I joined Twitter this past Spring, in large part because I saw the great usefulness of the platform at a conference – I was at MIT6 and surrounded by people having backchannel conversations via Twitter. So I joined on the spot, and spent a few months trying to figure out how it fits my own social media uses. I’ve been mulling the idea of posting my thoughts for awhile, but am inspired to share my own not-particularly-profound impressions after reading Henry Jenkins’s take on Twitter.
What I like best about Twitter is the ability to follow people’s reactions in real time. When focused on an event like a conference, hashtags enable a distributed conversation and real time reaction to what’s going on. It’s been interesting to watch my Twitter feed react to breaking news, like the deaths of Michael Jackson and Walter Cronkite, getting a real sense of what matters to people and how they process events.
So for me, the key dimension of Twitter is its immediacy and temporality – and in this way it’s close to how I use Facebook. I always have a FB tab open on my browser, and regularly refresh it to see what people are up to. Like what Henry wrote about Twitter, this information is both about “Here I Am” texture of everyday life, and “Here It Is” sharing of news, opinions, amusements, and what have you. I use both Twitter and Facebook to aggregate things I find interesting in my browsing, automatically feeding my Google Reader shared items and Delicious bookmarks to both platforms. I do post textural updates on my life as well, but see Twitter’s value both as reader and writer to point toward things longer than 140 characters.
The other aspect of Twitter that I half-like is the potential for public conversation. When someone I follow posts something worth replying to, I can – whether they know me or not. And as Jenkins suggests, this can lead to a conversation or a new opportunity for getting to know somebody. And it’s always interesting to see who finds what you have to say interesting enough to reply.
But the interface for these conversations is so difficult to follow that it makes them almost pointless – unlike Facebook, where all conversation stemming from a post thread beneath the original, all Tweets are equally arranged chronologically. Thus if a group of people you follow are having a conversation, you see each post on its own, forcing you to reassemble the bits into something coherent. Perhaps the open API of Twitter will yield a smart app that reorganizes conversations into threads like on Facebook, but as of now, I find the current interface too much work to make following conversations viable.
But my biggest problem with Twitter also concerns its immediacy and presence – I cannot keep up. I follow a lot of people, so I’m always swimming in tweets. And enough of the posts are of sufficient interest that I don’t really want to miss what people have to say. I’ve heard people talk about having a Twitter client always on as background noise, checking in whenever you’ve got time – or similarly, a friend posted that “Twitter is like radio, not email,” a constant stream to tune in, not a feed to attend to. But I listen to podcasts, not radio!
I have the type of personality who doesn’t like an information flow passing me by, so I find it hard to ignore the stream and avoid backtracking. Some people have sad they’ve abandoned RSS feeds for Twitter, assuming that anything worth reading will find their way to them via the Twitterstream. I can’t imagine unsubscribing to my regular reads, even though many of them are posted to Twitter as well. But I need to know that they’ll be there when I’m ready to read them, not just as they’re posted.
At the end of July, I spent a week on a rustic island with no electricity. I checked in on email every couple of days on the mainland, but was pretty much cut off from the daily information flow that I’ve become accustomed to. In the post-island catch-up, I found myself reluctant to return to Twitter, leaving Tweetdeck unopened for another week, long after I’d reached equilibrium with my other information flows. I still knew that I was posting via my autofeeds, but was not part of any conversation. I’ve slowly waded back in, with Twitter now running as the background radio tempting me to check-in and look back. But I’m less-than-enthusiastic about it, with ambivalence as my primary attitude toward the platform.
So, dear readers, is it just an incompatibility of temperaments between me and Twitter, or is there something I could do to establish a more healthy use of Twitter?
Filed under: Meta-blogging, New Media, Technology | 13 Comments
random thoughts from media scholar Jason Mittell
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