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. Brilliant post, Steve, and congrats on all the response!

    I gotta say, as someone that’s literally just getting into Twitter, this post really couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time for me. Over the last couple years (and largely due to your insight on here), I’ve grown from the notion that most online social media sites, and especially Twitter, were just as Oliver James was suggesting: a rather sad escape from “real life”. (Btw, nice smackdown on the guy! ‘Grown-up words’ completely warranted!)

    Since then, though, I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing less than real about the interactions to be had online, and that the technological aspect of it’s simply an incredible means of linking otherwise separated people together.

    Now, to say they’re all real interactions certainly doesn’t mean they’re all quality interactions, but I think you hit the nail on the head as far as “personal filtering” goes. And while it can certainly be a rather difficult and time-consuming task to get a proper “online identity” established and make real, constructive relationships, it’s all really what you make of it in the end, and I think that’s what so many people ignorantly overlook.

  2. pardon if thise doens’t make a great deal of sense, but i’m rather inerbriate post twitter meetup.

    i was at at the edinburhg tweetup earlier, and whilst speaking to lots of varied people of different work/social groups i got talking to (another) complete stranger at the bar, who had nothing to do with the tweep up, but was a sociologist who had 2 other degrees and spoke 7 languages fluently. i digress. anyway;

    i got talking to him about the way people interract online, and i’ll admit in my alcohol infused state i can’t wholly remember his point of view, but it led me to stating that people who meet and communicate via twitter (or FB or other online things) aren’t any different from people who’re communicating both through a partially known language.

    while chatting online, mannerisms/body language/tone are removed, but communication can still be sincere and heartfelt, just like when 2 parties are talking in a language neither know fluently, but they still have the universal mediums of body language etc.

    just beacause the standard human mediums (sic) are removed when chatting online doesn’t prevent the communication from being any less valid than a botched communication in person.

    hmm i got distracted by other posts. but yeah. why cant twitter be as valid as any other conversation? i’m sure if one replaced a twitter conversation with a hand writter correspondance aka jane austin many people would find it down to earth, maybe even romantic (now now paddy don’t get in an obscure rant about your mother now.)

  3. I’ve been wondering if some people at some mainstream media outlets are p!ssed at Twitter because it’s something they haven’t nurtured or originated.

    For decades they’ve been so accustomed to being gatekeepers and saying “Check out this product / person / event / thing / celebrity. You read it here first.”.

    Because these media outlets held such power, PR people would call them first, fawn at them first and buy lunch for them first. That still happens of course and will go on happening (it’s not uniformly bad either). But the power is diminishing.

    I’m not saying Twitter will replace trusted, mainstream sources of news. But it is definitely something which intrudes on that turf. If something is happening right NOW, I don’t wait till midnight in the (possibly vain) hope that any particular paper will cover it. I go straight to Twitter Search, Monitter and hashtags related to the event.

    If you’re going to slag off Twitter, why not focus on the real societal threat it poses… the fact it can guzzle vast amounts of your valuable working day if you don’t keep it in check…

  4. All true. My stats have never been so high as since joining twitter, and new friendships have blossommed! Rock on!

  5. I loved twitter the moment I installed tweetdeck, but didn’t get it until then. I now have 600 and odd new friends, which makes me feel much more socially stable (he he).

    I meet loads of people in music, loads of directors (I run a music video commissioning platform) and loads of people who are neither, but are interesting/funny/quirky/knowledgable.

    I evangelise Twitter like crazy to my real life friends and even have a standard ‘how to’ email I use to hassle friends who express even the smallest interest. I don’t think one of them has joined yet though – maybe my skills of persuasion 🙂 I think twitter is still at the point of attracting people with a bit of geek in their soul, won’t be long til it’s mainstream though.

    Oliver James made a wrong call, he’s just aligning himself with a fear point of view. Meanwhile @derekdraper is having a characteristicly bumpy but interesting time as a psychoanalyst who is on Twitter.

  6. Yikes, you don’t pull any punches! You’re right on, though. I have a Twitter business story. I joined a consulting firm and a few of my Twitter friends saw the announcement with my picture in the local paper. They asked what it was all about, and I told them. About a hour later, I got a follow from someone in a related company (I presume they had searched for tweets with the key term in them). Since then, I have a communicated with this guy, and we are going to talk about some possible synergies between us. All from a single tweet. Not bad.

  7. Some of your points are valid and I do agree with them…change your friends But when the author said, you need to know what song they dance to…well, that I say bollocks…you don’t need to know every detail of their life because you follow them what “relevant or interesting” thing they share, not trivia about their lives . The primary reason why I followed people is because of “what knowledge ” they can possibly impart to, not about how they sip their coffee or what music they listen to. I’d rather go and reconnect with them in FB instead.
    That is why i don’t hang out much at Twitter because my primary reason to hang in around there is for “information” , not gossip and snooping on their personal stuff.

  8. Good post Steve. I particularly like the German analogy!

    As for how Twitter has helped me, it has put me in touch with all sorts of people who I would never normally meet and who I would never have the time to search out on Google or via aggregators. More than that, twitter keeps me creative by injecting my day with snippets from all sorts of different people. And I don’t just passively discover other people’s work via links in tweets, I engage with some kind of conversation around that work and build relationships with all sorts of people through that engagement.

  9. viene“But when the author said, you need to know what song they dance to…well, that I say bollocks…” – I didn’t say “need”, I said “want”, and yes, I do really like knowing the cultural and ephemeral context from whence people’s tweets come.

    If the kind of information you’re looking for can be tracked by keyword, then it’s quite possible to use the RSS feeds generated by to keep up with those (I have 3 different twitter search RSS feeds set up in my Google reader)… There are a lot of ways to extract information from twitter, and different ways to aggregate that info…

  10. Twitter users seem to fall into two or three camps; those who enter into conversations and dialogue with the individuals they follow including those who converse with more than one follower in the same conversation, those who “lurk” following people but scarely saying a word, if at all, to those they follow, and the third group who seem to dip in and out of the cloud of whatever ever is buzzing at any given moment and have conversations based on themes/subjects and don’t seem to be that interested in building relationships in the twittersphere.

    Trivial bullshit only? In the short while I’ve been there let me see what non trivial stuff has gone on: I’ve been challenged about my organisational strategy in relation to non-use of Open Source Software to such a degree that I am reviewing it, I’ve put a couple of people in touch with each other, I’ve given someone a bit of job seeking advice, I’ve been asked to pray for people and asked people to pray for me and mine, I’ve LOL and hopefully made a few people smile myself, I’ve done a bit of informal tech support for a few peeps keeping my good turn a day count up, I’ve made a small contribution to the UK ecomony like a good little consumer in that I’ve bought a couple of books based on people’s recommendations, My wife and I went to a gig (Meldoy Gardot) that I would not even have considered or even known about otherwise, I’ve re-strung one of my basses in a new way that has opened up some interesting creative possibilities, I’ve gentle pulled the legs of a few welsh men and women, expressed moral support to Lance Armstrong about him being victimised by “random” drug tests, publicly expressed my frustration with the senior leadership of my wider faith community, joined a political movement and a couple of campaigns and I have a long list of people that I want to meet in the flesh one day.

    I don’t regard relationships as trivial. Like all relationships not everything that gets said by every person every time they speak is equally profound or important but the people themselves are profoundly important.

    To me twitter resembles an interesting evening out down the pub with a large group people you know you have something in common with and you don’t ever have to go home thinking “I wished I had got around to speaking to him or her”

    @greg_collins if you want to join in; come on down and say Hi!

  11. This is my story: when I met Solobasssteve, it was *not* on twitter but on seesmic. I started to converse with the guy because he had a fabulous look, blue nails, great smile and fun hair, but also because he was a bass player, and that I had a particular (personal) bond with the category of people that play bass, so that made a secret link (that I didn’t need to disclose because I had nothing to say about bass and music, but still). Then I felt good around him and his adventures, so that’s when I added him in my stream on twitter.

    Not because I necessarily wanted to follow him everywhere – I could not – but because it was like keeping a contact with someone you have met once and you liked, it happens all the time, and unless luck brings you back in contact, you may be often thinking of that encounter, but have little chance to know what that person is becoming. Sometimes, you hear about that person again, but there is little to no way to let know that person know that you did. Maybe it is not that important after all, maybe it is. What I am sure of, is that it brings a very special feeling inside my heart, something like warmth.

    With twitter I can activate that link not only easily but in a very subtle way: it will never be intrusive, neither way, nor on my part, nor on the recipient part: if it is the right moment or if it not, it takes no offense to ignore a sign. It’s not like bothering someone with a phone call or even an email, it is open and endless.

    I am of a different generation, so I can compare to what happened thirty years ago with my circle of friends. I tried to keep contact. It has proven to be like telepathy. When all of a sudden it was becoming feasible to actually be in direct contact with friends that had real meaning in my life at a given moment, they were happy because of what we had been at the time, but both of us were in an awkward situation because our paths had been going on, and the entire connection could be lost. I should be giving examples, they are all trivial of course, but it is trivia that matters in the connection. Had we been twitter friends at the time, would we have kept the contact over the years? I have no idea of course. But maybe it would have been meaningful to learn some of the things that had happened on a daily basis so that we can still feel like we belonged to the same community.

    Instead, it feels like I have become a total stranger to them because I grew in a different person in their eyes (and the reverse may be true) simply because they miss all the intermediate steps I took in my everyday life.

    Twitter is not the only thing that could have allowed this. I may be wrong, I wonder how twitter will have shaped thirty year long friendship for instance. Will have it made a difference from what existed thirty years ago?

    Now I am off to reading the dozens and dozens of other comments on this. Thanks Steve for sharing your thoughts, and your time, and your space in this adventure!

  12. Great blog Steve – I’m finally getting round to commenting. Some lovely comments here; and I adored Greg’s – so personal.

    It’s hard to find an objective view on Twitter partly because you either have hardly used it and so slag it off or you do use it (because it is useful to you personally) and so you’re going to be fairly positive about it.

    Normally, someone writing about a subject with little experience of that subject would either try to give a balanced point of view or, if they wanted to back up their opinion, would do some research.

    What Oliver James and the like could have done was interviewed a range of Twitter users and analysed their interactions using Twitter and the ways Twitter has been used by them. They have plainly failed to do that. They (the commentators dissing Twitter) have been engaging in bad science by making an assumption rather than doing research and making and testing hypotheses.

    Me, I love Twitter. I’m a relative newb – I think I’ve been here for about a month. It took me a while to learn how to use Twitter more effectively and I’m still learning. I’ve learned that I don’t have to read anything but can dip in and out of the twitterstream as I see fit; that I should focus on @replies and conversations more than tweets about myself and that I can follow and unfollow according to my whim.

    To see Twitter as celeb-stalking or narcissistic posting about oneself is to ignore the way Twitter is being used by a large number of creative and interesting people in very social and interactive ways.

    Twitter is about a social group and about conversations and interactions. I, like most people, have a wide variety of interests: music, bass, theology, football, computers, design, theology, movies, languages, world-culture, cuisine, walking, eco-politics, leadership, education, roller-skating to name but a few – on Twitter I follow people who I have an interest in common with or people I know personally and find myself discussing and debating a far wider variety of things than I would normally and learning a wide range of new things too.

    This week I had the major buzz of finding my mother was following me on Twitter – I can only begin to think how that might open up some cool possibilities.

    In my month or so on Twitter, here are some of the ways I’ve benefited: made new friends; learned about new software that has made my life easier; discovered new music and musicians; had people listen to my music; learned new techniques for webdesign/blogging/design etc; shared musical advice; been given spiritual support; discussed and debated on a range of issues; attended local events which I’ve learned about; kept up with local news; attended live and streamed concerts; shared some great news stories; shared art and exhibitions; helped some artists to get together for collaboration . . .

    OK, a lot of the above I could have done through email and other web applications – but very slowly and without the kind of quick-fire lateral connections Twitter allows you to make which, quite frankly, suit the way my brain works.

    So Twitter is great – and if it didn’t exist someone would have to invent it. In the future it’s going to be massive and the naysayers will eat their hats; but even, if it doesn’t develop like that, I love it anyway.

  13. Hi Steve. Wow too many replies to read them all. If someone has posted a similar thought … “like minds” rule applies.

    Personally I’d like to interact more conversationally as opposed to my current Statement tweets, but these are never boast posts, only boring. I tend to think of things as a whole that can be dismantled into miniaturized copies or interchangeable blocks.

    I see Dead People. Zombies, the Mentally Ill, and of course mirroring all of the conflagrantcies of life with the increased popularity of Twitter comes the con-artists (via & North American Securities Administrators Association ). Create a Twitter identity for a current event & with none (zero) posts, people (may) follow in the hundreds.

    I get the Reality TV “thing” … follow a jackass and you’ll be stepping in or over manure.

    I see “journalists” more often following journalists.

    I’m not sure if I made a point, started a conversation or just occupied 0.2KB of space with 100.0BS (BS applies to the “in the eyes of the beholder” rule.)

  14. While I understand your point, I do have to point out that when you say “most of what goes on on twitter has no effect on me” is a bit of an understatement.

    The vast majority of the posts are pure crap.

    Yes you do choose who you follow, and if you’re following someone who posts pointless things then you should follow better people… and if you dig enough holes, you’ll find buried treasure – if you have the time…

    … I don’t.

    I gave up on Twitter after first trying it a while back. Yet I give it a shot every few months, usually when I hear someone going off about how great it is and how it’s the future of communications or some other garbage. I usually start back up by following those same evangelists and, to date, I have yet to find someone who has figured out a way to make 140 characters anything special.


  15. Greg/Otir/Phil – so lovely to read your personal stories of how Twitter is working for you. I take great pleasure in reading your thoughts as wisdom as well as the trifles from your daily lives. Otir, I’ve been inspired by your use of social media to connect beyond your personal circumstances, and to raise awareness about living with autism. It’s moving and inspiring, and we’re better for having experienced it with you.

    Patrick – no need to apologise. I know people who live full and productive lives without a mobile phone, without email, without a laptop or [insert tech here] – there are loads of ways to get the information we need, and loads of equally valid definitions of ‘useful info’.

    What’s impossible to argue is that Twitter is, to most of the users here (and to pretty much everyone I talk to on it) any of the things that Oliver James or the moronic journalists pontificating from afar are say it is.

    There’s no obligation to use it, to enjoy it, or to care about it. Dismissing it for everyone or declaring it ‘damaging’ is the dumb-ass part of the Oliver James experience 🙂

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