Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Twitter: first impressions

Having a conversation with another person about the appeal of Big Brother, or how - or why - it works, is impossible if that person has never immersed themselves in the experience of the programme. And although Twitter has not attracted the same kind of hostility, it is another 'text' (I'll come back to that word) that has emerged from an evolving mediascape, creates channels/possibilities/modes of self-presentation that did not hitherto exist ('at all?!' my 'nothing-is-entirely-new' inner voice demands), and needs to be participated in to be understood.

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.

To end

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.


  1. This made for very interesting reading, thanks! One of the criticisms that is often levelled at Twitter surrounds its apparent banality - people tweeting about what they're eating for breakfast, etc. It's my understanding that tweets are being archived and although it's difficult for me to imagine how this would be managed, there is something attractive about thinking of these kinds of tweets in the vein of mass observation. I tweet about what I'm eating, or when my train is delayed or whatever - there's something about the recording of the mintuae of everyday life that interests me.

    I agree with you that this new digital citizenship is exclusive. There was a lot of talk about how this general election was going to be the social media election, but the truth of the matter was rather different. Yes, people were talking about politics a lot and Twitter is a vocal place, but it is a small minority and in reality it probably had little impact. I'll be away thinking about your closing questions now :) (@dolly_clackett)

  2. Thanks Roisin! Yes, I hadn't thought about the mass observation possibility. Very interesting! (For some reason my first impulse now you've mentioned that is to sabotage the project with anachronisms. 'This is tasty dodo.' 'I'm sick of trains being cancelled because of dinosaurs straying onto the line.')

    And yes, once the dust has settled a bit more it'll be interesting to see how media coverage of the general election is written about. It seems to me that there was a 'simultaneous platform' effect. The news agenda was organised around the televised debates, and there was Bigotgate too, and Twitter certainly 'followed' these things rather than leading.

  3. Some sabotage would be excellent, and trains being delayed because of dinosaurs would be less annoying than being delayed because they have't put enough staff on rota.

    One aspect of Twitter that I haven't quite been able to figure out is when I get followed by strange businesses based on a single tweet - I suppose maybe it's in the hope that I will follow them in return, but I've never had further direct marketing. Twitter as a tool for business is interesting, and something that is worthy of further thought.

    On the subject following celebrities - Duncan Bannatyne (@DuncanBannatyne) and Barry Chuckle (@Barry_Elliott) are interesting to follow to see how they interact with fans/followers.

  4. Interesting: the interface is advert free, but our Tweets are scoured for consumer potential. I read a whole special report in The Economist about social networking etc and businesses, which was very interesting, but since I economised and stopped subscribing I can't access it any more and didn't save a copy.

    I don't know if I am ready to follow Bannatyne or Chuckle (!), but I suppose I could start, and then stop doing so at any time!

  5. You don't have to follow to be able to look at their twitter feed so no commitment needed - just check to get a feel. Another good thing about following/not following - it doesn't have the same impact as if you unfriend someone on Facebook because it is quite a lot less personal.

  6. Of course! Still getting used to these new ways...

  7. James!

    Long time no speak...hope you and the family are well. Recently stumbled across your blog and am enjoying both its style and content...

    I am also a new Twitter user - similarly thought I'd better see what all the fuss is about! So far I'm mostly using my account to advertise great new albums I discover - I've no idea whether any of my (7 to date) followers are paying a blind bit of notice, but I like to think I'm reshaping somebody somewhere's listening habits...

    I agree about the feeling that you can't keep up on Twitter - I don't know whether I'm just following particularly prolific Tweeters (e.g. NBA, The AV Club - I guess organisations Tweet more than individuals), but each time I log on I feel overwhelmed by the world of information that has apparently passed me by. Thankfully I've realised most of it is of little consequence...

    One interesting trend I have noticed is that fewer people are writing their Facebook status updates in "Dave " form. I don't know whether this is indicative of Twitter's influence, or just a sign that not everyone is as anal as me in wanting their status update to read like a nice neat sentence. Or it could just be the logical consequence of Facebook's removal of the compulsory "is" a while ago.

    In a spooky bit of intellectual overlap, I've also been doing quite a bit of thinking lately about the cultural, relational and (especially) spiritual impact of the Internet. For a sample, allow me to refer you to the Google article on my own fledgling blog:

    Anyway, I'm off to follow you on Twitter. Who knows, maybe it'll actually help me keep in touch with you a bit better?!

  8. Argh - technology has foiled me again (and I can't stand to see a mistake go uncorrected...)

    Paragraph 4, line 2: "Dave" should read "Dave-verb-predicate" - that will make much more sense!