If you think twitter is weird, you’re not alone
I’m going to write a post that may get me in a wee bit of trouble. A post in which, if I’m honest with myself, I’ll need to reveal more of my own experience using social media than might be wise. But there’s really no writing this in any other way. This is just me, talking.
Twitter is weird. Or so it is at times. If you think twitter can be weird, I don’t think you’re alone. If you tried it and didn’t “get it,” are new to using it and don’t know what to make of it, or would like to but simply can’t get into it, you’re in the majority (based on recent research data).
Twitter is weird, and the question is whether its weirdness is a limit to its success. My personal feeling on this is that twitter’s usage, which has leveled out, is a) normal for social technologies; b) a possible sign of intrinsic limits; c) indication that much of twitter’s recent success was a result of curiosity.
Social technologies aren’t adopted in a smooth and straight line. After early adopters lay the groundwork, subsequent waves of new users join in as the technologies gains recognition. In twitter’s case, celebrity use, a low barrier to entry, and recognition by mainstream media still fascinated(and to some extent threatened)with new social media sped adoption. Twitter was not only a tool — it was a story. Of course, twitter does also offer real utility, and its integration into social networking sites makes it part of the plumbing. It’s not going away. But it’s not for everyone, either.
In thinking about the impact, potential, and power of social media, I always ask: how do they move people? I don’t mean in a sentimental sense, but in the sense of gathering up an audience and moving it. Orienting it. Turning its attention. Social tools succeed when they offer a user experience that transcends the individual and produces something greater. The power of social technology is in the capture and captivation of a captive audience.
Social tools capture when they create a shared social “experience.” There are two ways they do this: by mediating interaction and activity, and thus producing social content; and by facilitating communication. Social content may become information. Communication results in relationships. The social content must be interesting enough to sustain interest; the communication compelling enough to sustain relationships.
Twitter has done one thing to the social media landscape that looks, in hindsight, like a paradigm shift: it has made communication itself into the content. Twitter does this by being weird: communication that might have been between people is public. Not only is it public, but it is non-conversational. Tweets are one-sided: messages to, at, and in front of an audience.
Normal communication is two-sided. “Messages” are responses. Talk is just a series of verbal moves that carry on this exchange, keeping those involved interested for as long as the episode lasts. Talk allows people to be present with and to one another.
To get into twitter, you need to be able to sustain this by yourself. There’s no face to work with. Which means that you have to be a bit mental. Twitter’s power is that it allows us to extend our presence (in the world). Twitter’s weirdness is that it does this by means of absence. So if twitter feels weird to you, it’s not surprising.
To get into twitter you have to internalize other people. You have to know something about what they mean (to say). You have to know something about how they see you. You have to know something about how your tweets “sound.” And you have to know something about the social space and audience you’ve built up around you: who those followers are, what they’re doing on twitter, what they want from you (or not), what they intend, and not.
Or you have to not care. Not caring by not paying attention, not noticing, not being affected by, not thinking about, and not reacting to the other people and your relationship to them.
There are degrees, of course. I exaggerate in order to make a point (Nietzsche: there is truth in exaggeration). There’s not a physical world and a virtual one. We’ve adapted. We can communicate effectively online, and by phone. But all communication systems make it possible to coordinate moves: what’s a statement, a request, an instruction, and what’s a response. All communication technologies make it possible to coordinate who one is talking to; and most also satisfy our need to know if an act of communication has been received and recognized.
Twitter doesn’t, and this is its weirdness, which is also its present limitation but future power.
The “social web” is opening up, getting connected, and becoming more “conversational.” Twitter’s success is a sign of this, as well as a contributing factor. Many of us do not now relate privacy to the place where we communicate, but rather to how it’s distributed.
Interconnectedness of multiple sites and services (think Facebook connect) means that communication appears in front of multiple audiences, and in multiple contexts. Where communication is disaggregated, relationships (networks) re-aggregate. We’re moving from thinking about the site, the place, and the community, to thinking about who we know and how we know them. Pipelines, flows, plumbing.
All of which involves social skills — ones that I didn’t have when I started using twitter. And some of which still feel weird from time to time. That’s the part that becomes fascinating. I already know that I can think too much about communccation, and in particular what other people mean sometimes. It’s an inclination that makes me well-suited to thinking about social media user experiences; I try to take different perspectives, adopt interests, place myself in the other’s shoes. It’s how I am and how some others are also.
Not so ironically, this sometimes trips me up when I’m using social media. It can take me longer to write a 140 character tweet than it does for me to write this paragraph. I begin to outthink how I’m phrasing something, and then if I begin reading it from another’s perspective, I may go down several rabbit holes (one for each person, or for each reading, for each connotation…). Being dry-witted by nature and given to puns, twitter is possibly the worst social media tool I could think of. Add to its limitations on expression, its decoupled conversation style sometimes causes me to over-interpret and analyze what people mean, or don’t, by what they say (or don’t).
I can only assume that I’m not alone in this. It takes a thick skin at times. As I just quipped to friends, twitter is a bit like talking with earplugs in. Some people, of course, don’t have any difficulty tweeting. They’ll tweet what they’re doing — quite literally. This makes no sense to me. Why report what one’s doing, if there’s nothing anybody can do about it, and if the way it’s tweeted (“I’m about to get food”) adds nothing to one’s personality?
But of course people are different. Where I find informational tweets somewhat presumptuous (Who cares? Who would think people were paying attention and wanted to know?), it probably just seems that way to me. Some people can (for whatever reason of upbringing, parenting, etc?) assume that others are paying attention and are interested in them. I don’t. I don’t think people are thinking about me — why would I tell them something that they haven’t asked about?
But people are different. Some people need to know what the other person is interested in, in order to then get into an interesting conversation. I do — I tend to ask. The other person’s interests, personality, style, and mood are interesting to me and provide me with structure, scaffolding if you will, and content. I don’t tell well. Twitter can be weird — and I often tweet to others, in reply to others, or about things I read, because they structure what I have to say. I don’t assume anybody’s interested, otherwise; conversation orients me.
But people are different. Some people tell well. They tell about themselves, about what they are doing, thinking about, interested in. Sometimes they tell how they’re feeling, but I’ve noticed that they do this less, or that when they do so, they describe it rather than feel it outloud. This kind of self-talk, which to me seems like a report, may be informational but not engaging. It is the kind of talk that offers me little to catch on to. I have noticed that some people talk in a manner that lacks conversational “hooks.” Hooks are, to me, small gestures of interest in what the other person thinks. Some people’s talk is not structured to help people like me because people like me need relational offerings, gestures, suggestions: ambiguities to work off and with. A report told is nothing, and the only response for somebody like is me affirmation: yes, agreed, good.
But people are different. Telling is, for some, a low-risk (I think) self-description that also creates the opportunity for another person to respond about or in kind with a telling of their own. I did this. Me too. It’s affirmative and clear. Affirmation occurs not only between the people talking, but about what’s being talked about. So this kind of talk serves social media well: like-minded people affirm one another and also create affinity groups/networks.
But people are different. To some, the descriptive telling lacks emotion. What it tells and offers in information, it may lack in feeling, mood. People who relate through others’ moods and feelings, people who tend to be “empathic,” who identify with others’ feelings and who relate by feeling the feelings (of others) may be stumped on twitter. Feelings aren’t felt or shown, but are described, expressed, told. Feelings can be imagined or projected, but at some risk (of being wrong).
People are different. It’s impossible to know what a person means to say on twitter. And by that I mean intends and expects, because tweeting always implies possibilities for response. How much has a person thought about how others will read their tweets? A tweet is never just what it says — somebody wrote it for a reason, and posted it for a reason. If the person thinks twitter is a public messaging space, he or she may not expect anything back. But if the person thinks twitter is a way to talk to people, then he or she will indeed hope for something back.
This fact == that we hope for, want, or expect a response, is often left out of twitter guides. These guides describe how to write and post, but less about how to read and respond. It’s anyone’s guess what a person means to say, whether he or she wants a reply, a follow, or nothing at all. So it wouldn’t be possible to write a strong guide to reading tweets and interacting with twitterers. If you have been uncertain about responding, replying, retweeting or referencing another twitter user, you’re certainly not alone. There’s no right way to be: as a social medium twitter lacks feedback.
I suspect this is where twitter fails for many new users. It’s “simple” to write on twitter; but it can be incredibly confusing when it comes to relating. Following and following back are simple enough (and probably a reason for the follow phenomenon). But tweets don’t tell us what to do with them. And tweets are written by people — people who have written something that’s not addressed to us personally but which is visible to us because we have elected to follow them. That ambiguity creates a significant barrier to interaction!
It might seem that mentioning a person by name is an invitation to interacting. But people are different. Some people don’t like being @named by people they don’t know. Some people may believe that an @name tweet is self-serving: if I @name you I gain some of your reputation by associating with it publicly. Some people do like being @named and then some also feel obliged to say “thanks,” to follow, or to @reply back. Some prefer this to occur in public, while others may be inclined to do so in private (by DM). Some are aware of how this appears to others, and might feel obliged to @reply and reciprocate in general for the sake of being polite.
It depends on who you are, and people are different. Some people think about others, some about themselves. Some think about how they look, and some about what other people think of them. These differences help to make interactions and communication interesting — and are a part of what people use to negotiate spending time together. A twitter obscures much of this nuance and subtlety. For this reason, some people may find it uninteresting; and some may find it more compelling.
Twitter is used in so many ways, measn so many things to people, and provides so little that it seems there may be new kinds of competencies required for its success with a greater audience. One of these would be flexibility and agility with ambiguity and an understanding of the many and diverse kinds of people and communication happening through twitter. And with that, I need some facetime.
Lynne PolischuikJune 10, 2009 at 6:37 pm
This is a really great post Adrian. After composing and then erasing without posting about 6 Tweets in a row this afternoon I actually sat back and wondered how many others do the same. How many others feel kind of weird and unsure, endlessly debate what is and isn't appropriate to post? This is the first time I've read anything that honestly touches on this type of reaction.
I agree that Twitter is weird and that does make it more compelling to me. When I try to explain Twitter to those less fascinated than I am I always find myself saying “Yes, it's only 140 characters but it's really so much more…”. It is definitely a form of ineraction that is still without any real guidelines and you are 100% correct in that all of the “Twetiquette” guides out there are pretty vague–there really is so much to think about beyond your basic 'Don't spam people' decree.
Larry IronsJune 10, 2009 at 8:16 pm
I enjoyed reading your thinking about twitter's potential limitations. I agree with many of your observations.
I see Twitter as a technology that stretches space across time, making relationships formed on it alone “nowhere.” Twitter is disorientating on its own. But, that really isn't the way Twitter works for literate users. As you know, since the two of us do it all the time, users mix in urls in tweets, often to their own content, or hashtags to make the information in their tweets more informative, maybe even meaningful as relationships develop. So, I'm not so sure it even makes sense to talk of twitter on its own, unless you consider it purely an information network.
The following paragraph from your post struck me when I read it, and seems to encapsulate your point.
“All communication technologies make it possible to coordinate who one is talking to; and most also satisfy our need to know if an act of communication has been received and recognized.
Twitter doesn't, and this is its weirdness, which is also its present limitation but future power.”
I'm not sure about most people, but I didn't use twitter much at all until tools like TweetDeck came along. The communication on the twitter public timeline alone was too fragmented without enough conversational flow, as you rightly suggest, to develop and maintain relationships. The twitter interface was like using IRC on an IBM 3270 terminal, though with color and some point and click.
Many of the choices about how to interact in developing reciprocal communication on twitter, such as placing your tweets on the public timeline, following others or not, @replying or not, DMing or not, showing up for a tweet-up or not, seems to get organized through the social capital of the people involved. We can earn social capital through building reciprocal relationships, or give it away through gestures of gifting.
No wonder so many people abandon the process early on.
mleisJune 11, 2009 at 7:02 am
Just to echo my tweets, this is an excellent post Adrian. On the one hand, Twitter ostensibly not social on the surface. This is what bugs me about the term social media and its application here especially. It is integrated media. At its core, Twitter is a combination of screenwriting, poetry and radio. It's very rare to see someone “do well” with Twitter that isn't at least a semi-professional writer.
You mentioned the ambiguity. My poetry professor said that the difference between good poetry and awful poetry is the difference between being ambiguous and being vague: which can't be taught, but is vital.
It's extremely similar to radio in that the person who tweets is broadcasting to an audience of people generally interested in hearing it — tuning in and out as time permits. But what solidifies a radio show is the same concept that solidifies a Twitter audience: the small percentage of the audience that calls in to make requests or win stuff or have a conversation and is then broadcast back out to the larger population. That is what creates the perceived intimacy and relationships among the majority of listeners.
Even more, though, again, you touch on this — is the powerful triad-structure of social media in the stream. We see this with teens especially, where really strong relationships are created between two people. But in the context of a larger group, this can be a detraction from achieving social status because to have that strong relationship compromises personal power. So we look to add that third entity for security. For teens, it's the third friend. In social networks, it's that everyone can see the exchange. It's comforting and reassuring and keeps the flow going.
Having said all of that disjointed blabber, from my own experience Twitter has been incredible in terms of meeting and forming real relationships in real life with people I have a lot in common with, but would have never met otherwise. It's kind of incredible, weird as it is.
Leanne WaldalJune 11, 2009 at 11:09 am
twitter often reminds me of bulletin boards and forums and listservs from the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's — asynchronous, semi-public, and not necessarily conversational
two ways that twitter isn't wierd for me and actually enhances my two-way inperson communications and i've taught other people how to use twitter this way to improve their life: (1) meeting people at conferences/events when i find people whose tweets i've been reading and who i've been chatting with via twitter and (2) supplanting email – using twitter dm is an excellent substitute for email because email, for me, is basically drudgery and sifting and filtering and managing. twitter dm is quick and readily accessible and gets things done in a way that email used to (but no longer does) for me.
gravity7June 12, 2009 at 1:37 pm
Thanks! It's often said that twitter is for narcissists, but I think that's a silly oversimplification. However, some people think more about what they're saying, some about who they're saying it to, some, who's going to see it, some, how it makes them appear.
I went through stages myself, using twitter — and I think what makes it fascinating for many of us, like you, is that it changes as our comfort and competence evolves. (Or devolves, as critics might say!).
Etiquette guidelines are an attempt at helping users with effective communication on twitter — but they are rarely written to improve their experience. E.g., one rarely reads “here's how to have a fascinating experience of discovery, serendipity, and connection on twitter”…
gravity7June 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm
Tweetdeck and now Seesmic changed it for me too — it's much more a chat application for me now. I still struggle with the 140 character limit, coz i'm a wordy guy and my sentence structure is baroque. I often cant write in twitter without several attempts. Drives me nuts.
It's probable that some people can talk through twitter simply, while others get more relational… likely perhaps that new users just dont get enough back to make it sticky or compelling. Which might lead them to spend more time trying to figure out what to say and how to say it…
It does seem as if any talk tool is plumbed for its immediacy and sense of presence — is it possible that twitter is compelling to some of us precisely because it stretches out the time between statements and responses? I remember reloading web message board pages to check for responses, and feeling such the fool for being caught in the compulsive repetition and waiting game that was my experience on web message boards…
gravity7June 12, 2009 at 1:51 pm
I don't know if you meant it as such, but the idea of a public talk space/tool like twitter being the “third” is very interesting. Months back I came across the concept of triple contingency. Double contingency is the state of “intersubjective” interaction/communication. Two subjects, each free to interpret and act on what's happening — so that meaning is not in the content but in the interpretation of each subject (as to its intent and claims).
This paper (could look it up) suggested that public social media add a third contingency: the non-communicative but in some way “present” general public. So communication can be made for what it says to a person, or to persons (double contingency: I have an idea of what this means to you), or for its meaning to the public (I have an idea of what it *looks like* to the public, or of how it makes me *appear*). I've called this “appearancy.” Appearance is tied up with social capital (which is perception of status contingent on an audience)….
gravity7June 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm
Yes on both points — second point is interesting. Some folks think what's intended for one person should be written to that person — no point in “sharing” it and if you do, you must have a hell of an ego… But many of us don't have that ego and have “simply” adopted twitter as the email substitute. Using twitter makes what we say discoverable, and can add value to others if it's interesting, informative, etc.
That said, do folks who join and then leave, leave because they had expected more interaction around what they posted?