It’s high-time I get my thoughts on Twitter down in “print”. If you know and love Twitter, then I’ll assume you don’t have anywhere near the necessary attention span to read this whole post, and so provide this 140-character spoiler for all the tweeple:

Twtr, ill-suited bdcst and consumption tool, promotes group-think, valueless short-form content, and is a poor incumbent for a protocol play

Background

I signed up for Twitter in January 2007, shortly after public launch, before Twitter was its own business, and before the generally accepted tipping point at the March 2007 South by Southwest conference. I’ve always been an “early adopter” and Twitter was no exception.

I have spent most of the intervening 3+ years just hoping that Twitter would go away. Hoping the fad would get old. I never saw value from day one of Twitter, and still don’t really. I can see an argument for the potential of Twitter, maybe as a platform/protocol. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Used for Everything, Good at Nothing

Here’s why I don’t like Twitter as a peer-to-peer communication medium.

Twitter is what you’d get if you merged the world’s worst IM platform with the world’s worst email platform with the world’s worst blogging platform, and then made everything broadcast-only.

If I’m sending a direct message on Twitter, shouldn’t I just use one of the many other wildly effective 1-to-1 communication systems out there? IM, email, SMS, phone, yelling over a cubicle wall, sending a letter, these are all tried-and-true and still valid today. Why use a lousy stripped-down version of these unless I’m looking to broadcast my thought.

So if we’ve established that tweets are meant to be broadcast, then we have a bizarre sort of communication tool. We can speak to a given person, but really it’s just mentioning their name in the broadcast you’re sending to everyone. All Twitter users have had the experience of seeing an “@-reply” from one of their friends to someone they don’t know. You have no context for the “conversation” that’s happening, and it’s quite unlikely that the answer to a stranger’s question is of any value to you. But yet, your friend still felt the need to shout it to the world instead of taking it offline. (Some Twitter tools like Seesmic have started trying to help the situation by “threading” Twitter conversations. Again, this is a case where we’re trying to patch up the shortcomings of a system that’s ill-designed for our needs.)

Devin Coldewey had it right last year when he said that Twitter is the communications equivalent to skywriting.

It’s the social equivalent of an all points bulletin, or … a quasar or something. What did you do before when you needed to send something of little consequence or urgency to a bunch of people who may or may not want to see it? The only thing that comes to mind is skywriting.

What if Twitter isn’t a communication tool, but instead is merely a broadcast tool? That’s the “microblogging” argument. As far as microblogging goes, I’m unclear why you wouldn’t just use a regular blogging platform for that, and write short posts. There are incredibly mature platforms for publishing blog content of all sorts, and most allow first-class inclusion of objects like photos and videos, which also aren’t allowed in tweets, forcing all sorts of derivative services to help close the gap and make Twitter usable, but still not useful, for pseudo-blogging.

Death by Aggregation

Here’s why I don’t like Twitter as a real-time knowledge aggregation tool.

Many will argue that the value of Twitter is not in an individual tweet, but in the aggregate. Sites like tweetmeme.com capitalize on this idea by finding the hottest links, images, and videos across the public Twitter stream. And sentiment-analysis sites like Crimson Hexagon digest volumes of tweets to understand the mindset of the masses.

There’s no doubt at this point that the Twitterverse has to be consumed in aggregate. Save for a few limited use-cases of following close friends or very high-value individuals, there’s just too much information there. As news broke Friday of a second evacuation of NYC’s Times Square in as many weeks, search.twitter.com was exploding with over 100 new results per second for the search “Times Square”. No one can read the news in that format, even if you believe all those tweets have real individual value (which they don’t.)

The question is: What’s the goal of reading tweets in aggregate? To quote myself

I believe there are two kinds of value people can create:

  1. First-class value, original thought, argument, commentary, the creative production of new ideas, images, sounds, and words.
  2. Derivative value, the filtering and aggregation of first-class value, through linkblogs, retweets, and content aggregation services (like tweetmeme).

Using Twitter as a primary communications tool is effectively limiting yourself to creating the second kind of value. Maybe that’s the impact you want to have, but I’d like to think that my life will include creating first-class value someday.

But more importantly, reading Twitter in aggregate is a very dangerous slippery-slope to group-think. Sure, you’ll see the most popular content around at any given time. But so will everyone else. Even if there are brilliant pieces of insight hidden in the Twittersphere, the masses will not surface them.

I’d prefer to read primary-sources of information: newspapers, RSS feeds from bloggers I respect (those creating first-class value), creative fiction, researched non-fiction, literary classics, and scientific journals. Sure, I’ll read blogs that aggregate interesting content, but I purposefully hunt down those off the beaten path.

I figure if I’m going to have a chance at being a differentiated thinker, or providing original value to society by coming up with ideas that no one else has, I’m certainly not going to get there by reading content that has been digested a thousand-times-over by the Twitter masses. I worry that society on the whole is dumbing down because of this phenomenon.

If we rely solely on the pre-fabricated building blocks provided through retweets and automated filtering/sorting schemes when building our intellectual worlds, we dramatically reduce the chances of architecting brilliance.

Enemy of Long-Form

I’ve written about this in the past, but it’s worth repeating here. I lament that Twitter is a huge contributor to the death of long-form written material.

How much that can be said in 140 characters is really worth saying? And if it is worth saying, why not give it the attention, the color, the exposition that it deserves? And the whole notion of spreading an essay out over dozens of subsequent tweets, don’t even get me started on why that’s a disaster of a communications format.

Another downside of the short-form tweet is the advent of more and more aggressive url shortening services. These have innumerable downsides, including making the web slower, less secure, less private, and less robust. And for all practical purposes, these services have gained all their popularity due to Twitter and subsequent short-form messaging platforms. Just another unfortunate side-effect of an artificial communications system.

Popularity Contest

Although Twitter in the past few months has done a lot to help quell the “popularity contest” problems with the service, it still suffers from them. In my opinion, there are a lot more people that think Twitter is useless than actually find it useful. There’s 99% of the world with a “small voice”, no followers on Twitter, very few followers in real-life, just your ordinary consuming citizens. So why do those 99% of people bother using Twitter at all? Because the big-voiced broadcasters, the popular 1% for whom Twitter really is valuable, told them to!

Sure, I’d get value from Twitter too if I had 1.5 million people receiving my tweets. It would be an incredibly powerful broadcast medium. Like having miniature billboards on the inside of everyone’s sunglasses. Even if 90% of the people ignore the billboard message, you’ve still mobilized a significant amount of attention. And thus the group-think issues continue, original thought is further stifled, and a false sense of scale is created by a service where less than 1% of members are anything more than glorified lurkers.

Belief in Platforms and Protocols

As a technologist, I believe fundamentally in the value of open protocols and powerful software and infrastructure platforms. The ‘net is powered by these protocols. I believe in the UNIX-mentality that small generic units can be combined into powerful systems, more than the sum of their parts.

So in defense of Twitter, it’s clear to me that they stumbled into being the de-facto leader of a very interesting movement online. It seems there’s an appetite for a new set of protocols online. The public wants to generate and consume small snippets of data in real-time. And not-withstanding my comments above (I think consuming most of your online experience in a digested aggregate fashion is intellectual death), there’s a lot of power in real-time search, aggregation, filtering, pattern recognition, geo-location, and analysis.

The fact that so many companies are springing up in the Twitter ecosystem is a tribute to the fact that there’s something compelling going on here. What I don’t understand is why Twitter thinks it has the right solution here. Twitter reeks of something that was designed as gimmicky product and has since been shoe-horned into a role as a “pulse-of-the-planet” protocol. It should come as no surprise to anyone that it’s a poorly executed version of what we could really have if we stepped back to design such a system to scratch the itch that Twitter has made apparent to us.

So I whole-heartedly support the need for such a protocol and platform. And I understand that the business realities and innovation requirements may prohibit a standards body from contributing such a solution to the world. But I would much rather see an established player like Google or even Facebook tackle this problem as a true platform solution, rather than have a sub-par design emerge organically from a site like Twitter.

The fact that Twitter still hasn’t proven they even have a sustainable business model makes their role as a piece of the internet infrastructure even more frightening.

Why I Twitter

So after all this, why do I sometimes use Twitter? If I’m being honest, it’s because everyone else does. Not out of any sort of peer-pressure or sense that maybe everyone knows something I don’t. But rather when an internet service reaches a certain level of ubiquitousness, it becomes impractical or unwise not to participate at all.

My profile reveals the main reason I started using Twitter again after a length hiatus. This blog is syndicated through my Twitter account. The only times I tweet personally are when I know someone in particular is listening and because they use Twitter as their primary communication means, I know it’s the best way to reach them (and even then I only do it if I’m pretty sure I won’t offend my other followers in the process).

Conclusion

I’m glad I got that off my chest. It felt worth doing. It took more than 140-characters. And there’s an ironic chance that ultimately you’ll be reading this because you found it on my Twitter stream.

The verdict is out on whether Twitter can monetize the hype it’s created, but even if it can’t, the company will be acquired by someone who’s big enough that they don’t care whether it makes money, someone who will buy it for the “platform” play. So since it’s not going away, I better come to grips with the kind of relationship I have with Twitter, warts and all.