I am an outsider to Twitter. I have never had an account, and nearly everything I know is second-hand. I see tweets leaking into Facebook with their inscrutable @ symbols and hash tags. More recently, I have been surfing over to Twitter and clicking on random feeds just to see what they look like and what people choose to tweet. Still, I am an outsider.
I've avoided Twitter mostly because I don't need another website to feel obligated to. Why do I feel "obligated" in the first place? Email and Facebook are enough. And Google Reader keeps me happily current with subjects I'm interested in. However, I have found myself looking for a way to share articles I read. And for that, I've been considering Twitter.
Before leaping though, I decided to record here my impressions of Twitter. Once you're initiated, once you know more, you forget what it's like not to know. So for the sake of remembering, I'm writing this. I think it could be helpful to compare the view from the inside and the outside.
So here's a list of my second-hand knowledge of Twitter, with some explanation.
One-way attachments. Twitter doesn't require mutual relationships, even though it's considered social media. Twitter is similar to broadcast mediums in permitting one-way attachments. Any person I follow need not follow me, or even acknowledge me.
That said, I am told that direct messages require that both parties follow each other. In the real world we use words like friend, acquaintance, associate, colleague, lover, and others. In Twitter, these are all lumped together into something like "mutual followers."
It's interesting to think of a friendship in such terms. There could be some truth in it. Friends are constantly leading and following each other.
Binary Proximity. Twitter levels the playing field, as they say. It's touted as being very democratic for this reason. But Twitter also equalizes proximity. Twitter has two distances: follow and don't follow. It's binary. Those I follow, be they celebrities or significant others, are all equidistant. Famous people are as close as friends, and friends are as far away as famous people. Those I don't follow are infinitely distant, but I can make them equidistant just by following them. Twitter doesn't acknowledge anything in between.
Soundbytes. Famously, Twitter is a soundbyte medium. This is one reality of the Twitter environment that most people recognize. It's also the most visible, but a good introduction to media ecologies. While Twitter spurs on the news, enables conversation, and equalizes proximity, it does so in a very superficial way. Twitter conversations burn like news paper. They light quickly and burn up just as fast. Can Twitter sustain a conversation of real value?
I think the soundbyte environment intensifies many of the issues that I mention below, most clearly the news frenzies, the shallow conversations, and the lack of privacy.
News. "Isn't Twitter just Facebook statuses?" I first asked. I was quickly corrected. "This is how I get my news!" and "It's faster than any other news source because there isn't any red tape." Well, yes, except you need access to the Internet, a Twitter account, and a minimum number of followers who will retweet it. And those followers need to care about that piece of news. And that piece of news must compete with all other tweets—whether they're news or not.
News frenzies. Twitter spreads news but it also, to some degree, generates news. The recent kerfuffle surrounding Rob Bell's Love Wins or Mark Driscoll's "anatomically male worship leader" comment may not have gathered so much steam without Twitter's kindling. The tweets of cooler heads are rarely retweet-worthy.
Topics. Hash tags emphasize topics, as I understand them to function, and they allow users to track conversations surrounding those topics. I'm all about conversations about specific topics. So I'll probably like this.
Conversation. If by conversation, you mean trading one-liners. I like complex ideas, and I typically fail with text messages, so I could be frustrated by this.
Eavesdropping. I can follow anyone on Twitter. I can eavesdrop on any conversation they're having with another user. But is it eavesdropping when a user is broadcasting himself? I'm not sure what you'd called that—castdropping? If these birds have tweets, surely they have droppings too. Whatever the case, you can follow anyone and anyone can follow you. And you may not want just anyone listening in. Google + and now Facebook are attempting to stem this lack of privacy. Will Twitter follow suit? The soundbyte reality, though, seems inherently impersonal, so privacy will probably prove less of an issue.
Attention getting. @ symbols seem to empower users to snatch the attention of a specific person. Is this akin, in real life, to interrupting a conversation? Calling someone on the phone? Tapping them on the shoulder? Making eye contact? Shaking them? Yelling their name? It seems like a strange practice to me. Maybe I'll better understand it if I try it out.
Sharing links. Often, I see people linking to articles. Are they looking to dialog about them? These tweets seem quite singular without much background or context.
Shared experiences. Just like on Facebook, people like to draw attention to good, bad, awkward, irritating, flattering experiences. Hashtags seem to promote this practice by gathering them in one place. Like PostSecret, FMyLife, and Fail blog, these tweets confirms that we're not the only one who's had such an experience or feeling. It also suggests that we're not unique in our experiences.
Is Twitter identity-driven or issues-driven? Twitter accounts are provided to individuals—but also to corporations, bands, churches, and other groups. On the other hand, hashtags emphasize issues and concepts. So is Twitter more identity-based or issue-driven? It seems to fundamentally be identity driven. It would be interesting to see an issue-based social network. I suppose some crowd-funding sites might be a bit like that. But, in the end, for websites to work financially, they need to be identity-based in order to target, advertise, and monetize.
Outsider that I am, these are my impressions and analysis of Twitter. With hesitations, I'll try out Twitter. I intend to primarily post links to articles I've read on media ecology. So if that interests you, I'd love to have you be part of my experiment (info to come).
In a few months, with some insider experience I hope to reflect more on what I wrote here, tweak it, correct it, learn from it, and talk about it.