I am an unabashed Twitter fan. Most people are not fans. They think it’s silly and stupid. Whenever I exhort people to Tweet, I invariably get “Who wants to hear what I ate for breakfast?” or (perhaps more selfishly) “Why would I want to hear what other people are eating for breakfast?” I invariably don’t get a new Twitterlocutory.
These people don’t understand the point of Twitter. It’s not your fault. There’s no user manual: Twitter as a company doesn’t really explain how to use their product (the best they do is add new features like Lists, Suggested Users, and Retweeting in the hopes you’ll be able to divine what purpose they have in common). Making matters even more confusing. the way people use Twitter has already changed dramatically several times in its very short history (a topic I might write about in more depth another time), which has led to popular confusion about what Twitter is all about: first, Twitter was a way to tell a bunch of friends what you were doing by text message; then, it became a way to stay to share “ambient awareness” of your life with your social network. Later (now?), it moved to a media platform through which you could follow and interact with public figures and corporations. I think it’s real appeal and real purpose is closest to this last, but still much broader and more fundamental; Twitter does two things: it makes it easy to share your perspective and easy to follow the perspective of others.
People who don’t tweet assume that the 140-character limit renders any tweet necessarily trivial, shallow, and frivolous. Indeed, the particular jargon used for various acts on Twitter sounds hopelessly childish and twee (tweet, tweeple, etc.) In reality, Twitter’s 140 character limit unlocks enormous value — sort of the classic example of emergent characteristics of a system coming from simple individual units. Limiting the author to 140 characters frees her to avoid spending a great deal of time explaining her statement or perfecting her writing style. Blogging is burdensome. It takes significant time to express yourself, and this post took about an hour to write. Tweeting is easy; I spend at most 5 minutes a day writing out the posts I send.
It’s not just that messages on Twitter are shorter than other forms of writing (this would only add the value of making them more common); they’re also more efficient as means of conveying your ideas. Anytime you try to express yourself, you’re doing two different things – you’re coming up with a thought, and then you’re editing that thought to make it fit for proper expression. The editing for expression part is in some sense wasted time, since what we want to do is communicate the underlying thought. The 140 character limit strips down expression to its simple constituent thought, allowing the author to spend more energy on thinking and less on editing.
So Twitter makes it easier to express your perspective; for some people (egomaniacs like me who like to hear ourselves talk) this is reason enough to use the service. It also makes it easier to listen: the same efficiency in expressing yourself also makes it easy to understand others. The same brevity that makes it easy to tweet each day also makes it easy to read each day (I probably spend about 10-15 minutes each day to look at about 300 tweets from probably about 75 people).
None of this would really matter if there were no value to the perspectives shared on Twitter. I think this is most people’s most fundamental objection to trying the service, but the idea that people’s perspectives are worthless to read an incredibly pessimistic assumption to make. Twittering fulfills the same impulse to call up a friend to commiserate about how bad Tom Brady played in a Pats game, or to tell someone what you thought of the finale of Dexter. If you enjoy getting a text message from a friend that bitches about the Greyhound bus, you’ll also like reading about that on Twitter. But, of course, Twitter’s not just (or primarily) a social network. The fact that you can follow Tweeters who aren’t your friends (like Shaquille O’Neil or your favorite restaurant) combined with how convenient it is to read a 140 character message lets you listen to (and sometimes communicate with) perspectives that you’d never get to hear otherwise. I probably wouldn’t read a whole book written by the Office’s Mindy Kaling, but I can follow her on Twitter and get a kick out of some of her jokes. The ease of communication on Twitter also opens up types of communication that wouldn’t otherwise exist: the rapid-fire citizen reporting of the Iranian protests is one example; the ability for a restaurant to tell its customers of a one-day deal it’s doing on its drink specials is another.
Basically, Twitter lets people communicate more easily, rapidly, and widely than ever before, which is why I think it’s such an exciting development