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.)