The Twitter Debate

Ian Delaney examines the Twitter phenomenon: the nextgeneration of social media communications or the scourge of asociety that can't stop talking about itself?

New web technologies have a tendency to polarise opinions.Debates regarding the value and even the morality of socialnetworks, blogs and wikis have exercised key thinkers since thebirth of what tends to be called (albeit relunctantly) Web 2.0since its dawn in 2004.

Over recent weeks, it is nascent web service Twitter that has splitopinions the most. What is it? It's a way to send short (upto 140 characters) messages to friends and to read theirs. Youcan send and access these messages on the website, through SMSmessaging or using an instant messaging client such as MSNMessenger. You can make these messages private – only visible toyour friends on the system – or public.

You might wonder why something quite so inoffensive wouldcause any debate whatsoever. The site asks the question'What are you doing now?' and users supply the answer.Unsurprisingly, the answer is pretty mundane for most peoplemost of the time:

A: Waiting for the bus.

B: Deciding between marmite and marmalade for my toast.

C: Getting ready for a big meeting.

B: Have gone for two slices – one for marmite and one formarmalade.

A common reaction is thus, Are you mad? Why would anybodysubscribe to a list of messages like that? TheGuardian's Jack Schofield wrote on Sunday that he'd been "resolutely ignoringRobert Scoble's frequent mentions of Twitter in the hope that it might goaway."

Twitter evangelists, and they are many, reply in variousways.

The extent to which Twitter yields noise over signal entirelydepends on the number of friends you add to your network. Whilethe initial reaction to the system might be to immediately adddozens of semi-strangers to your network in a MySpace-stylepopularity contest, the results of doing that aren't likelyto be especially rewarding. Bobby Johnson of the Guardian saysin reply to his colleague that: "Point is, you *choose* whoyou listen to. Choose well, and you'll be fine, it could beeven be enlightening. Choose badly, and it's like a bunch ofmonkeys jabbering away."

People who post updates up to a dozen times a day (and more)would probably need to be blood relations or on their way todeliver vital medication to you in order to warrant asubscription delivering updates on their every movement.There's a certain analogy with blog posts here. Blogs thatare updated several times a day aren't always as valuable asthose updated weekly, with intelligent, witty, well-writtencontent.

Socialtext's Ross Mayfield describes Twitter's virtue as allowing continuouspartial presence. The ease and accessibility of posting,together with the informality of the medium encourages frequencyof use.

The presence idea seems spot-on, and is developed further ina blog post by Elizabeth Lane Lawley. She suggests thatTwitter provides a convenient way to tap into the working day ofthe people we care about, wherever they are and whatever theyare doing:

This isn't about conveying complex theory – it's about letting the people in your distributed network of family and friends have some sense of where you are and what you're doing. And we crave this, I think. When I travel, the first thing I ask the kids on the phone when I call home is "what are you doing?" Not because I really care that much about the show on TV, or the homework they're working on, but because I care about the rhythms and activities of their days

If the Twitter messages you receive are boring and lackvalue, then you've probably made more friends than youshould have, and with the wrong people. Pick the people who youmight phone to ask 'what are you doing now?' would bethe extension of this argument.

Twitter is also becoming a way to deliver services. BBC Headlines, Tube Services, eventsand softwarecompanies all exist as channels on the service providing away to deliver news updates in an extremely flexible,inexpensive way to multiple channels and potentially wideaudiences. As email seems to become increasingly unreliable andinterruptive, a Twitter channel delivers the message at theaudience's convenience and without spam.

It's incorrect to see these postings as especiallyephemeral, though, I think. To a greater extent than an instantmessage, which disappears once the session is closed, Twittermessages are archived and now are even searchable using Google services, though hopefully, theywon't be appearing in web search results very soon.

Social network blogger and consultant Pete Cashmore ought tobe allowed the final word onTwitter, and its place in the evolution of social media,though:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s