The Real Trouble With Twitter – There’s no There, There

(Image from Darren Greaves (Boncey) via Creative Commons license)

I’ve been thinking a lot about – and playing around with – Twitter. These Dylan lyrics came to on the plane this morning, as an apt description of why I’ve had a hard time “getting” the value of Twitter:

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
. . .
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’,
. . .
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

No, I’m not suggesting that Twitter is an omen of some rapidly upcoming flood. It’s the middle line there I’m thinking of.

Annalee Newitz writes in “The Trouble with Twitter” that:

Twitter’s popularity reflects the accelerating pace in cities: people use Twitter as they stroll around with mobiles, and the rapidity of their updates reflects a sense that new, exciting things are happening to them every minute, not just every few hours (blog time) or every day (newspaper time).

But the problem I have with Twitter isn’t that it is too fast, and thus discourages reflective thought, or that the messages are too short, and thus discourage contemplative rhetoric. Those things are true, but not the problem. (They’re equally true of SMS and of IM).

The problem is that no one is listening.

More accurately, the problem with Twitter is that there is no conversation to listen to. To borrow Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, there’s no there there.

Twitter is basically a giant publish and subscribe universe which renders conversations independent of location and medium by smashing them into little 140 character bits.

When you “tweet” you put your words out in the giant ocean of all conversations in the system – and the people who are subscribed to receive your words will see them, and perhaps read them.

It’s like yelling into the wind – albeit with a sophisticated routing algorithm that enables specific people downwind to hear you.

Others who tweet are sending their words into the same vast ocean (or wind, if you’re bothered by my mixing metaphors) – and if you are subscribed, you will be able to possibly read them.

It’s a conversation in which, at any moment, you may or may not be aware of those responding to you, and the people to whom you want to communicate may or may not be listening.

The problem is that aggregated monologues don’t make communities.

While irc and more recently IM-based chats sometimes have the appearance of a noisy room in which everyone’s speaking and no one listening, most chats actually have a clear set of threads. Multiple threads will be ongoing at once, and threads change (new ones start, old ones die out) without any formal logic, but there are generally threads of conversation involving participants who have some degree of likelihood of hearing each other.

Even when the majority of folks in a chat are lurking, there is at least a sense of who is participating in the conversation.

Blogs, in contrast are often accused of being monologues in slience – and for bloggers who are not on the A-list (or even the D-list!) blogging can seem like speaking into the wind. But blog platforms have mechanisms built in (permalinks, trackbacks / pingbacks, and comments) to encourage conversation over time.

If you have, on Twitter, a stable set of friends and followers – where those who are listening are also those who are talking – I could imagine real conversation emerging. I’m already seeing some folks using conventions like “@jeckman” or “jeckman<-" to show that their comments are directed at one user in particular. But most of the time, you're speaking with no awareness of who is listening - and listening to folks who weren't thinking at all of you (except in the most generic sense) when they spoke. This practically eliminates dialogue. Maybe the problem really is that I just don't have enough friends - or enough friends who are actively twittering. (Or is it that I don't have enough followers? What does it mean, in terms of the social register, to have more followers than friends, or vice versa? I'm sure I read more blogs than there are users who read my blogs, but that doesn't seem to have the quite the social relevance of the Twitter metrics). One could also look at this as a fundamentally disruptive technology that I'm trying to frame in terms of known technologies. Twitter gives us IRC/IM but throws away the whole notion of who is "online" or "in the room" at the moment of conversation. It gives us the multiple simultaneous monologues that is the blogosphere without comments, trackbacks, or links between conversations. But at the risk of sounding nostalgic or shortsighted, without those linkages I remain unconvinced that we're getting something new out of this particular disruption.


  1. I found Twitter through your blog. It was mildly entertaining to see the comments from SxSW. Mainly because I wasn’t there and because it was a new interface.

    I have checked out their site and service a few times now, but like you, I don’t know many people who use it and am not interested in following most people. I am interested in hearing what Barack Obama has to say, but I’m looking for more than a one-liner about the War from him.

    An interesting interface that I prefer (almost like textual television) is commentspy. There is a little bit more context there, but once again it is very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Imho, leave Twitter for the Twits ;)

  2. I had the same . . . well, not the same reaction, mine was a more violent retching at the idea of the self-centeredness of it all, but then I read a comment on O’Reilly Radar from someone who set up an account for his home automation system and uses Twitter as an easy way to watch the logs. I think there are a ton of uses like that for Twitter. The intended use still seems awful.

  3. Sal – comment spy is interesting, but you’re right – it is a question of signal to noise ratio, which is a big enough problem in all the various media I already consume.

    It’s hard to imagine adding another “attention stresm” unless it displaces an existing one – and neither twitter nor commentspy are there yet, for me.

  4. @Tom – but why wouldn’t you just push those logs to some other delivery mechanism – have it send SMS, or output an RSS feed you can read from multiple places in different formats?

    There is the whole concept of notifications that go always to web, and optionally to IM or SMS – that is intriguing, but it’s clearly not what people are gushing about as Twitter’s place in the ecosystem.

  5. “aggregated monologues don’t make communities”

    Exactly! With all of this technology seemingly created to keep us all “in touch” it is striking to watch the continued decline of not just community, but friendship. The polls keep showing that Americans find themselves with fewer and fewer friends over the past 50 years. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” has accelerated, not decelined, since the advent of the Web.

Comments are closed.