Reader Request Week 2009 #8: Twitter

Ben rather crankily wants to know my thoughts on:

Twitter: A revolution in information consumption & dissemination OR I don’t give a fuck what you want for breakfast.

What Twitter is, frankly, is a public exhibition of what used to be a private activity. It’s phone texting — its character limit is right in line with the character limit on SMS texts — but rather than to just one person it goes out to dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, depending on who you are and how many followers you have. That Twitter has become massively popular is unsurprising because texting is massively popular; indeed, I have a suspicion that if you told most people under the age of 35 that they had to choose between texting or making voice calls, voice communication would drop to next to nothing. For a generation that grew up texting, Twitter isn’t a revolution, it’s simply an expansion of how they were communicating anyway. And in point of fact, it’s even better than blogging for quite a lot of people, because when you’re limited to 140 characters, you don’t have to feel bad about not having all that much to say.

That most Twitter communication is aggressively banal should also not come as a huge surprise. First, news flash: people are banal. Yes, all of us, even you (and especially even me). Even the great minds of the world do not spend all their time locked in the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe; about 90% of their thoughts boil down to “I’m hungry,” “I’m sleepy,” “I need to poo,” “Check out the [insert secondary sexual characteristics] on that [insert sex of preference], I’d really like to boink them,” “I wonder what Jennifer Aniston is doing right now, John Mayer can no longer tell me on his Twitter feed,” and, of course, “Look! Kitty!” That the vast majority of Twitter posts encompass pedestrian thoughts about common subjects like food, music, tech, jobs and cats is entirely unsurprising, because this is what people think about. Hell, even Stephen Fry, patron saint of Twitter, tweets about what fruit he’s having and what’s going on with his iPhone. And he’s more clever than any six of the rest of us will ever be. When Stephen Fry tweets about his goddamn snack, you can be forgiven about tweeting that, say, your cat has fur (which, in fact, I have just now done).

Second, phone texting, Twitter’s technological and philosophical predecessor, was not known as a place for weighty, meaty thoughts — it was known for “Where R U?” and “IM N claz N IM SO BORED” and other such messages of limited scope and mental appeal. But that’s pretty much what texting is for: Short thoughts about not much. That Twitter, shackled as it is to 140 characters per post, is not the Agora Reborn should not come as a huge shock.

However, this is a feature, not a bug. Twitter, along with text messages, IMs and to some extent blog posts (although not this particular blog post) and social networking pages belong what I think is a relatively new category of communication which I call “Intermediary Communication” — which is to say communication that exists between the casual, spontaneous and intimate nature of oral communication (talking to a group of friends, as an example) and the more planned, persistent and broadcasting nature of written communication. Intermediary communication feels spontaneous and intimate, but it exhibits the persistent and broadcast nature of written communication, and this is what often gets people in trouble — the famous “oh crap I talked shit about my job on my blog and my boss read it and now I’M FIRED” thing, exemplified by Heather Armstong.

But while this intermediary communication has its pitfalls, it also has its advantages. Fact is, the reason Twitter is so popular is that people like all those banal little messages that skitter across the service. For the people you know — friends, family and co-workers — those “I’m eating fruit now” messages take the place of the little, not-especially-notable interactions you have on a daily basis that add up to a familiar and comfortable sense of the world and your place in it. When in fact you can’t see those friends, family, etc on a daily basis, these banal tweets still group them into your daily, unremarkable life, and in doing so make them seem closer and therefore more of a part of your world. Twenty years ago you’d maybe make time to call distant members of your tribe once a week, and that sort of punctuated, telegraphed communication would have to do. Twitter (and other intermediary communication like it) puts them quite literally back into the stream of your life. This is not a bad thing.

For the people you don’t know — the celebrities whose feeds one follows — the banality of Twitter makes you feel closer to them, too. Hey! Stephen Fry eats fruit! I eat fruit! He’s just like me! And then you send Stephen Fry a reponse tweet about the fruit you had, and bask in your fruit-enjoying fraternity. Does this benefit Stephen Fry somehow? I suspect not; a shared liking for juicy, vitamin-C-bearing foods is probably not a bond that directly translates to Mr. Fry’s agent landing him quality roles; likewise, I’m not sure John Mayer’s hyperactive tweetery making him look like geek America’s spastic younger brother is going to translate into music sales. But I don’t think marketing is why Fry or Mayer fiddle about with Twitter; I think they do it for the same reason everyone else does. And in both cases it’s probably nice for them to have a halfway “normal” communication channel.

(There are celebs who look at Twitter as just another marketing avenue, mind you. You will know them by the fact their feeds, in addition to being banal, are also boring.)

All of which is to say that the banality and silliness and unremarkable pedestrian nature of Twitter is what the service actually has going for it — it’s baked into the service’s DNA. It’s why it’s successful and why it (or something very much like it) will continue to be successful going forward.

(This entry: 6,091 characters. Not suitable for Twitter. Which is, you know. Why I keep the blog.)

41 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2009 #8: Twitter”

  1. Also, snarky comments about Mr. Fry eating fruit will get the Mallet of Loving Correction. I have to believe your snark is better than that.

  2. The day Mr. Fry tweeted about eating fruit was the same day my 16 year old bought a Snapple and asked me what a mangosteen was. I was able to show him Mr. Fry’s tweet and the photo he had posted. One man’s banality is another teen’s interesting new information.

    At the risk of sounding completely mad, I really like Warren Ellis’ good mornings and good nights. They’re funny and they make feel strangely happy.

    Oh! And I believe you tweeted about Five Guys, didn’t you? The same kid and I stopped there the other day on the way home from the vet and gave it a try and LOVED it. Thanks!

  3. I’d prefer voice over typing, what with most typing devices designed for disgusting monkey hands. Unfortunately, humans are also stupid and can’t understand a simple “Meow” when they hear it. So, I resort to typing.


  4. For someone like me, an admittedly inferior blogger and writer to Mr. Scalzi, Twitter is a perfect setting to get the word out about my new blog entry and book. It’s slowly helping me build my following, and hopefully will lead to the glamorous living of the elite bloggers and writers. Seriously, it’s been a great traffic builder for my blog which in turn has helped me sell a few books. The banal doesn’t interest me that much, but I’m about 12 years older than the average age of your typical Tweeter.

  5. Did you only recently notice that your cats had fur? I had thought that as an bestselling SF writer, you were more observant than that.

  6. I actually enjoy Twitter. I don’t follow to many people that don’t post at least something amusing once in a while. Even Scalzi is funny on Twitter. I actually enjoy trying to get the thought in my head down to 140 characters.

    I try not to cheat but look for different ways to say the same thing. Sometimes I just throw my hands in the air and realize I have nothing to add to to the topic.

  7. I think Twitter can be summed up in 140 characters. I will endeavour now so to do:

    “Twitter. It’s something to do for five minutes, isn’t it?”

    That was easy.

  8. I’m new to your blog, but I have a feeling I’ll be back. I love the concept of intermediary communication. Thanks for that.

  9. I won’t argue that the majority of twitters are banal but it really depends on who you decide to follow. I actively seek out authors, particularly crime fiction authors, to follow.

    One writer who made a sale because he started following me on Twitter. I looked at his Twitter profile, went to his web site, ordered his book. Might not have known about him had he not followed me on Twitter.

    140 characters are not a lot for a message but you can embed a link to a web site or blog.

    I think there is potential for marketing with Twitter.

  10. “Twittering helps writing longer-form stuff — keeps writing muscles loose. I don’t think there’s a finite number of words inside anyone.” – Susan Orlean

    That’s just one writer’s opinion, but hey…

  11. I’m curious about the phenomenon of people I don’t know who follow me. I realize that I am banal and not in the least bit famous so there are few reasons for people I don’t know to follow me. I know that there are some people who will automatically follow people who follow them but I’m not one of those people. I suppose that some of these mystery followers are trying to get me to follow them so that they can twitter sell their products. Others saw something in my twitter feed and think I share an interest with them –like the vegan who saw that I liked “Good Dogs” which are vegetarian hot dogs. (Truth is, I’m an omnivore and trying to lose weight and I will eat vegetarian alternatives because they are lower calorie and less fattening or because they taste better to me than the meat version (I’m not a fan of hot dogs).) I know I can set my twitter feed to private and approve followers but I’m not annoyed by it or feel I have anything particularly private in my feeds. I am careful about what I put on the Internets.

  12. Thanks for taking my question, John!

    While I may have phrased my question “crankily,” I am a Twitter devotee.

    I like your analysis of the celebrity tweeting. Paul Feig (@paulfeig) is probably my favorite celebrity tweep. He constantly poses questions to his followers, giving them the feeling that they are involved in his daily routine. His style is kind of a cheeky take on crowdsourcing, something to which Twitter is particularly well suited.

    I think, however, there’s more to Twitter than what you outline above. For example, I do believe it is an elegant means to consume and disseminate ideas and news. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) maintains a constant conversation about the changing nature of journalism through Twitter. He points out links, others send him links, he responds, etc. As a result, the conversation incorporates blog posts, newspaper articles, think tank white papers, surveys and anything else one can find on the internet. It’s a fascinating way to grapple with a complex issue.

    Similarly, crime lit blogger Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) and Washington Post book editor Ron Charles (@roncharles) use Twitter to disseminate publishing industry news and reviews. And these are only three among many.

    Anyway, my one cent. Thanks again for answering! I enjoyed your perspective.

  13. Example of a Tweet that made me happy and all by itself makes Twitter worthwhile (coincidentally, it is one of Mr. Fry’s and it was posted this morning):

    Fry is currently in the middle of turning Douglas Adams’s’es’s and Mark Cardawine’s Last Chance to See — my favorite Adams book, about a trip to visit endangered species all over the world — into a BBC TV series. Today, after a three-day silence, Fry tweeted that he had just rounded the island of Rinca, right across the way from Komodo, into a good phone signal.

    By this I know Fry was not eaten by a dragon and the show can go on, and I know it immediately on the opposite side of the planet and that tickles me.

  14. So, I should get a Twitter?

    I thought it was going to be another pointless website that I would have to check and keep me busy. So I ultimately avoided it. But now, Scalzi says it’s a good thing. What Scalzi says is good, so I should probably get one.

  15. Celebrity Twitts I can recommend: @wilw (Wil Wheaton) and @BrentSpiner. There are a couple other good ones, but them (and of course @scalzi) are high points for me.

    noncelebrity Twitts that EVERYONE should follow: @HotAmishChick. That is a person who knows how to have fun with the internet and culture.

    An amusing aspect of Twitter to me is people who will friend you when you have had an @ response from someone they follow.

    e.g. I got a tweet from @scottganyo (a talented actor who I worked with on a short film recently, great guy) referencing that working on set together was fun. Next thing I know I had 4 people I have NEVER heard of start following me. As far as I can tell it is because Scott sent me a text. It was…surreal. The idea that people will follow strangers who aren’t celebrities because the celebrity mentioned them (e.g. the guy who made a business card for @wilw) is alien to me.

  16. Thanks for explaining what I try to explain to people much better than I ever do.

    I would add that the banality of Twitter is just a subset of the banality of most of the conversation on the Internet. Before Twitter critics derided the banality of blogs, before that comment threads, before that newsgroups, etc. Outside of the Internet it’s the banality of the water cooler the lunchroom and the bar.

    The bottom line is most conversation is banal but it is the level we connect on the best. The level we get to know each other the best.

  17. The paragraph that begins “However, this is a feature, not a bug.” is very enlightening. Thanks!

  18. A minor digression/expansion: It’s not JUST twitter that translates into unexpected visibility … I have a livejournal, and when my stepsister’s daughter died recently, my comments and explanations to people who wondered about the circumstances, even carefully phrased and in a screened entry where people could NOT expound without permission, still resulted in a veritable tihSstorm* of drama, which is about … average … for LJ.

    This is what comes of using an online journal as, well, a diary, which is kind of what it was intended to be. (And making things public, which used to be restricted to letters revealed after death or to embarrassing public squabbles at the church social or in the editorial pages or the family newsletters.)

  19. I think of Twitter as a less annoying way to update my Facebook status, which I used to do 3-10 times a day. Now, instead of annoying my friends on Facebook, I annoy a random bunch of people (goodness only knows why they’re following me; I’ve nothing interesting to say!) on Twitter instead!

    I also like that, on Twitter, I can follow famous people who don’t have a Facebook, or who made it private.

  20. I was on Twitter for about 5 minutes. My wife didn’t join until yesterday (three weeks after I quit.) Maybe I’m becoming an old fart (Well, I am older than John by a couple of years), but I really don’t want to read everyone else’s texts. (Except my wife’s.)

    As for Stephen Fry, remember if you’ve heard Fry speak, then his tweets automatically become cool because you hear them in your head in his voice. He’s just one of those guys you wouldn’t mind hearing recite the script to SHOWGIRLS. (Though I wouldn’t wish that on him. I mean, come on! He’s Stephen Fry! He eats fruit, for God’s sake!)

  21. I don’t use Twitter, but I do use Facebook, and I find that reading small, mostly meaningless updates about people I knew back in middle school, high school, college, and former jobs is kind of amazing. If I had to email my old high school friends, I doubt we’d have much to say to each other, since we have nothing in common, but when you read someone’s status updates week after week, you get an amazing portrait of their life and the things and activities that are important to them. It gives an amazing feeling of being around someone (like you said) without you having to actually try to form an active connection.

  22. Good post.

    A lot of people at work are trying to figure out how to use Twitter for business, and however we do it I want to make sure that it’s not Just Another Venue for press releases. We don’t normally have a cozy interaction with businesses, so will Twitter be something that gives us a coziness we’ve never had before, or will it just be creepy?

  23. I still refuse to Twitter. I’m aware that I’m self-absorbed and full of myself, but I’m not quite enough of both to think that immortalizing “I’m booooooooored at work” on my Twitter feed fifty times a day is a good idea. If I’m going to bitch, it’ll be longer and on my LiveJournal (and if it’s about work, friends-locked), dammit!

    That said…sigh…I am so reading Mayer’s Twitter feed. Even if I have no idea what is going on with it at the moment (they’re playing some kind of game?). He occasionally comes out with a line that just busts me the hell up.

  24. I got on Twitter a few weeks ago, originally to get in on some promotions where you have to tweet a canned line to enter a contest or win prizes or such. I started following a few people – people from a forum, some actors and writers – but I tweet very little.

  25. There’s been a fair bit of research to back up your “intermediary communication” claim. I recall reading a paper for my first thesis discussing exactly that, using IRC as a medium for learning French — the unique hybridization of oral and written communication that IM/chat/Twitter presents proved to be a very effective method for practicing and retaining a new language.

    What I found really interesting is what the medium does for personal boundaries. Again citing the same study, participants found themselves bonding more and being more willing to discuss personal matters via IRC than they did in their other classes. The “oversharing” people talk about now (for better or worse) ultimately comes down to the medium we are using to express ourselves being a new one, and one that inherently encourages reducing or removing the personal barrier.

    A quick google for the study points here, if you care to read it:

  26. Personal boundaries are a very interesting issue. I’m wondering where people who value their privacy will end up in another 20 or 30 years. Will they end up alone and cut off from the rest of society, or will they be like the character in the Asimov short story who can do math in his head — a seemingly “magical” ability in an age of calculators.

  27. Maybe I’m just too old, but I’m really not interested in either Facebook or Twitter. I find superficial interpersonal interactions difficult, and that pretty much defines both Facebook and Twitter. If I were interested in maintaining relationships with friends from elementary school, I would have done so. I’m no Luddite, by any means; I’ve been using email since 1984, and have used it to keep up with friends who are geographically distant. I just don’t care if they’re eating fruit right now.

  28. Intermediary communication can fry you – like the young lady who texted “UR GAY and IM TELLING EVERYONE” to a young man in school. It can also keep you from getting suspended for going off on someone, when you save the evidence to show your Dean of Students after you curse out the young lady who’s spreading rumors about your activities in the bathroom.

    When you say these things out loud, it’s “he said, she said” – when you’re stupid enough to text them, you get busted like you deserve.

  29. @Drew – I loved that story. Think of it every now and then when my students complain that they can’t do math today, they don’t have their calculator.

  30. While I absolutely agree with all of this, I’d also like to point out that Twitter is also being used by some as a way of expressing creativity in a new way. For instance some webcomic artists have created twitter feeds for their different characters and have them interacting on Twitter.

  31. I don’t use twitter, but can see the appeal of the mini-blog sort of post. My problem with twitter is so many tweets seem to be responses to somebody else’s tweet.

    It’s like the half conversations you get when the guy next to you is talking on their cell phone.

  32. I’ve been told that the city I live in – I know not exactly what part of it, perhaps the City Council – was updating information on various legislative issues via Twitter. Which is interesting, and perhaps a step up for the format. Or not.

  33. Twitter fills a valuable need. Ever since the 1960s Americans have been spending less time socializing with their friends. A lot of this was a result of changing work hours, with 9-5 jobs going by the boards, and changing living patterns, with suburbs requiring long drives to actually share physical presence with one’s friends. Instead of seeing friends, people watched more television. I blogged about this at some time back. The data is from one of those massive time-use surveys and packs quite a few surprises. (Did you know that cats have fur?)

    Twitter allows Americans to pretend that they are still spending time with their friends. Instead of dropping by at a friend’s house after work, or perhaps after dinner, Americans can now send each other short messages. After all, what did people talk about when they got together after work? They talked about fruit, sex, cats having fur and so on. It didn’t really matter. It was just a chance to share each other’s lives. Look at how successful the television series Friends was. People who got to see their friends maybe twice a month could fantasize hanging around with their friends every day after work, and in glamorous New York City at that.

    Yeah, I know this sounds very sad, but it’s a whole lot better than more television.