Sunday, May 3, 2009

Effin’ Twitter, or The Personal Revolution

This is the second of two entries on Twitter.

“Since when has Twitter become the big thing?” my brother asked me the other week, in reference to the Ashton Kutcher/CNN “battle” that came to a head two Thursdays ago. Twitter, which has been around for a few years, was having its Best Week Ever.

I have been debating whether to join Twitter for months, even before Clive Thompson’s fantastic article last summer, which definitely put me in the “no way” camp. I have enough technology ruling my life, and I am always struck by the difference between the rat race of the internet and the slowed pace of those who just don’t give a damn. But in the last couple of months, it seemed inevitable that I would join.

I already read certain people’s Twitter feeds. It was interesting to see their thoughts on a topic, however brief, and some people were genuinely interesting. It also offered an unfiltered look, much realer than any documentary could show, at certain stars and their lives, just because they were the ones speaking, instead of through publicists or agents and interviewers. Many people, from Julia Allison to Emily Gould to Ashton Kutcher himself (5:00) have commented on this, the ability to write your own story, create your old world, a historical record if you will, without others defining you. That is a real draw, to have an authentic self out there.

But in this day and age, with “authentic” and “brand” nearly always in the same sentence, one has to practically be a brand to get any traction. Job seekers are told they have to market themselves, to think of themselves as a product or service that someone needs, and that they stand for something. Twitter takes this further: each person’s tweets, an extension of themselves, make up their essence, and that essence has to be sold. Britney Spears has an account, but it is not just her, it is the Britney brand. John Mayer is John Mayer, and while some could argue he is a brand, he’s just doing his thing. Having a Twitter, like having one’s own webpage, is considered by many to be an essential part of one’s brand.

But we all don’t need to be brands, and this segues into the way consumerism has infiltrated every part of our lives. Brands can evolve, but they really don’t. People are constantly in flux, unformed. There is much said about the constraints of growing up online, and we are seeing all the time how someone needs to take back something said or an image presented in the past, just because it doesn’t fit them anymore. Seeing discarded or old identities online is funny yet sad, a nostalgia instantly available. I wonder about all the digital graves I will leave in my life—email addresses and webpages discarded after they are no longer useful, friends and relationships that no longer have the glue they once did, but merely a thumbnail reminder that you do, in fact, know them, that you were once someone else. I think about the future of social networks (Twitter is included in the definition) all the time: Will we, as a generation, get tired of Facebook and its ilk as we grow older, finding it too time consuming? Will we get tired of being constantly connected and a new movement to go off the grid start? Will it merely be just another aspect of the web that everyone has, like email, or will it grow into its own subculture, just another thing that some people do but that others don’t?

The 140 character limit, and the loss of grammar and complete thought, is another criticism of Twitter. It is hard to write compelling in such a short space, and indeed I have had to, wincingly, used abbreviations and netspeak that I normally avoid. But like anything else, Twitter is what you make of it. I see Twitter as a place to share information. It’s different from a Facebook status update in that it isn’t some musing blasted out to 200 of your friends, but to a group of people you may not necessarily know, and that can be tracked and categorized so that strangers can read what you’re thinking. Companies, including Twitter’s founders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, are working on monetizing this, since some companies like Dunkin Donuts and JetBlue have become success stories using the service, showing marketing and business people how to interact with their customers and drive brand loyalty. I personally do not care about such things—even links of coupons will just ennoble me to spend money on things I don’t need or want, and to get caught up in unnecessary chatter.

“Unnecessary chatter” is how those who denigrate the service would describe it. It is very true. Everyone wants to be listened to, but no one has the patience to listen to others. Following hundreds or thousands of people is time-consuming, sure, and the importance of the information received varies, yet we all want others to take us seriously, even if it’s just in jest. I often wonder, since I follow a lot of journalists, how the hell they manage to get any work done. I know I don’t, and I’ve been on the service for only a short time.

The hype has made a whole bunch of folks rush out and create an account, trying to see if they can figure out the service and maybe garner some love. Yet at times it’s ridiculous, as Brian Williams points out on The Daily Show a few weeks ago:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Brian Williams
Daily Show
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How did John McCain go from being technologically illiterate to a functional Twitterer? How in the world did congressmen not realize that snarking on the president when he’s about to give an important speech would be seen as a stupid thing? Dude, I’m already conscious that I can be found on Twitter and that if I say something wrong, it will get back to me, and I’m not a chosen representative. But I made that choice, the choice to promote myself (it is very much a marketing and promotional tool), and decided after much handwringing, to say fuck it and do it.

I agree with many, many of the arguments against Twitter, and Samantha Bee and The Daily Show, as usual, summed it up perfectly:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Twitter Frenzy
Daily Show
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Media frenzies, especially when you are somewhat involved, even peripherally, are hard to escape. But I’ve noticed that my enthusiasm has waned. It would never occur to me to list my boring activities for the day; those are better meant for people for whom it interests. It is very much a broadcasting service, but it’s not the fashion reserved for that witty away message that so dominates college life. Not enough people try to be witty on Twitter, and in some ways it’s a great stalking tool, since people you don’t know will reference who they are hanging out with and where.

Numbers-wise, Twitter isn’t anything like Facebook, especially in terms of early adopters. Young people aren’t flocking to Twitter; they may be wetting their feet now, but it was mostly business and tech people who called it home for the most part at first, since they were the ones to grab onto it as a marketing platform back when we were all figuring out what the heck a newsfeed was. Young people are getting credited, but the teenagers aren’t helping us out, since they’re still on Facebook and MySpace. But it’s a given that a technological fad would be started by those young, tech-savvy people, since those two adjectives are now best friends.

There was the little blip on the radar that Oprah now Twitters, though she made quite a faux paus on her first day (calling the twitterati “Twitters” instead of “Twitterers” and posting in all caps, the latter inexcusable), which was a giant groan to the rest of the world who know that Oprah = massive mainstream takeover. All the mothers who don’t already blog will now be running on Twitter, the thinking goes. But it turns out that large numbers of people abandon the service within a month, and Twitter has what many see as a shockingly low retention rate of 40%. Twitter does take getting used to, and it does have a bit of a bad rap; in addition, its web site sucks, and while the idea behind Twitter is simple, mastering the language and the apps and the whole culture is confusing as hell. (Hashtags, anyone?)

While it’s great for passing information, sometimes getting too much credit as a form of new journalism, it is also ripe for misinformation. Twitter can be just another RSS feed (or a series of them), or it can be a note-taking device, a sort of journal of your world, a incredibly long, incredibly complex system of notes on your life, a version of what went down when and where, what you were willing to expose and to who, what anguished you and enraged you and filled you with joy, hope, and laughter. What you loved and lost, cried over and found. Who you were, at any given moment in time.

If it is possible to encapsulate your life from every bit of online activity recorded, all the reminders, questions and problems would add up to another sort of log. This scares a lot of people and excites others; it’s all about who controls the information, and the limits of the controls that are placed on the user. We look back at the past from letters and photographs, but now we can add status and away messages to the litany of LiveJournal-like musings that take up any one of our days.

But the personal revolution of information is not just based on observations and randomness—two words that can describe the web—but on how we shape what we want to know. Facebook has predicated many of its recent redesigns on this premise, so that we get updated news reports on the Mets next to photo albums of our friends. Twitter takes this to the next level, with us following people who hand off information that we’re interested in. We’re our own personal wire service, disseminating information strictly related and of importance to ourselves. The personal revolution.

This, of course, has wide-ranging implications in all sorts of industries, from watching the ascent of iTunes singles to newspapers going the way of our own personal online mashup of news. Of course, it is not necessary to embrace the entire spectrum of the personal revolution; clearly, those that mock Twitter endlessly do not see it in the same continuum as picking and choosing what news sources and stories to follow. Twitter is merely another tool in today’s information-gathering box.
As my thoughts on Twitter evolved over the past couple of months and weeks, I saw its real value shift from being about promotion to one about conversation. I could follow people all I want, read their tweets without having an account. But responding, and hoping that maybe someone you think is really cool will respond to you and maybe follow you too, is the way to engage. It sounds so incredibly clichĂ©, and it is, but it’s about choosing to “participat[e] in a large public be part of a broad dialogue,” as danah boyd points out. So yeah, maybe I did want a larger audience to be subjected to my incredibly witty observations, but I also wanted to talk to and engage with those who I thought were cool for one reason or another, to see what would happen, to have my voice heard, if only by a few people on the larger issues of the day.

So to those haters, of which I was once a part: Yes, Twitter is dumb. Yes, it is information overload. But while you acknowledge that Twitter does have some real uses and has spawned real knowledge and awareness, you can’t only laud the service when it fits that purpose. Meaning, you cannot have it be a source for youth protests without having many of the same users use it to chatter about how hot or cold the weather is. People tend to talk about Twitter in its extreme forms—either as a watercooler news source for stories that are just breaking, or as a way for the bored and lonely to pretend that the people really care about what they are eating for breakfast. Yes, those examples exist, but the vast majority of tweets fall in between, and people are genuinely trying to connect to someone, even if it is under the auspicious reasoning of broadcasting to the world that you loved last night’s episode of House.