I deactivated my Facebook account some time ago, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to enter the world of Twitter, posing as it does, or so it seems to me, some similar drawbacks and dangers.
But first I'll focus on a few differences (and apologies if my Facebook knowledge is now outmoded). Twitter seems in some ways to be less of a 'me' medium (resisting the coinage) than Facebook. The subject of a Facebook status update, almost unavoidably, is the profile owner him or herself, because each update starts with their name. One could say this is true of Twitter too, but I've so far only encountered one person who systematically treats their tweets like status updates, making their name the first word, as it were. The default mode is for the name to act like a character name in a script: it merely identifies the person, and is followed by their utterance, of which it is not a part (to be boring about it, most people start tweets with a capital letter, but continue status updates after their name with a lower case one).
And I'd say there's a much greater tendency for tweets than status updates to be non-autobiographical. They are often not about something that is happening to the person, but something happening 'out there' (where?) that the person is moved to comment on. My good friend Tom Hughes (@yestomhughesyes) once told me about something New Media scholar Henry Jenkins wrote about Twitter, which I think I'm remembering correctly as: 'it is a combination of "I am here" and "Look at this"'.
Time to dip into some of Twitter's textual features.
A minimum of personal information
No favourite movies, quotations or books fields to populate, thank goodness. You even only get 160 characters for your 'Bio' (note abbreviation). The Twitter self is only minimally a static or achieved thing.
I wonder what the average Followers/Following ratio is. Public figures often have thousands of Followers but themselves only follow a handful of people. I expect that ordinary members of 'the public', like myself (and the majority of Twitter users) will follow more people than they are followed by, as they will follow public figures, organisations, etcetera. I myself feel a lot more comfortable 'following', say, Mark Thomas, than being his 'friend'. Twitter as a whole seems to offer a much better interface with people one could not in any meaningful sense describe as friends than Facebook.
Retweets and hashtags
Another indication of one's Twitter stature, besides the number of Followers one has, is how many times one's tweets have been retweeted (I still await my first!). Looking at it from the other and more important angle, Retweets are another manifestation of Twitter moving away from autobiography and towards something more like a public sphere. They will often register and promote solidarity and public awareness in the face of injustice.
Hashtags are a filtering device that, so far as I can tell so far, act as discussion threads.
I do not yet understand how 'Favourites' work, even having skimmed the information about them on the 'Help' section (perhaps I was reading too fast? - more on that shortly).
140 character limit
The most frustrating thing about this so far is that I've sometimes been moved to put up a quotation - usually from a pop song - but when I've cut and pasted it into the box, I'm overdrawn.
I've already seen that this limit lends itself very well to certain forms. The Facebook status update equivalent is one, of course. I've also been happy to reconnect with Gary Delaney (@GaryDelaney), whose comedy form of one-liners is a perfect fit with the medium. A lot of Tweets allude to some external phenomenon, often a current event which the reader is assumed to possess prior knowledge of (and if they don't, a quick search engine excursion will soon solve the mystery). Many - especially those by news organisations and their representatives - summarise a story or event and provide a link to a fuller account.
(I must quickly express my admiration for the tinyurl system, which is so easy to use and such an innovation! At the same time though, whilst there is an elegance to the brevity of them, their sheer randomness does make them seem a bit ugly/chaotic to me.)
Back to my Google Reader
I suddenly realised this afternoon that whilst I'd been assiduously refreshing my Twitter page throughout the day (encouraged by the parenthetical number which tells me how many new Tweets I have to read), my iGoogle page with its Google Reader gadget had been closed for some time.
My Google Reader has become a bit less compelling lately partly because I get links to some of the same subscriptions more quickly on Twitter.
But there's a larger point about the relationship of Twitter (a 'micro-blogging site') to blogs. I've found myself that some of my blogging energy has been siphoned off to Twitter. Things that I might have previously blogged about, I've simply 'pointed to' in a Tweet.
And then there's the question of how Twitter makes you read. It's all about brevity, and speed. I don't follow many of the links that are offered to me, and even when I do, I'm still in Twitter mode, reading at the driving equivalent of motorway speed, so I tend to tear through the longer piece, often thinking at the end that the Tweet gave me the meat anyway! Which leads me on to my next point...
Lost in the ether
My blog subscriptions sit and patiently wait for me in my Google Reader. But if I'm not on Twitter 24/7, I lose out. In theory I could probably catch up with all the Tweets of those I'm following, but that's because I don't follow that many people. Does Twitter have the capacity to deliver and retain all of the Tweets on the feed of someone following, say, 300 people (not uncommon)?
The 'text' of Twitter cannot be mastered, and is different for every one of its users. How would one go about analysing it? What parameters would (could) one set?
Perhaps it's best to think of Twitter as something one tunes into and out of. The default graphic of the clouds makes sense to me in that way - when signed in, one is plucking voices from the ether for a while.
Twitter has made me feel more political. This might partly be a result of my signing up the day after the UK general election, but of course the site lends itself very strongly to the discussion of contemporary issues of widespread import.
And in this dark new era of public spending cuts, where the humanities will certainly take a further hammering and instrumentalists are likely to tighten their grip on 'knowledge production', the value and importance of the critical study of media (the quintessentail 'Mickey Mouse' degree subject and a perennial favourite whipping boy of the tabloid press, who would rather citizens did not possess the tools to deconstruct what they read) need to be championed.
I have been generally positive about Twitter as an instrument for reinvigorating the public sphere, and my personal experience of it these past few weeks has been exciting and overwhelmingly positive, but I have my doubts and reservations about this new medium's speed, brevity and transience. We are all encouraged every day to marvel at the possibilities of technology: how shiny it is, how efficient, what it can do. But technologies always fit into existing social structures, even whilst they have the potential to transform them.
Visions of a brave new world of digital citizenship carry with them new possibilities for exclusion - of the old, the impoverished, the disabled, the illiterate (Professor Charlotte Brunsdon in particular has helped me appreciate the importance of this point).
Who does Twitter exclude? What kinds of citizen does it create - or, less deterministically, what modes of citizenship does it encourage? These are among the questions we need to be asking.