Twitter: Why you might like it, and what its popularity says about the future of online social media.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 11, 2009
Twitter, the micro-blogging website and web service that is picking up converts like crazy, is a lot more addictive - and a lot more interesting - than you might think. It's a step in a direction markedly different from blogs and social media sites like Facebook.
A quick explanation of Twitter for those of you who aren't sure what it is: Twitter lets you write very short messages, called tweets, which are sent to everyone who is "following" you. In turn, you read the tweets of everyone you are following. What makes Twitter really interesting is that you may follow anyone you like (I enjoy reading tweets from Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers), giving you a unique opportunity for an intimate look into the lives of interesting people.
Many people who know about Twitter dismiss its premise by asking the obvious question: why should I care what people are saying on Twitter? Twitter's tag line, "What are you doing?", contributes to the perception of Twitter as a place for people to describe the boring bits of daily life: frustration with traffic, "gone to go get groceries", etc.
But what makes any social medium interesting? All social media have a good side - one that is thoughtful and thought-provoking, interesting, and entertaining - and a bad side - one that is narcissistic, shallow, boring, and pointless (even the best bloggers stoop to posting pictures of their cats from time to time).
Note: not an actual picture of the author's cat (Image Credit: Flickr)
Not all social media are created equal, however. Each has a different potential for being interesting simply by its nature. Social media are by definition participatory, and so the success of a given medium is is entirely based on the motivation of people to participate in creating content, and in turn how interesting this content is.
Facebook is large and complex and thus means many different things to many different people, but I think that for most people, Facebook is about two things: as a way to get attention, or as a platform that makes it easy to share content (like photos) online, with the often appreciated bonus of restricting that content to acquaintances.
The narcissistic Facebook user has a massive friends list and frequently posts personal details to the site (including, often, some that are ill-advised). The utilitarian Facebook user enjoys browsing photos, subscribing to event listings, and sending messages to friends. (There is also the voyeuristic Facebook user, the drunken Facebook user, and of course the narcissistic, socially outcast MySpace user, but I'll leave them for a different article).
In both cases, though, the message of the Facebook medium is simple: the sum of my friends, the details of my day-to-day life, the photos of my personal milestones, who I am: this is what makes me interesting.
I think, though, that this is actually the least interesting thing about people. What's interesting about people is how they think, how they perceive the world, how they make sense of it. Unless you're a great photographer, what is interesting about your photos are not the images themselves, but the stories behind them.
You can tell stories on Facebook, of course, but that's not the focus. The focus of Facebook is the profile, a self-generated biographical sketch of the individual. The stories the individual tells never reach an audience wider than the people they've chosen as "friends".
Blogs are much more about ideas than the profile-based, network-of-friends concept that powers Facebook.
Blogs are compelling because they let ordinary people communicate, potentially to millions of people. Blogs are about giving people a voice. "This is what I have to say," says the blogger, "and damnit, it is interesting!"
The challenge of being a good blogger, however, is that to really garner a wide audience, blogging needs to be much more than just a hobby: it needs to be a consistent and frequent effort. And to be truly compelling, a blog has to start delving into analysis and reflection. A good blogger isn't just a talker, she is a researcher and a thinker.
What makes blogs compelling - their potential for depth - is also their biggest weakness. Blogging takes work.
This is where Twitter steps in. Twitter's biggest limitation, the 140 character limit on tweets, is its biggest strength. By simultaneously forcing users to be succinct and removing their burden to dwell on issues at length, Twitter makes communicating thoughts incredibly easy.
Of course, this also makes it a fantastic platform for noise, but you can choose who you follow on Twitter, so it's easy to cut all of that out.
Following someone interesting on Twitter is like having the same kind of window into someone's life that you get from a good novel. Twitter becomes a prism that beams insights, witticisms, revelations, and frustrations out to whoever might be listening. This is great for generating instant conversations with strangers, which has long been one of the best features of the open net: the ability to talk to anyone, not just the people you know.
Twitter also works smoothly as a service, allowing you to use it without visiting the website at all. Applications for Twitter exist for the iPhone and the Blackberry, and you can also send tweets directly by texting it on your cellphone.
This flexibility and openness add to it enormously, and also make it an excellent tool for political action, as Barack Obama demonstrated in the 2008 US election campaign.
I think it's likely that much of what people like about Facebook - the ease of posting and sharing photos, videos, events, blog posts and even applications; and the ability to enforce semi-privacy by restricting content to friends - will gradually become features of the Internet in general.
Much of what Facebook provides is already really easy to use elsewhere (Flickr for photos, Youtube for videos, etc.). These lack the centrality of a single Facebook profile (be my friend, get all my stuff in one place) and they don't have Facebook's ability to restrict access to friends. Changing this is a technical and usability hurdle, but it's entirely possible.
The OpenID project, for example, allows someone to access multiple websites using the same credentials. This project could be extended, or a new project could be developed, that would also decentralize the networking features of sites like Facebook. It would provide a way for you to communicate who your friends are, across multiple sites.
So, for example, if you joined a photography website, you could simply tell the site that certain photos ought to be restricted to your friends only, and the site would automatically know who to allow access to. You wouldn't have to go through the annoying process of inviting your friends to join the site, or adding them to a friends list all over again.
My guess, and I'm honest enough to admit it's also a hope, is that the future of social media applications is about openness, choice, flexibility, and rapid communication. I think it's going to be more about web services and less about web destinations. I think the future is about letting you and I communicate the way we want, with the tools we enjoy using, to the people we wish to speak to and hear from, even if those people have no clue who we are.
I think that means a diminished future for applications like Facebook, but a bright one for services like Twitter.
What about blogs? So long as people are interested in ideas from outside the mainstream channels, I think blogs will do just fine. After all, you're reading one right now, and that's a good sign!
Related: The Wired blog just posted an article on novel uses some people are inventing for the open Twitter API, including notifications from household appliances, requests for watering from plants, and DIY home security systems.
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