way for the deeper more meaningful stuff by providing context.

The “Reality TV” argument is really fucking lazy. So, Twitter got famous in the UK because of Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross. Ergo, twitter is all about watching celebs, right?

So people who talk are racists, because racists can talk? Anyone who wears clothes thinks they’re a super hero, because super-hero costumes are clothes? Clearly not. It’s all about conduits and content.

A basic understanding of Venn diagrams puts pay to that. Here’s diagram 1:

An image of a venn diagram explain the irrelevance of celebrities on twitter

The point of this is to show how most of what goes on on twitter has no effect on me. I don’t see it, it doesn’t see me. The celebrity bit of twitter is a fairly pointless sideshow within the grand scheme of things. That there are people who spend all day trying to get an answer from Jonathan Ross or Stephen Fry says more about them than it does about twitter. It’s the same people who hang round outside film premiers. And they don’t reflect badly on cinema as an art form.

As it happens, the celebrities/famous people who do ‘get it’ are in-fact using twitter to enable direct, self-filtered communication with their audience in a way that has previously not been at all possible. The dynamic of Twitter means that the kind of ‘trolling’ behaviour that makes most web forums unusable just doesn’t work there. Precisely because your tweets are only read by those who are following you, and those who choose to click on a reply to you from someone they are following. There is no ‘unrequested push’ broadcast possibility – even if someone sends me an ‘@’ reply that I don’t like, I can block them in 2 clicks… It’s an entirely permissions-based system. So if you want to get a comment out of Dave Gorman or Will Carling or Demi Moore, you’ll have to engage them the way you would anyone else. Celeb obsessives notwithstanding, Twitter is a great leveler.

So when some media berk says ‘Twitter is just reality TV without the pictures’ I say ‘bollocks’. It’s quite a simple equation: your opinion=bollocks. (And I’d happily debate the merits of twitter with Rachel Sylvester, or Oliver James, ‘psychologist’ and professor of fuckwittage at MissThePoint university.)

Anyway, back to the diagrams. To blame Twitter for muppets obsessed with celebrity is like blaming Excel for tax fraud – it’s not the spreadsheet that’s faulty, it’s the data. And you’re in control of the data-set.

Anyway, the third point – I’ve already mentioned that Psychologist Oliver James was quoted in the Times article as saying,

“Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

Which is about the most embarrassing load of balls I’ve ever heard anyone come out with. Oliver James, you sound like Tipper Gore telling America’s young that they’ll go to hell for listening to Prince. It’s equivalent to saying “no-one would ever tell their friends or colleagues what they’re up to if they had a strong sense of identity” – You, sir, are an idiot, a patronising ne’er-do-well luddite, in need of a lesson in communication. It’s amazing how ’eminent professionals’ can miss the point so spectacularly, while so many people are finding their lives enriched, their friendships deepened, their business networks widened and better connected by just chatting!

Furthermore, I think the opposite is true – if you’re the kind of incommunicative academic-to-the-point-of-being-incoherent buffoon who thinks Twitter is narcissistic, I’d say YOU most definitely have a problem with your sense of identity. Either that, of you’re so utterly self-obsessed, that you just don’t have any friends you’re interested in. Either way, I’d rather be where I am than where you are.

Twitter – and the raft of ‘micro-blogging’ services that are springing up, and will continue to mutate – is changing the way we communicate online, and we’re all the better for it. It’s not going to disappear, and 3 years from now, we’ll all have a twitter name (or hopefully an OpenID-authenticated cross-platform equivalent) the way we have an email address.

So, Twitter-people, how has Twitter helped you? Stories please. :)

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113 Comments so far ↓

  • Adam

    Fascinating comments… Twitter is this, twitter is that. Maybe we need a bit more zen… not this, not that. Reminds me of the story of the four blind men and the elephant :-) Sometimes I use Twitter to geek out, sometimes to swap inane chitchat, sometimes as a campaign tool, and sometimes I just Twitters. Sometimes it provokes, and sometimes it bores. I haven’t decided what shape it is, so it happily refuses to make its mind up, as do I.

    Off now to tell the world I’m going to pour myself a glass of wine. Stick yer fingers in yer ears:-)

  • Marian Call

    Like every other social media, Twitter just magnifies who we actually are. The users make the content awesome, enriching, useful, ridiculous, trivial, belligerent — just like telephones.

    My cardinal rule for enjoying Twitter as a medium: if you want to be interesting, be interested. Genuinely care about what other people are doing, and participate, if you expect anyone to be interested in what YOU’RE doing. So I only follow interesting people, and I only broadcast things that I would like to know about someone else.

    I am better in touch with my friends on Twitter than with my own family, and I wish my family would be on Twitter, so we could share the small moments of our days. That creates a meaningful connection and deeper friendships.

    I also conduct business on Twitter, and I find it’s both the most effective and the friendliest way of staying in touch with my fans and customers. They like the contact, I like the way that I can control my information and make instant updates. If someone starts a rumor that isn’t true, or a website has incorrect information, I can personally and instantly correct the error and do damage control. It’s work in real time, and it makes more sense than any other model I’ve seen.

    I think a number of organizations will be using internal microblogging to function efficiently in the future — particularly in the health sector. Can’t wait to see it happening. Twitter may not be the be-all and end-all, especially since the site can be sort of buggy, but microblogging is one of the best, simplest networks imaginable.

  • Dr M

    “Man has glass of wine ………” thank heavens for the internet – otherwise we wouldnt have known…

  • steve

    “anonymous man moans about twitter, while demonstrating a total lack of understanding of the benefit that people get from it by actually communicating with each other.”

    thank heavens for the internet – otherwise we might’ve thought the ‘Dr’ before your chosen user name meant you knew something…

    😉

  • Mikael Suomela

    To me Twitter has been a good experience. I like getting all those links in the Twitter stream, somebody I somehow have noticed filters stuff for from their point of view and it’s simply great! I just wish there would be an easier way to find interesting people – some automatic referral system…

  • Dr M

    Thank you for your astute observations…I think I am as anonymous as ” steve” . I am glad you are a “we” and can speak for others . My point was simple – Is there real benefit in a man saying he is going to have a glass of wine? Other than it may appear to make yourself look interesting. I would be interested to read the evidence for the benefit. I am sure if I can manage a medical degree I surmise the clear and presumably not entirely subjective evidence or simple opinion ( Class 5 level evidence)

  • Dr Murray

    Wilkipedia extract

    He is highly active and visible on the internet, interacting with fans and other musicians and using web technology such as Twitter to promote his own career

    It is quite simple to see the commercial benifits as all these mediums provide an immediate stage which would otherwise remain invisible. Many more established singers eg Lily Allen have used their blogs quite successfully for self promotion by staging “spats” – or just slagging someone else off to get free gossip magazine coverage. It is cheap and effective means of marketing but as Friends Reunited and countless other dotcom ventures have shown they will gradually subside as people realise their limitations. Or alternatively have an “off line experience” with another human – usally called a meeting. But to try and make this the 21st century equivilent of the telelphone is stretching it a little for most people.

  • Adam

    I do find it fascinating when people who dislike something then define it so they can tell you why it is pointless, meaningless, useless, whatever. A search on Animism for example will throw up on its front page at least one religious/Christian group who defines animism so they can then tell you why it is contrary to biblical teachings. I wouldn’t go to Dawkins to learn about Christianity, nor would I ask the Pope to teach me about Humanistic Atheism. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it, and that’s cool. It’s a big world with a lot of opinions.

    I first engaged with Twitter properly when Steve introduced me to its potential as a viral campaigning tool. Note the use of the indefinite article there. As someone who assist campaign strategists with the technological side of what they do, I see these approaches as complementary, adding to other strategies making a cohesive whole. I’ve probably been using Twitter just over a month now, and its potential in this arena is demonstratable. I’ve witnessed it used to co-ordinate peaceful, legitimate protesters at G20. I’ve seen it complement the Gurkha Justice campaign. But one would be a fool to suggest that Twitter won that campaign.

    But the value of Twitter (or other similar technologies) lies not in Twitter itself, but how you choose to engage with it. It is now one of my main sources of information about new live music (I’ve always preferred non-mainstream musical styles, so finding out about them can be difficult) and on-line performances.

    I notice a criticism leveled above included the charge that “it’s reality TV without pictures”. And great, if you choose to engage with it in that way. My wife has a lifelong interest in social narrative, and how people’s stories interweave. So when she first joined Twitter, she set about following everyone who shared her first name, Sian. And a hell of a load followed her back, thinking it was a fun idea. She interacts with it as a series of slices of life, snapshots, restricted by the medium itself. Is it art? Reality TV without the pictures? I don’t think you can answer that question without actually looking at the manner in which it is engaged, because unlike Reality TV, it is genuinely interactive and not controlled by a media company for maximum media impact and therefore financial profit. Reality TV is something you are passively fed.

    And Dr M… I did warn you to (metaphorically) stick yer fingers in yer ears :-)

  • Adam

    “Is there real benefit in a man saying he is going to have a glass of wine?” Of course there isn’t. I was being mildly ironic (I rarely post/tweet such things… I don’t bother reading them, and I’m sure the world does not care). I don’t pay much attention to the tweets about people’s meals, or declaring to the “twitterverse” that it is time for bed. But I don’t mind them, and get far more out of the medium than that (see above).

    Take Steve for example. I’ve met him twice in London and Yorkshire and watched him perform once in a house concert in Edingburgh broadcast on ustream. The context of both meetings were business, so that would qualify him as an acquaintance. Via Twitter, I’ve had the advantage of getting to know him better in a way I otherwise would not have done. I have a broader picture of the man and been introduced to a community of excellent, off-main stream musicians that will inform our next meeting. So he is now more than acquaintance. That enriches my life. And the enrichment is not a replacement for life, but the addition of something new.

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  • steve

    Dr Murray,

    a few points:

    firstly, re: anonymity, you’ll find that my name, ‘Steve’, is linked to the homepage of this site – it’s me, I’m not even remotely anonymous in this context. You’ve got almost 2000 pages of context without leaving the domain. :)

    secondly, “what’s the value of knowing that someone’s having a glass of wine?” – depends on how you measure value?

    Dr Murray: “hi, is Trevor there?”
    Trevor: “yeah, it’s me, hi Doc”
    Dr Murray: “hi Trevor, what you up to?”
    Trevor: “having a glass of wine, just now”
    Dr Murray: “WHAT ON EARTH WAS THE VALUE IN TELLING ME THAT??? HOW DARE YOU FILL MY EARS WITH YOUR TRIFLING. TRIVAL NONSENSE???”
    etc.

    An exaggeration, clearly, but the point being, single sentences aren’t what make twitter of value, like any conversation. It’s ongoing development of context, narrative and relationship. As Adam has so eloquently put it, you develop a deeper understanding of the people you’re talking to by finding out what they’re up to, what they’re interested in and what they value online.

    The point being that everything is bigger than Twitter – twitter’s all about what happens cumulatively by the many connections and overlaps, and what happens beyond its walls. The links, the onward journey, the meeting up in person, the cultural discoveries that happen because of it… But the environment of it is vital to all those things happening.

    thirdly, “It is quite simple to see the commercial benifits [sic] as all these mediums provide an immediate stage which would otherwise remain invisible. Many more established singers eg Lily Allen have used their blogs quite successfully for self promotion by staging “spats” – or just slagging someone else off to get free gossip magazine coverage”

    But again it’s a lot bigger than that. If one comes at Twitter as a purely marketing/promo platform, it’s woefully frustrating. I know a lot of people who’ve tried, and get followed by people every day who are trying to get people to listen to their music, buy their product, visit their site… Just having a twitter feed doesn’t help. If you’ve already got a whole load of media-capital (your Lily Allen example), it can be cashed in on Twitter, but that doesn’t really interest me, not operating in a ‘pop’ music space at all, and certainly not in one occupied by glossy-mag-fueled celebs.

    You’re welcome to not like it, not get it, not see any value in it (of course), but your many pronouncements about what twitter ‘is’ smack of the same kind of luddite, narrow thinking that Oliver James was peddling in the original article.

  • Declan Legge

    Found you through @dubber who I met at Unconvention Belfast. Very impressed with your directness and succinctness about this subject. I feel the same.
    Thanks for the re-affirmation.
    I must admit that I am finding it increasingly difficult to have definite and permanent thoughts and feelings about various webtools as everything changes so rapidly.
    I just watched your video interview with @dubber and it helped a lot.
    Thanks,
    Declan

  • steve

    I’m closing the comments on this for a while, due to a large volume of spam to it that askimet isn’t catching… I’ll open them up again later…