Openly Twitter-Doubting

About a year ago I started to write a blog post about why I couldn’t get behind twitter. I never finished it because I thought “if so many people love it, isn’t there a pretty good chance I’m just missing something?”. As Brent Butt used to say in his pre-fame stand up routines,

“Just because I don’t get it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit.
What I don’t get could fill a soccer stadium”

and I try to avoid being a hater on the blog.

My reason for doubting twitter was basically this: while I appreciate the artistic challenges imposed by the haiku-like restrictions of the medium, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a medium best suited to it trivial narcissism. So I don’t blame people if they seem to mostly end up tweeting trivially narcisstic things, that’s just the way it’s going to be. And I celebrate those exceptions where someone manages to edit their profound/interesting thoughts into 140 characters. But I don’t really blame twitterers (and I don’t really celebrate them) because I just don’t care about twitter. And I don’t quite understand why the world seems to think I should.

The rash of articles — and I do mean rash — about how this or that celebrity or institution is using twitter and isn’t that amazing and forward looking was painful but seems to be receding. And I no longer see so many blog posts insisting that if people’s twitter streams are full or descriptions of their sandwiches, it’s just because they haven’t figured out how to write good tweets, and then failing to suggest what a good tweet might actually consist of. But the twitter backlash I always expected to come has never arrived, and people sure do seem to be tweeting. So here I am undergoing another round of self-doubt, wondering anew if maybe it really is just me that doesn’t get it.

Which would be great. I love it when new things emerge in the world, and there’s nothing more interesting than being wrong. Except, then, again, it sure is fun to have your private opinions reaffirmed for you by public authorities. Take it away, famous internet pundit Joel Spolsky:

Although I appreciate that many people find Twitter to be valuable, I find it a truly awful way to exchange thoughts and ideas. It creates a mentally stunted world in which the most complicated thought you can think is one sentence long. It’s a cacophony of people shouting their thoughts into the abyss without listening to what anyone else is saying. Logging on gives you a page full of little hand grenades: impossible-to-understand, context-free sentences that take five minutes of research to unravel and which then turn out to be stupid, irrelevant, or pertaining to the television series Battlestar Galactica. I would write an essay describing why Twitter gives me a headache and makes me fear for the future of humanity, but it doesn’t deserve more than 140 characters of explanation, and I’ve already spent 820.

Twitter in 140 Characters or Less: Trivial

I wrote this as a draft and didn’t post it. Now I’m doing so as a way to edit history to make me look prescient. Except that at the time of posting, history still disagrees with me. Ah well.

As far as I’m concerned, there are two possibilities regarding twitter. One is that I get it: it’s cross-platform version of what the Facebook status update feed does. The second possibility is that I don’t get it at all, and there is in fact some crazy emergent magic about the existence of tweets in people’s lives that is obscure to me but exists and justifies an enormous degree of upcry and hullabaloo amongst the technologically literate and celebrity technology journalists alike.

But even if the second case is true, and I doubt it, there is no conceivable way that twitter could justify the actual current degree of upcry and hullabaloo it is causing. It’s a meme bubble. The bubble will pop. Holy crap people, it’s a single-line communication tool. Big freaking deal.

I’m reading reports that dismissing twitter as an “I don’t get it” is so 2009. And maybe I don’t get it. I mean, I understand that it represents a slightly different communication tool: a short messaging system that is easy to publish to, including phone messaging options, allows for a collated syndication of all your friends tweets into a single, easily digestable stream, and allows for people to subscribe and unsubscribe as they wish. Similar to RSS-reading blogs, but simpler and swifter to do, and simpler and swifter can put a technology over the hump into widespread use.

But who cares if the widespread use is a trivial one? Not that there’s anything wrong with triviality. Some argue that only newbies use twitter for trivial communication, but they don’t suggest what a non-trivial use of twitter might be, and all the tweets I’ve seen can be fairly summarized as trivial. I know, I know, the Iranian revolution. But from what I’ve read, twitter isn’t actually getting much use by protestors, who are mainly using phone messaging. The western media is fixating on the twitter traffic because we can’t see the phone messages.

Someone somewhere is replying, yes, but that’s only because twitter penetration isn’t as high as it will be. Once you stop complainining and start using it, it will become a true revolution! To answer that we should turn to acknowledged twitter-lover Clay Shirky, who points out that communication revolutions are only ever identifiable in retrospect. So if the world is fascinated by twitter for what the revolution that it might be, I don’t find that very compelling.

Not that it matters. Either twitter is a revolution, will be a revolution, or neither. Unless someone finds a non-trivial use for a one-line message delivery service, then it’s a choice between a trivial revolution or a non-trivial revolution. Twitter in 140 characters or less: trivial.