Thursday, March 4, 2010

Is Twitter rubbish?

I was encouraged to join Twitter some weeks ago. Since then I have struggled to come to terms with what I see there: noise, lots and lots of noise.

Twitter gives you 140 characters to say whatever you like on any topic. These two sentences in italics add up to just about 139 characters. So this is what you have to work with when you want to communicate with the world.

140 characters is tiny, so many Twitter posts link to outside web pages and make short comments on them. This is my first quibble, shallow though it is: all these links mean that you are constantly opening new windows, which annoys me. Since space is so tight, many Twitter users shorten the web addresses, so that a link to a BBC News story like this is shortened to something like this Handy, but it means that every link is anonymous and unknown until you click on it. So when someone says "Funniest thing I've seen all week" and posts one of those shortened links, you won't know if you've wasted your time until after you click it. Now getting a little peeved with the system...

Perhaps this is more a sign of who I have chosen to follow on Twitter, but when a moderately important news story breaks, lots of people feel they have to tweet about it. Recently, for example, a prominent Irish politician resigned over alleged interference in a police investigation. Twitter that day looked something like this:

- Trevor Sargent resigns.

- Breaking news, Sargent resigns.

- Woah, what's going on? Now Sargent is going!

- Looks like Sargent is stepping down.

- About time! Trevor Sargent resigns.

- Green Party is screwed, Sargent stepping down.

- Check this out, funniest thing ever!

- Who's next for Greens? Trevor Sargent resigns.

- First George Lee, now Trevor Sargent!

And so on. I would have learned that this politician had resigned on the news that evening anyway, or on one of the news websites I browse, or in the newspaper the next morning. I didn't need to be told ten or twenty times in a few minutes. I find this wearying and pointless.

Someone told me that the tight character limit of Twitter means that people have to be pithy with their points, but I don't find this. Rather points are forced to be fairly shallow. I come to Twitter after years debating on Orkut, Google's little-known (in Ireland anyway) social networking site where political and cultural discussions go up to thousands of words long. There I have read deeply insightful arguments, I have actually had my mind changed by debates, and I have grown to know people of radically different viewpoints from all over the world: Brazil, Pakistan, India, US, Estonia, Japan, Australia, Norway, Britain and so on. The extended character count leads to extended discussions that, sometimes, become deep and useful.

Twitter limits people to smart alec soundbites, puns and references to unknown web sites; I find this frustrating. Stephen Fry, intelligent and amusing in interviews and his books, uses Twitter too. His latest tweet is:

"Congratulations to my dear @MrsStephenFry for her richly deserved win. #shortyawards (for those who like standard type)"

What? Who is MrsStephenFry? What the hell are shortyawards? Why should I care? This is another frustration about Twitter - it's bloody confusing with all these baffling references, quotes of strangers by strangers by friends, people answering tweets sent hours earlier with updates linking to obscure blogs (like this one) and so on. It's a kind of community, and any community develops in-jokes and a vernacular that I don't get, yet.

Still maybe this is the point: it's a kind of extended in-group and I haven't worked my way in yet, I may need more time. There was once a time when I thought Megadeth and Harry Potter were overrated rubbish - having learned from my terrible mistakes there I will apply the lesson here too. I'll give it more time.

In the meantime, I wonder can anyone tell me if I'm missing the point? What am I doing wrong?


  1. I agree. It's..... garbage.

  2. I've just started using Twitter as a source of information on Social Media. It's also a source of continual frustration. Twitter isn't garbage, but some of the content is. I find it hard to believe that some of the links/posts contained within Tweets have even been read. Great way to distribute information, all the same.

  3. Thanks Tony, I still haven't left it to be fair! I think one thing I find frustrating is that many people use Twitter to voice opinions, opinions I often disagree with. But 140 characters is too little to hold a debate, I can't properly respond. Twitter is enough to propagandise, but not enough to debate.

    Perhaps I should just chill out and use it as an access to interesting stories instead!

  4. My sympathies. I'm relatively new to Twitter too and find my 'time line' both clogged and fairly random. My current way of using it is to ignore my time line totally and just search for those that interest me, and read their pages to see what they've being saying (such as India Knight). I suspect the next step will be to 'unfollow' most of the people I am supposed to be following.

    Have you worked out the etiquette yet for 'unfollowing'?

    I googled "Twitter Rubbish" and found this entry on your blog, which amused me no end!

  5. Hehe thanks for the comment! I guess I still haven't really figured out the system yet, almost a year later, and I think you're right about unfollowing people! I don't know the etiquette so I'll probably go straight for the blunt and brutal approach of weeding out the uninteresting ;)

    It depends, of course, what purpose Twitter is meant to serve. For serious discussions it seems a poor medium, its size limitation meaning it can only reinforce prejudices instead of challenging them. 140 characters is enough space to post a sarcastic joke or a provocative statement, but not enough to back up claims with evidence.

    Having said that, I still post updates from this blog on Twitter, a shout into the darkess from time to time!

  6. Why even have other 'channels' where you can have meaningful discussion.


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