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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. 🙂

Similar Posts elsewhere in this blog:

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113 Comments so far ↓

  • Patrick Silvestri

    I would never discourage someone from doing anything that they find fulfilling; as it seems you’re finding Twitter. I personally have a hard time with people who feel the need to sell it.

    You used the example of trying to communicate in German, but I’d say that’s a bad analogy. Twitter is more like learning an obscure language that very few people speak.

    I mean, if you considered learning to speak that African tribal language that consists of clicks and whistles, you’d probably be able to have some great conversations with the people who speak it… but how many people do you know that speak it? Sure, you could probably find one or two in a greater metropolitan area, but you’d really need to put in a lot of effort.

    I believe that the “damaging” aspect that this James guy was referring to is more targeting the ‘I’m at the store and it’s cold. My toe nails are getting long.’-types.

    I do have to agree with that a bit.

    Some of these microblogging services like Twitter or Tumblr are full of people with too much time and nothing to say. In effect, they’ve made it so easy to broadcast whatever thoughts you may have, that bored people have taken to posting any non-thought that they have, which can foster lazy thinking.

    Perhaps, like you said in your post, that these trivial things are sometimes what make life fun, but one must also question the healthy limits of trivia.

    I’m a fan of conversation and often have long pointless conversations with my friends; and it is fun. You’re absolutely correct in that conversation should be the point, but the vast majority of people using Twitter don’t get that.

    The typical Twitter post could easily be mistaken for the ramblings of a one-year-old. “I’m tired/hungry/bored/at the zoo/cold/ etc..” This is the narcissistic aspect, and regardless of how you feel about the concept of Twitter, it is rife with it.

    It would seem that you and several of the people that have commented here are in the minority. While it is wrong to assume that all users of Twitter are narcissistic people with nothing to say, it’s also wrong to consider that point of view to be entirely “Bollocks.”

    They license drivers to make sure that everyone knows how to use a car before they get on the road and get in a wreck. If only they could do that with Twitter.

  • Simon Fairbairn

    Amen.

    Twitter is just a tool for connecting with people. Connecting with people is awesome. Ignore the naysayers, they’re missing out!

    Their spirit is old and they just want things to stay as they are. Using pop psychology and ridiculous theories to ‘prove’ that this tool is somehow harmful is the sign of a cynical mind.

    Si

  • Helena

    Dear Steve,
    I don’t know who this Oliver really is, but look at all the conversations we have here! (I have rarely seen as many comments) Without his critical point of view they wouldn’t exist.

    What interests me is : how do we get him to change his point of view, to reconsider his opinion?

  • Ben Walker

    @Patrick: it’s a good point you make, and I agree that German is possibly not the perfect language to use for a Twitter analogy, but I think your African tribal language analogy misses the mark too.

    It’s true that we Twitter people often forget how few members there actually are (isn’t it something like 200,000 in the UK?). But we’re not speaking Twitter in a metropolis full of people who don’t understand us because we have a pretty direct connection to the other Twitter-speakers.

    It’s impossible to find a perfect analogy. Here’s what I think:

    * I’m a musician and a web geek.
    * I use Twitter.
    * I stay in loose contact with a couple of hundred musicians, web geeks, friends and fans on Twitter.
    * I find a new interesting person maybe once a month.
    * A new interesting person finds me maybe once a week.
    * I regularly unfollow anyone who is boring, irritating, irrelevant or silent. Even if they are friends. 😉
    * It’s very easy to want to persuade everyone in the world to use Twitter, and it’s good to be reminded of the alternatives and the downsides in conversations like this one.
    * Twitter is narcissistic. What’s the problem with that? What are friends if not people who are interested in your personal narrative?
    * The publishing of random drivel isn’t new. It’s easier, but not new. Anyone who visited web forums through the 90s will know that. Maybe the problem is with giving non-geeks the platform. They tend to think about the whole system less and view their own little outlet as the centre of the whole thing.

    Just a thought. Loving all the comments, positive and negative. 😉

  • Guy Leroux

    I don’t think other than having 1500 followers, that twitter helps me. People seem to be doing there own thing on Twitter. I will be watching the video after it loads on my computer. I don’t think I know how to use twitter to it’s fullest.

    Guy

  • Ninja

    Thanks for this thoroughly enjoying piece. I love the way Twitter gives me a chance to express myself quickly and succinctly – forcing me to be brief and to the point – which if you know ninja, is near to impossible. And in this expression – there is no pressure to wait for a response, but if I get one that is a bonus and only enriches my experience of, dare I say it: “My Real Life” – a slap in the face to those who think Twitter, or indeed all social networking, is somehow not real interaction or communication.

  • Nik Payton

    Superb post Steve!

    I’m not sure of Twitter’s use for everybody but I know for musicians it is superb. Apart from the fact that we can let fans know what’s going on, we can advertise new blog posts, cd releases/sales, gigs etc it’s great way to hook up with new people that you wouldn’t normally meet. I’ve become friendly with a whole load of musos, tech geeks and marketing gurus that I would NEVER have had the chance to meet in real life (owing to the fact most of them live 6000 miles away!) and therefore learnt a huge amount about new marketing techniques, amongst other things. The argument that all of this info is already on the web in other places is irrelevant – I personally don’t have the time to read every blog that’s out there – but if @dubber or @cyberpr or @sivers mentions briefly something they have been reading or watching, I know it’s going to be useful and interesting – that’s how I found this blog! And now, when I go to New York, for example, I can tweet it (and where I am) and meet up with these people in real life.
    This is how I personally use Twitter and I think it’s different for everybody. It took a while for me to get into but I think it’s up to you to decide how you want to use it and what you want to get out of it.

    As for Mr. James’ comment that “Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity” – he should follow some of the people I do, there’s nothing week about their identities! Professor of fuckwittage indeed!

    Cheers,

    Nik

  • Ben Denison

    I enjoyed this post so much, this is the second time I have been back to read it. bravo.

  • Jonathan Traylor

    I once was lost on my way to a Steve Lawson concert in another state while he was on a tour in the USA, poor mapquest/google maps couldn’t map such a rural and ritzy place … twitter + wireless internet allowed me to contact Steve to get the venue’s phone number and directions. 😉

  • "Getting" Twitter, from the technology executive's perspective

    […] “Twitter sucks, so change your friends,” […]

  • Dr Murray

    Having reviewed it for sometime I think I can safely say it is shit. For me blogs are about giving a voice to people who probably shouldnt say anything. Drivel like “Having a coffee – tastes great” I can feel my life force ebbing away. it will go the same way as Friends Reunied -” Oh is he doing that now……………actually come to think of it I dont really care………..wont be renewing my subscription then. Or ” friends” who post on Facebook that they are in the hairdressers……..reading a magazine….thank God they used their iphone to update me therwise I would never have known. Honestly it is the electronic form of reading a newspaper in the bog.

  • Pete Darby

    Dr Murray… err… then don’t read those feeds. Honestly, no one will mind. If you like you could find some feeds from people who update with interesting, provoking or amusing posts.

    The clue, really, is in the title of the article. Twitter isn’t bad, but you seem to be quite poor at using it.

  • Guy Leroux

    I find twitter a great communication tool to advertise some of my sites, you don’t have to follow everyone…

  • kewl

    For the same reasons visit http://www.istwittercrap.com

  • Mark B

    A load of bullocks is this post. Conversation is two-way communication between people, using verbal AND non-verbal communication.

    This is not only totally lost in the Twitter world, but also by the generation that seeks out these anonymous postings endlessly.

    Twitter will be gone within 2 years anyway, so I worry not.

  • Euan

    I love it! You start off telling Steve he’s talking bollocks then proceed to tell him what a conversation is! Priceless.

  • Otir

    Mark B’s comment surely *is* funny, and self-explanatory of how a conversation cannot happen with the means he choses to use: not leaving any way to interact with him, expect for here (which is okay with me).

    Twitter allows exactly the same : whoever wants to interact with me and have a conversation can do it in the “Twitter world”, much more easily than anywhere else by the way. That’s why I believe Twitter will have developed in two years, and be as common as phones, answering machines and emails.

  • Shaun Gisbourne

    This is really simple: Like the telephone, in fact any invention or medium you like that was ridiculed in the early days but gained mass acceptance relatively quickly, has, and will continue to have, it’s detractors. Just because a person cannot see how it applies to him/herself, doesn’t make something universally crap.
    To those claiming to have the sense of identity that others lack, may it not be equally true that identity cannot account for a lack of vision?

  • Dr Murray

    A few of the comments from an article cting that 60% of users leave after a month.

    I love the fact that people compare Twitter to the mobile phone. Suddenly history is rewritten to say that peole never thought it would catch on and couldnt see a use for it……..really? Mobile personal communication – for many people like doctors it was revolutionary. Now 140 character comments – I somehow think the world will learn to survive without it.

    I agree with everything everyone has said. Twitter isn’t even terribly satisfactory of the millions of “self lovers” that plague this unfortunate planet. The name suits it.

    5. lol, this doesn’t surprise me. I only use it to vent my IT geekiness, which I wouldn’t/couldn’t share with real people 🙂

    6 hours ago
    4. I can only agree with the other people here, Twitter is without a doubt the most boring website ever conceived… nothing more than a fad. I even find Facebook annoying regularly. My list with ‘hidden’ people is growing. It’s nice to stay in touch with REAL family and friends, but apart from that?

    The only thing I enjoy is the online Scrabble game, and that is such a buggy affair that sometimes I feel like getting the old board out…
    Alert a moderator

    agentcool

    9 hours ago
    3. Twitter is probably the most pointless social networking website in existence. It is essentially little more than the ‘status update’ part of Facebook loosely expanded to support a full service. As such, all you end up with is an endless parade of dull people talking about what they’re eating/doing which is almost always of no interest to anyone.

    I’d rather smash my head against a wall than read the world’s most boring diary/blog.