The friendly face of twitter, and the enthusiastic bias

is there a built-in bias towards enthusiasm on twitter? This question was on my mind last night. I was pondering the recurrence of social media fatigue that sets in now and then as a natural kind of recoil against habits of social media overuse. Fatigue is normal experience.

We may each have different thresholds and tolerances for being online, and being in social media ā€” but coming and going is not only common, it’s healthy. And we pull back from our social media use often for a good reason: that we have reached a new understanding around what social media engagement means (to us, to others, or culturally); or that we’re busy doing something else (and possibly something more productive!); or that the weather has turned.

But there’s something else at work in the practices of “status culture,” and in twitter especially. Twitter is a very strange form of communication. For reasons of its architecture, its conversational constraints, its character limitations, its tendency to focus on follower counts, as well as the culture that has developed around it, twitter is grossly inefficient at engendering and sustaining conversational runs.

The status update, a version of which is what twitter was designed to serve, grew out of a very small and limited messaging format. It appeared in Friendster and Yahoo 360 as the shoutout. It was then an expression of mood. “How are you feeling?” Blog editors (the software not the person) accommodated the mood statement as an add-on, and it sometimes appeared as an emoticon. One could post something and append a mood to it.

The idea was two-fold: a) to put a face, a more emotive expression, on the written post; and b) to add a facet to the post’s appeal to the audience of readers/viewers. Readers or viewers could now respond to the author’s statements, or his/her mood or feelings.

Over time the status update was assimilated into other social networking platforms, and has now become a commonplace. It continues to serve the purpose of delivering short and simple announcements. And we vary in how we use or don’t use it (expressing our thoughts, location, activity, mood, or telling news, inviting, and so on). And status updates, while being a nearly ubiquitous publishing format, of course take something on from the culture and context in which the site or service resides.

A Linkedin status update is not a Facebook update is not a tweet. Soft and unwritten rules of etiquette, codes of conduct, and cultural expectations govern our expressive inclinations in each “community” or context. These sites have different audiences, and our relationship to those audiences varies also.

Twitter stands alone, however, in having elevated the status update to a form of communication unto itself. The miserly message format originally defined by SMS character limits must now accommodate all types of update, and new practices, and all without the benefit of any meta whatsoever. Given that there’s no way to talk about what we’re talking about, nor any way to address ourselves to those we’re thinking about, writing for/to, or in front of (besides replies and tags), the pressure on tweeting can tend to compress our expressions so that they are quickly and easily skimmed and digested.

One of the reasons for this, and here the bias to friendliness enters the picture, is that twitter cannot easily close the loop on conversation. Even an @reply, which closes the loop with one person, is temporally out of synch. By the time an @reply has arrived, we, or our thinking, may have moved on. Synchronizing is key to good conversation — as is addressing (the audience for whom the message is intended).

But as all communication, and by that I mean all linguistic statements, contains an appeal (for acknowledgement if not also understanding, agreement, validation, and approval), tweets will appeal more, and to more people, the more simple they are. A greater number of people can pick up and respond to simple statements, friendly gestures, and pleasant declarations than will a negative, angry, or contradictory statement. Banalities on twitter do not indicate that a twitterer is banal — they are simply a low-risk appeal in a package that can be consumed easily by most everyone.

And that is where twitter’s second social bias comes in. Given that so many of us attend to our follower numbers, we will tend towards pleasantries in order not to offend or lose followers. The appeal embedded in the linguistic expression has a social double, is a marker of status and wants to clothe self-presentation attractively.

This is of course not the case all the time, for each of us, with all tweets. But there does seem to be a bias on twitter to the friendly appeal, and a corresponding avoidance of negative or contradictory statements. We use our tweets, sometimes, as symbolic gestures and trade in a social currency and capital that only accumulates as it is expended. And I think that it’s for this reason, in no small measure, that we tweet enthusiastically, and rarely when we withdraw.

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.
Read more: “Social Media Consulting and Strategy by a Social Interaction Design Specialist: Improbability of Communication in Social Media” – http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/2009/03/improbability-of-communication-in.html#ixzz0ArxjdBR2

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