The Tweet Finds Its Own Use for Things

April 28th, 2009 | Category: Essays

In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (Pantheon, 1999) James Gleick described the need for natural pause. Email allows one to heatedly and immediately respond to an off-handed message, where even FedEx gives one a day to cool off, to think it over, to sleep on it.

“In so many industries people are working faster,” Gleick wrote. “Journalists, lawyers, movie-makers, television producers, building contractors-these workers have no visible assembly lines, but their invisible assembly lines are accelerating. The gears and the passing belt are driven by faxes and email messages-time-saving forms of communication. Without the snail’s pace of ordinary mail serving as friction, their projects slide forward in a rush.”

You know those traffic lights on highway on-ramps that only come on during rush hour? Twitter is like a chat room with those traffic signals, a chat room with built-in pauses. People talk at the group and to each other. It’s a strange combination of one-to-many and one-to-one channels, incomplete one to the other in both aspects.

Twitter's Fail Whale

In this stop-start medium, somewhere between a chat room with brakes and a discussion board without topics, we have so much to say — and we say it in mini-missives, tiny time capsules captured in no more than 140 characters each. Is the quality in the lack of quantity? When the major social networking sites — indeed some of the major sites on the web — borrow the format in varying degrees of plagiarism and usefulness, something big and weird is happening.

According to new data from research outfit MarketingProfs (with thanks to Bryan Alexander), a study of some 425 Twitter users, conducted in early and mid-April found that

nearly 100% respondents agreed with the statements “I value getting information in a timely manner,” and “I find it exciting to learn new things from people…”

Do we want all of our information in single servings?

Oh, and if only Twitter were informative. Do you ever go to a site, attracted by the catchy headline, barely skim the story, but read the comments with care? Twitter is like reading those comments without even the ability to read the story. I’ve run several searches in vain to find out what the heck is going on when I scroll past a critical mass of Tweets. All commentary. No story.

When I wrote about Twitter before, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting the subject a year and a half later. Howard Rheingold, who’s written a great best practices piece on Twitter, says, “Just as all criticisms of the Internet are true (but wrong if you mean them to describe the value of the Net), the same is true of Twitter. It is a true statement that the Internet has abundant misinformation, disinformation, porn, spam, every form of hate, scams, crimes, and libels. Does this describe its value? Of course, you have to know where to look if the Internet is going to mean anything beyond misinformation, disinformation, porn, spam, every form of hate, scams, crimes, and libels. Same with Twitter.”

As Rheingold puts it, “Twitter is definitely full of bullshit artists, narcissists, self-promoters and bores. Guess what? You don’t have to follow them!” Like so many other tools and toys, what it is to you is up to you.

So, what is it?

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