My Twitter experiment is over

24-Mar-2009

Last month I decided to experiment with ubiquitous internet phenomenon Twitter. I was curious to see if I too would get swept away with the incessant noise manufacturing tool of narcissism, or whether I would experience an Emperor's New Clothes moment, and skulk off in nudey embarrassment. I also ran another experiment in parallel, updating my Facebook status with roughly the same frequency (and roughly the same content) as my Twitter updates.

It's been a month, and the experiment is over. Time to take stock of what I've discovered.

Twitter ye not


TwitterLike many new users it took me a while to figure out exactly how to get started - how many people should I follow, who should I follow, how often should I update, etc. I have enough trouble finding time to read all the blogs I enjoy, so trying to follow the deluge of twittered nonsense spewing forth from the world was impossible. I know Twitter is supposed to be about the "now", and you aren't meant to try and read each and every tweet in your feed, but I can't help it.

Armed with my obsessive-compulsive handicap need to not miss a tweet, I set about following people. Obvious first step - everyone I know who Twitters. Turns out that's not many people, and almost entirely restricted to colleagues. So Twitter quickly became a public chat forum for the office (albeit one with no security, 140 character limit on messages, no native multimedia support, etc). I also followed a few "celebrities" - I found that though I might enjoy watching them / reading them / listening to them, I'm not that interested in what they're having for dinner on a Thursday evening. Besides which, people in the media seem to have more time to spend on this kind of thing (not having proper jobs n' all), so end up posting far more tweets than everyone else, badly unbalancing my Twitter feed.

I quickly settled into following the users I found manageable, and started posting tweets of my own. I posted at the rate of roughly one tweet a day. I think my colleagues were reading, plus a few friends, plus a few random visitors to this website. But mostly it was like whispering to myself in a dark, vacuous, empty room. I can't deny it wasn't occasionally fun; but for me it wasn't the great social revolution they promised. I'm not that interested in having conversations with people I don't know, and very few people I already know use Twitter (the digital Philistines!).

Facebook ye may


I assumed that my experience with Facebook updates would be similar to Twitter. I had rarely posted updates in the past, and was quite apprehensive about getting involved. I find most other people's updates to be embarrassing, self-indulgent, irrelevant and downright boring, and had no reason to believe my own updates would be any better! But I have friends and family spread all over the country (and indeed the globe), and since we've gotten a lot more slack at keeping in touch I figured it might help keep those bonds intact.

FacebookThe first and obvious difference between using Twitter and Facebook was that I already had a pre-built network in Facebook, built up over many months - so like it not, they'd have to listen! The other major difference is that it's a closed network (to a degree), so even though I'm not about to post my credit card PIN, I can at least be sure the reader knows me already, automatically giving context to my updates.

The other difference, and this one took me by surprise, was that people quite often replied to my Facebook updates. I'm not sure why it should have come as a surprise, but I didn't think I'd enjoy the community aspect as much as I did (being so anti-social n' all). I found I was having little "micro chats" on Facebook with people I probably wouldn't call or email, while at the same time reinforcing communication with those people I'm in close contact with. You can do this with Twitter, but the interface isn't so well suited (unless you're using a 3rd party app). It's also more likely your Luddite friends/family are using Facebook - less likely they're using Twitter.

Data


I do like the "openness" of Twitter. Both Facebook and Twitter are proprietary systems, but Facebook makes it a lot harder to get your data out, should you want to. Twitter on the other hand makes the process trivial via its simple API - this has been a major factor in its success, resulting in the huge number of 3rd party apps that have sprung up to scratch the "Twitter itch".

On the subject of data access (yawn…), I'm uneasy about investing lots of time and content in a system that I don't own, and which could disappear tomorrow. Granted, no one's writing the next Ulysses using Twitter (see for yourself), but a user's Tweets (or Facebook updates) may have a certain nostalgic value. Isn't this phenomenon often referred to as "micro-blogging"? How would a blogger feel if their blog, and all of its content, suddenly got flushed down the great digital toilet?

Conclusions


I think Twitter has its place - I can see the appeal for organisations/individuals who want to broadcast information to a large amount of people, with a degree (or at least the illusion) of two-way communication. And want to appear "hip to the groove" and what not. Though I still think a blog better serves this purpose. It will be interesting to see how many users maintain their Twitter presence once the hype dies down.

What I don't think Twitter does so well is serve as a framework for a group of friends to stay in touch (which ironically is what it was invented for in the first place). A richer social networking tool like Facebook is much better suited. Though I appreciate my experience was largely tainted by the fact I already have a large network of friends using Facebook, and hardly anybody using Twitter.

I guess you get out of it what you put in. But personally, I'm getting off the Twitter train - so long, and thanks for all the fish!