Why Twitter?

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


7 thoughts on “Why Twitter?

  1. Though I think twitter is a fad that will likely be replaced by some service (or combination of services) fairly quickly, I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiments of this article.

    I resisted signing up for Twitter for some time, but now I find it a quick, easily-accessible way of sharing content without all of the bells and whistles of facebook (which is, itself, desperately trying to match it with its increasingly status-update focused layout).

    Sometimes, though, I find the 140 character limit a bit ridiculous. Two well-formed, descriptive sentences rarely fit into a single tweet. And who’s to say what effect twitter will have on the internet-generation’s already tenuous grasp of English grammar?

  2. I’m torn on Twitter. On the one hand, it was really powerful during the Iranian election aftermath, as you mentioned, and I don’t think that is a one-off experience. Also, I think it is a great way for certain celebrities or high-profile people to keep in touch with the rest of us – whether it’s Shaq saying the first couple people to get to some bar in Portland would get free tickets to his NBA game (true), or a journalist sharing a quick thought on some developing event, or a politician reaching out to constituents with the ease of a few clicks on a BlackBerry.

    On the other hand, the potential of Twitter ghost-writers undermines some of what I said above (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/technology/internet/27twitter.html). Also, when it comes to normal people, like my friends, what’s the point? I can already follow them on Facebook via the news feed. What would I share on Twitter that I couldn’t share on Facebook? Also, as a normal person, isn’t it somewhat presumptuous to expect people to follow your 140 character missives? I can understand keeping up a blog with substantive insights, or Facebook status updates that carry no expectation of being read by many people. But a Twitter page where you have “followers?”

    So, consider me skeptical still.

  3. I am on Twitter, and also dislike the Twitter 140-character limit. However, I recognize it serves an important function, analogous to the spending limits of Secret Santa or word limits of essays. If we set no limit, then people would be tempted to write longer comments, to dress them up, and make it appear more substantive (~buy more expensive gifts). The fear of this commitment is what keeps people away from blogging even though they could just as easily write two-sentence posts. By creating a cap, we create a welcoming environment for the lowest common denominator (~making Twittering more [time-]affordable) and create a larger community of Tweeters. This is of course beneficial for Twitter users because social media is more effective at networking when you have a larger number of participants.

  4. “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.”

    I’ve had several blogs (and blogs before there was a word for blogs), but I’m still not even sold on the utility of blogging. Even very popular blogs written by unambiguously smart people (like Freakonomics and Becker-Posner) are often full of material that wasn’t thought-out completely and wasn’t researched in the slightest. Maybe it’s because I’m out of school and feel the value of my time, but if I want off-the-hip opinions with zero value-added, I can generate plenty of my own; I don’t need to spend the energy poring through unedited copy. I know that people enjoy mental masturbation, but like the physical variety, you can’t really expect others to be impressed by the results.

    I still read some blogs, and check a few more when I’m at home on vacation and feel less compelled to account for my time. But the same skepticism that I feel toward reading drivel makes me unable to fathom subscribing to twitter, which strikes me as even less value-added than the worst of blogs. If I wanted to use a service that was two parts media-hype and one part internet addition, I’d play Second Life.

  5. I, too, am a Twitter convert. The only downside, for largely office-bound people like me, is getting lost in the vortex–it’s very easy to start thinking the Twittering world is bigger and more important than it actually is. It might actually be bigger and more important in the DC political journalism sphere than it is in other, more normal places. But it’s still disturbing to open Twitter and emerge a half an hour later realizing you just spent a significant chunk of your day reading dashed-off comments and following links.

  6. “the idea that people’s perspectives are worthless to read is an incredibly pessimistic assumption to make”

    You say pessimistic, I say accurate.

    Moreover, if you assume that Twitter is supposed to raise more interesting points than “what I did have for lunch” then the word limit is a problem. One of the best things about blogs is that, unlike most news broadcasts, books, or magazine article you can clarify your thoughts in response to criticism. You can develop arguments. That is why blogs aren’t mere mental masturbation IF you have readers who comment. Sure, twitter lets you get that thought out there in a brief, succinct form. But what good does that do you if the thought is remotely controversial or interesting? As the poster, are you happy if it makes people think about whatever you are talking about? If so, then a successful twitter post functions like a nightly news commercial and convinces you to click on a link to the actual story. At its worst, people raise controversial or stupid points and then can’t actually defend them. argument.

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