In defense of Twitter

30 03 2009

Recently, a colleague stopped following me on Twitter because, he says, keeping up with my feed is “emotionally exhausting.” Others have panned the practice as banal, self-indulgent, time-consuming or narcissistic. And then there’s this video, which successfully, and hilariously, paints Twitter as absurd in the extreme:

All of these folks make good points. And, as most who know me are aware, I am nothing if not banal, self-indulgent, time-consuming, narcissistic and otherwise emotionally exhausting—but that’s me, not Twitter. Twitter itself is nothing more than a medium I use to disseminate my narcissism, banality, etc., and like all other media, it can be used well or it can be used poorly.

When used poorly, you get the Twitter described above. But when you use it well, Twitter becomes something more than yet another social networking site; namely, a real-time, collaborative mental sketch pad that allows the user to take an idea, throw it in the hopper, and see what comes back. At it’s best, Twitter isn’t about getting to know each other so much as it is about sharing ideas, shaping a larger dialogue and watching the cultural zeitgeist develop in real time.

The beauty of Twitter, and what separates it from the navel-gazing echo chamber of social networking, is that Twitter relationships aren’t necessarily reciprocal. I follow plenty of people, from the actually famous (@clairecmc, @the_real_shaq) to the microfamous (@JessicaValenti, @AriMelber) to the not at all famous (@provenself, @WeeLaura), who don’t follow me back. That the relationship is one-sided isn’t any skin off my nose—I certainly don’t expect that every blogger I read logs on Urbzen.com. I follow them because I’m interested in what they have to say, not because I think we’re somehow going to become internet BFFs. Good content is good content, regardless of the medium.

Similarly, I don’t automatically follow everyone who follows me. I feel very fortunate that a relatively large number of people are interested enough in what I have to say to make it a part of their Twitter stream. But their decision to read my tweets doesn’t make me any more or less likely to want to read theirs.

The Current video makes a good point that Twitter opens the door for a lot of banality. “I just put my socks on.” “It’s raining.” “Ice cream is delicious.” and that’s where the nonreciprocal nature of Twitter shines—It’s an intellectual meritocracy. Good content is rewarded, while bad content is ignored. And everybody gets to define what good and bad means to them. It’s like a personalized RSS feed of other people’s brains.

Another advantage of the not-necessarily-reciprocal nature of Twitter is that it’s allowed me to build a much more interesting and diverse community than I have on, say, Facebook. The fact is that most of my friends—on Facebook and in “real life”—are a lot like me: youngish, professional, liberal, childless—which creates a sort of social echo chamber. On Twitter, by contrast, I can and do choose to follow and engage with people who have vastly different experiences and ideas than I do, which creates a much more invigorating conversation. I’m certainly not “friends” with a lot of these folks—many of them would probably like to throttle me, honestly—but the debate is interesting, and we keep each other sharp.

Maybe Twitter is a fad. Maybe it’s not. Either way, don’t use it and you’re missing out on one hell of a conversation.

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10 responses

30 03 2009
threeundertwo@Lit and Laundry

Found this via a tweet from herbadmother. I agree completely. Now I’m going to follow you. . .

30 03 2009
Kelli

Well said. I tweet on occasion. I tend to do three things: vent, make random observations, and ask questions. For the most part, I am more of a listener on Twitter. I follow about 120 people right now, and like you said, I follow each for different reasons. Some are [advertising] industry people, and I love to see what they find interesting. Some are like you, random bloggers that make me laugh, and a few are my friends/colleagues.
I think Twitter can be whatever you want/need it to be. And as you change, that need can change.

30 03 2009
Maria

Thank you for putting it so succinctly. I’ve just been at this for the last 2 months or so, and I also follow those that do not follow back. The only downside so far is when I’ve asked a specific question to someone (non-celebrity) and been blown off. Is it because they have thousands of followers or because I’m not part of the “in group?”

30 03 2009
Nerdette

I agree — Twitter, like any other 2.0 medium – or frankly, a bullhorn, telegraph, etc. is an amplifier, not a means to an end.

I just like watching the stream and seeing what weird, interesting things pop up.

Great post 🙂

30 03 2009
Joe Schmitt

Very well said. Your points about how Twitter is non-reciprocal vs. Facebook is very insightful and the way you then declare it a meritocracy is brilliant. I’d add one thing to that – anyone can get lots of followers if they don’t care who and if they follow everyone back. The true scale of merit is how many people will follow you without the expectation of you following them back. To do that you have to have good content – be interesting in some way.

Myself I like the jokes. Once I narrowed the focus of my tweets to just jokes, I began finding my audience. Many of the people who follow me tweet about a range of topics, not all interesting to me, so I don’t have to follow back, but that’s OK, because we’re not using Twitter in the same way.

But I’m going to check out your stream on Twitter because you seem smart and I’m hoping you’ll have something else that hits home.

@joeschmitt

Also thanks to @nerdette for sending this link my way.

30 03 2009
KristyDntheZoo

Another excellent post! I would like to add the “bonus” and rarely mentioned benefit of following news sources. I can, at a quick glance, see what the NY Times is posting and if the title interests me, then a quick click on a link brings the artcile to the forefront. If I don’t have time to read it, then I can “fav” it for later to read. News – what I want, when I want, and all on my tiny little iPhone.

Hell, one doesn’t even need to bring bulky magazines to the loo or read the dredge of magazine selections in the checkout line anymore.

31 03 2009
shana

Another advantage of the not-necessarily-reciprocal nature of Twitter is that it’s allowed me to build a much more interesting and diverse community than I have on, say, Facebook.

twitter’s the first internet platform in, oh, at least 5 years where i not only added (some) strange followers back but was even mildly interested in interacting with them simply because they had smart/funny/thoughtful things to say. at the risk of sounding overly !!! about it, it sort of made the internet feel new again. that warm fuzzy seems to have even spilled over a bit to tumblr, and i think the way that site encourages brevity is maybe the thruline.

31 03 2009
Marc Vermut

Stephanie, great piece. I always say and hear and repeat that you get the Twitter experience you deserve…since you build it. Whereas Facebook delivers the experience you often can’t avoid.

Thanks for summing it up. And the video is damn funny.

31 03 2009
the problemwithcaring

A meritocracy of mediocrity…interesting….

31 03 2009
Damon

You’re right. I loathe people who tell me “I’m home,” on Facebook or Twitter.

Tell me that you’re in the strip club with Pacman Jones dodging bullets. Otherwise, I don’t care to know where you are. Don’t tell me you’re eating a turkey sammich. Tell me that you’re eating a turkey sammich and saw a roach run across the damn table. … this irks me.

Here’s one for your people to read about one of the above social networks:

http://thismayconcernyou.com/2009/02/06/facebook-friend-purgatory/

What’s funny is I actually have a post about this bad tweets/status updates coming in a few days/week. I haven’t watched the video yet, but will. Might use it. Good post.

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