On Twitter

Twitter is an interesting case study in Internet fads. The system itself is utterly trivial–not just in usage, but technically trivial too. Any competent web developer can build a Twitter clone in a weekend, and many have. Yet somehow, it has developed amazing mindshare. A lot of people seem to be using it simply because everyone else is.

I got in early, reserved my user name, then let it sit idle. After a while, I started posting stupid updates to poke fun at the whole system. Eventually I made peace with Twitter and started using it for real, but that doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated by the way a lot of other people use it.

Many people who ought to know better use Twitter as a way to post links, even though it’s fundamentally unsuited to the purpose. The 160 character limit gets eaten up by a URL, so people use tiny URL services which obscure the destination, removing useful information in the process. Even then, there’s not much space for summarizing why they are linking to the destination, so it’s very much a crapshoot whether you’ll find anything worthwhile when you get there.

A much better idea is to use delicious.com, Google Reader, or a Facebook link post. Facebook pretty much nails this usage pattern–a link post gives you the destination URL, destination page title, a pull quote, and an optional short comment from the poster. If that kind of link propagation is really what Twitter is for–and many of its advocates seem to think it is–Twitter should at least provide the option of associating a URL with each tweet, to end the tinyurl obfuscation. As it is, from observing my behavior I seem to be about a hundred times more likely to read a link propagated on Facebook than one propagated via Twitter.

Another stupid use for twitter is having one-on-one conversations. You can spot this kind of Twitterer by the trail of incomprehensible comments with @johnsmith directives. Presumably the logic is that I might see half of what looks like an interesting conversation, and rudely butt in? Well, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe I’m not practiced enough at eavesdropping and butting in in the real world, and hence haven’t wanted to carry the practice over into the online world. Again, there are better systems for doing this–FriendFeed offers actual conversation threads, so if my friend B comments on something said by person A, I actually see both sides of the exchange. Revolutionary!

The most irritating use for Twitter is as a staging area for unfiltered crap that later gets reposted. People who use it this way take their Twitter comments each day, copy them all, and then post the copy on their web site. Ye gods, what are they thinking? If the comment is worth a web posting, post it there to start with. If it’s not, leave it in Twitter.

Reposting Twitter feeds is effectively punishing anyone who is interested enough to follow what you’re writing. If they care what you’re thinking, they’ll be subscribed to the Twitter feed and will see your comments there–so why make them see them all again on your web site hours later? It’s a bit like those people who send you e-mail, and then send voicemail to ask if you got the e-mail, and then leave a Post-It on your screen to make sure you get the voicemail. Sending multiple redundant copies of information to someone doesn’t make it more valuable, it just activates people’s mental noise filters. And sure enough, I find that I just stop following self-reposters entirely.

What about the original supposed purpose of Twitter? Back in the mists of time–circa 2007–WIRED explained Twitter as a way to keep friends up-to-date with your day-to-day activities. That’s something it’s actually good for, and that’s what I use it for: Random thoughts, mini-anecdotes, how I’m actually spending waking hours. Basically, the personal trivialities I always thought weren’t worth wasting an entire web site posting for. The only reason I use Twitter rather than Facebook for this task is that Twitter has a clean and open API, whereas Facebook’s API is horrible and doesn’t (as far as I could tell) let you extract status updates.

So it’s another case of "the street finds its own use for things", as William Gibson put it. Twitter has become the golden hammer of short web postings, and apparently there are plenty of small screws that still need pounding in.