Twitter ambivalence


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?

13 Responses to “Twitter ambivalence”

  1. I found the letting things go by aspect of Twitter hard to get used to as well. But eventually, I came to terms with the fact that some things will pass me by, though I have noticed, like you mentioned, most things worth seeing usually pop up at some point. Don’t really have any handy tips for how to do this though. Not very helpful of me :}

  2. Nice post. I definitely agree that Twitter is a crippled system. Microblogging makes much more sense to me with smaller, closer-knit communities than the whole wide world like Twitter. Like if many/most students on the same campus (or, e.g., most Wikipedians) were part of the same microblogging community and could create new conversational links whenever someone found someone else talking about something they cared about, that’d be powerful. And then that microblogging community could make connections to wider microblogosphere as well, but the stream behavior could be calibrated for streams from your communities versus streams from the wider world.

    I thought Henry Jenkins did a great job of explaining the potential of the medium.

    Incidentally, I blogged about TV the other day and had some of your ideas in mind. In case you missed it when I tweeted at you:

  3. I don’t know how relevant this is, but here goes:

    I have found that I use Twitter for 4 reasons:

    1) to stay in immediate contact with a few close friends who live in other nations
    2) to follow celebrities – for entertainment purposes
    3) to network in the cultural studies arena
    4) to be informed on to-the-minute status of my university/public transit/events

    What I have found, since starting Twitter in the Fall of ’08, is that most of the Tweets I receive are unnecessary or don’t affect me personally, so I skim. I enjoy reading what one or two celebrities are saying – because they are fun(ny) and their wit makes me smile — it makes them seem less ‘untouchable’ and reminds me that they are real people — it also helps silence that call to follow the paparazzi; I enjoy using your Tweets to feel more connected to the Media Studies world; and I enjoy the silly short banter I have with some of my best friends. I also like knowing when a bus has broken down or school has closed or a concert has been rained out – and Twitter makes that information accessible.

    re your concern about establishing a healthy use of Twitter: umm… I’m thinking that it might be best used for informative purposes rather than conversationally. As a tool for sending information out quickly, Twitter is fantastic! But I can understand your ambivalence… and I agree with the radio analogy — maybe it’s best to think of Twitter as an announcement medium (e.g., when you Tweeted the job opening at your school) or an introductory/connective device (e.g., linking to this post) rather than a networking tool in the FB manner of social networking.

    Hope this doesn’t sound too simple. This was fun to analyse, so thank you for posing the question, even if it only benefits me! But hopefully, something in here will be helpful 🙂


  4. @Sage: I forgot to mention in my post that prior to joining Twitter, I was using Yammer, which runs within the Middlebury intranet. It works more like you describe, allowing a working community to share updates. Interestingly, after a month of activity, a number of people also joined Twitter and Yammer became dormant…

    @Stephanie: I agree that as of now it seems more of a broadcast rather than conversational medium – but a number of Twitter devotees claim it’s great for conversations too. I haven’t seen it work in an effective way, though.

  5. I share some of your ambivalence about Twitter. Though I was evangelical about it a few months back, I’ve cooled a bit because of the time and mental drain demanded by the Twitterstream. Just as I can read and write well with instrumental music, and can’t work at all hearing any vocals, I find Twitter to be too distracting to have on all the time. Like you, I was off-grid for a few weeks this summer, and found that Twitter was the last thing I came back to (after catching up on e-mail and FB).

    That said, there’s also no denying that Twitter has widened my intellectual community. I’ve found and followed (and been followed by) literally dozens of people from around the world (and even in my immediate area) working in social and traditional media in many different capacities, and have been intrigued and enriched by their links and discussions. Like Steph, I also follow a few celebs for entertainment, though have actually had brief Twitter conversations with a few. I find that if I limit the number of people I follow to the low triple digits (it’s currently just over 200), I can maintain a workable signal-noise ratio. Still, though, I also find that I only log in to Twitter when I feel I can effectively multitask; i.e., not all the time.

    All in all, I’m glad I’m on, and I’ll certainly keep using it. But just as with every other communication platform, it’s not the be-all end-all. And that’s OK.

  6. re:Middlebury Yammer… 😦

  7. Jason,

    I believe you mentioned that you were considering using Twitter as a platform to host questions, factoids, and links during class lectures. So I wonder: how might educators leverage Twitter’s strengths as a pedagogical tool?

    Twitter’s immediacy may have value during class and outside of class. During class, students can request clarification on a complex topic or post a question that is unrelated at the moment, all without disrupting the current discussion. And with the ReTweet function, the professor can gain a sense of what issues are most important to address. Outside of lectures, Twitter enables the entire class to receive instant answers (useful for quick logistical questions that don’t warrant an email) and share articles relevant to the readings (useful for students who need to find inspiration for a blog post/comment).

    Of course, as you point out, there are also challenges that go along with Twitter. Because tweets are constantly flowing, they are a MAJOR distraction. It is virtually impossible to resist clicking on those tantalizing tinyurls. And we all know how time consuming and frustrating it can be to craft 160 characters that accurately reflect what we mean to say (which takes one’s attention away from listening). I also think some non-Twitterers would feel uncomfortable with another class activity—in addition to reading, studying, writing papers, and blogging—now there’s tweeting?! FML

    These are just some preliminary thoughts (I didn’t even touch on the ‘Here I Am’ aspect of Twitter, although I imagine many students would enjoy interacting informally with one another, as oppose to commenting on blogs, which still feels academicky) Nevertheless, I’m ambivalent as to whether Twitter has any real place in higher education, and if it does, I’m not sure how it can yet compliment, not over-complicate, the class dynamic. But if you do decide to use Twitter in the fall, it will be interesting to see how it goes.


  8. 8 Annie Petersen

    Just a quick addition —
    While I limit my Facebook profile (no students; no ‘networking’) I’ve found that Twitter has connected me to dozens of media-studies-esque academics, both grad students and professors. One of those contacts provided an intro for filling out my SCMS panel; I’ve invited others to become columnists for FlowTV. For grad students in particular, it serves as a non-intimidating networking tool.

  9. 9 princesscowboy

    I second Annie’s comment (indeed, I only would have found her wonderful blog through Twitter). When I first joined Twitter back in March someone I was following (I forget who) said this about the difference between Twitter and Facebook “Facebook is for communicating with the people I know and Twitter is for communicating with the people I don’t know.” Or something like that. But that statement is what made Twitter click for me. I adore Facebook–I love seeing pictures of the babies of old high school friends and keeping up with the daily ins and outs of people I no longer see since I’ve moved to the deep South. But Twitter has opened up lines of communication with people in my field (Film Studies) who I likely would never have been able to meet before. For that reason it’s very useful–I wish it had been using it in grad school!

  10. @Annie/Princess: you’re definitely right that Twitter can lead to greater networking possibilities. Personally, I’ve used Facebook in that way, accepting friend requests from people I don’t “know” but want to connect with. I can certainly imagine that had I been more limited with FB, Twitter would be much more appealing.

    @Aaron: I’m mulling using Twitter in my TV lecture class, but I have a feeling that most students are not currently using the platform, and don’t want to require it. (I will require it for my digital media class, but that’s more tied to the content.) I like the idea of providing a stream for commentary and questions, although I could certainly imagine it being adopted by a few students and ignored by the rest. Right now, I plan on asking on day 1 how many students use Twitter and then deciding whether to integrate it into class.

  11. The Facebook/Twitter divide is pretty deep. I wonder how many FB users migrate to Twitter, or at least shift a significant proportion of time/energy to Twitter.

    I think that the FB-Tw competition is the only situation, Sage, from which we can see Twitter as “crippled.” On its own terms, Twitter is quite functional.

    I’ve had a lot of success with Twitter, largely along the lines this discussion has identified: broadcast, conversation, networking. I used it in nearly every online situation in my life, this year: setting up talks, during talks and workshops, writing, attending conferences.

    PS: where were you in July, that remote island?

  12. I think your week on the rustic island with no technology sounds like a great way to keep the balance. You will always have a certain feeling of ambivalence, but if you take time away from it every so often as a “technology sabbath” — perhaps one day a week, or a week every six months — you will always be able to maintain a “releasement” towards technology (an attitude of “I can take it or leave it”) that Heidegger talks about. It will not control you. You will not feel a compulsion to always be checking for tweets. You will not be anxious about missing out on something important. You will have more of a sense of peace and equilibrium more often.

  13. 13 Scott Ellington

    Technological advantages in communication highlight the odd worst-case scenario:

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