Twitter sucks, so change your friends.

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. 🙂

113 Replies to “Twitter sucks, so change your friends.”

  1. Typically excellent post Steve.

    Twitter (and other social Media outlets) served as a conduit for making connections with people I otherwise would not likely have met (New friends/colleagues) from all over the world. Some thousands of miles away, others, only a few blocks. I’ve met other musicians (like myself) with whom I now perform shows, clients who now hire me, and people who have made it their business to be a part of my audience.

    In other instances, it has brought me closer to people with whom I already share face-to-face relationships. I play in a Jazz Big Band with 20 other musicians who rotate in and out. It is via Twitter (FaceBook….whatever) that more interesting interactions occur other than “Hi, sounding great.”

    These are relationships that I probably would not have occurred without this type of communication vehicle.

    It’s easy to fall into the “Billboard mentality” on Twitter–but that certainly misses the point. Find some common ground, no matter how seemingly mundane, and engage.

  2. What we need is articles like this in the papers, not pretentious ‘professionals’ trying to dismiss something they don’t know how to use 🙂 Wicked post, as ever.

  3. Brilliant. I’m going to print out a hundred copies of this and keep them in my man bag with my N95, iPod Touch and a copy of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody”. When anyone tries to dismiss Twitter for any reason I’ll shove this article in their face, whack them over the head with Shirky, and video the whole thing on my phone so I can upload it to*. Either that, or I’ll send this link to loads of people. 😉

    *not a real website AFAIK, but should be…

  4. I’ve only been here on Twitter a month [so at least my opinion is valid 😉 ] and I am still working out how I use it, and how I interact with others using it. There is a fair bit of mediocre – “I’m on the train to Edinburgh…” – but it is the personal bits that grab me – “…and the sunset is beautiful!”

    How I use it is very different from the way I envisaged using it – I thought I would use it more for networking whereas on the whole I use it to engage with people I already know. There are of course exceptions – and I am meeting many people offline that I first met online through Twitter.

  5. I like it. One aspect of the celebs-on-twitter thing you didn’t mention is that some people [*cough cough cough me*] will sometimes reply to a celeb post knowing they won’t get a reply, but also knowing that enough of their own followers follow the celeb that they might get a laugh even if the celeb never sees the post.

    For example, if I send a reply to @stephenfry, I know that more or less everyone following me is seeing that reply as well. It’s a bit of performance, a bit of banter, a bit of snark and a bit of fun, but not really about conversation. After all, how can anyone expect to have a conversation with someone with 300k followers? It was hard enough back when he had 10k followers.

    Anyway, a small point, neither here nor there. Overall, like I said: a good post and I agree.

  6. The No Show – great point! I’ve done that too in the past, sent a reply to Stephen or wossy just because it would amuse my followers. Thanks for the addition 🙂

  7. I did a little demo of microblogging at the Linux User Group I go to. I only know of a couple of members who use it. I’m not sure I converted anyone. Some raised issues about security and identity.

    A friend posted on Facebook about Twitter being ‘the biggest waste of time ever’. He was aware of the irony in this.

    I get a lot of value from microblogging, but you have to find ways to manage it.

    I have a preference for the open source/standards service, but use Twitter to keep up with Steve and other creatives.

  8. Nail hit squarely on the head there, Steve. I hadn’t seen Oliver James’s response to Twitter, but it sits neatly with some of the drivel he used to write in the Observer (or Saturday Guardian, I forget) magazine a few years back.

  9. Agreed.

    I was disappointed by Oliver James’ comments on twitter, as an awful lot of what he writes makes a lot of sense and I think he’s a cut above most pyschology commentators. His books on Affluenza and Selfish Capitalism are both worth reading.

  10. I quite agree – but there are still a few fundamental problems with twitter.

    1) I may find you interesting most of the time, but I’ve no desire to hear your thoughts on football.
    2) Sometimes my timeline is dominated with one or two people who don’t respect the public space.
    3) Emotions like joy, sarcasm, despair etc. are notoriously hard to get across in text – and taking them down to 140 character just compounds the problem.

    Now, there are various technological tools to solve some of these issues. We can filter, block, refollow, emoticons etc.

    But, of course, these are exactly the same problems we face in the real world. When I’m hanging out with friends, I don’t care who won the match, I don’t want to get involved in a private argument, and emotions? People still can’t express themselves adequately.

    It’s just the tragedy of the commons – except on twitter, we choose the commoners who share our space.

    And you know what the worst thing is? We’re all guilty of the same behaviour we abhor in others.

    Perhaps this blog post could be titled “People Suck, so change yourself”?


  11. But what really annoys me is that critiques of Twitter (and three years ago, blogging), is that they’re always in the opinion columns.

    And it is rank hypocrisy for people paid to witter their unqualified blatherings under an out of date picture of themselves to criticize any avenue of self expression.

    Wondering what they said about the phone 80 years ago (“You’d have to be deeply insecure to have a device in your house that says you’re important enough to talk to anyone else at any hour of the day, whether or not you’ve had a formal invite.”) Or the moveable print (“I’m sure Mr Caxton’s invention was made with the best of intentions, but there are only so many bibles one can own before the pressure grows to acquire works by this sad egotist Geoffrey Chaucer, who I note is so full of himself he doesn’t even write in latin…”)

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