There are lots of Twitter critics out there, and I have rolled my eyes at their criticism over the past several years in blog posts on this site. My opinion of most of their opinions has changed very little. I still believe most of them are wrong about their objections. For the most part, Twitter critics tend to fall into a couple of distinct categories:
There are some folks (even old, hardened, battle-scarred internet veterans) who just don’t get this social-networking thing. The don’t get why people want to have group conversations or connect with all of their friends online. Those folks are going be left behind in the technology gap just like non-internet users — folks who are now losing touch with cultural touchstones and missing opportunities to prosper due to lack of technology.
We’re coming up on a distinct generation gap between veteran internet users and a new generation of internet youngsters, and social networking seems to be the fault line between them. Interestingly enough, some of my co-workers are among the internet veteran/social network naysayers, which makes me realize that some of the online apps we build at work — with these folks — are in danger of being outmoded, dinosaur technologies because they don’t allow quality user interaction not just with us but with other users of our apps. That concerns me a lot.
You know exactly who these guys are. They find creative ways to make fun of the name “Twitter” and say things like “I don’t care what you had for lunch.” They’re the folks who don’t want to do something if they didn’t think of it themselves. If they had coded Twitter, they’d be promoting it on the farthest reaches of the planet, and they’re mad someone came up with something so popular. Give them a little more time, and they’ll be Twitter’s biggest users, and they’ll be purging their old anti-Twitter blog posts and pretending they took up Twitter at SXSW 2007 with the rest of us early adopters. I have a couple of friends in this category who now have more tweets than I do. I couldn’t get them to try it in March of 2007. Now they’re acting like they told ME about it.
I’ve found that the above two reasons tend to dominate critical thinking about Twitter and micro-blogging technologies, and neither of them are valid. However, I’ve discovered that, my enjoyment of Twitter and critique of the above criticisms of it aside, after 2 years on Twitter and 7,134 Tweets, I’m ready to pack it in on the Twitter app in its current form for a couple different reasons.
Twitter causes massive Continual Partial Attention. It’s not healthy, and it’s a serious problem for me. I get lots more work done at work with Twitter turned off. I get lots more work done at home when I turn off Twitter. And studies on multi-tasking show that people’s attention to detail and ability to do quality work suffers severely when they are subject to too many sources of input that take them off task. Mine most assuredly is.
I think that this is a drawback that could, with proper development, be overcome, either on Twitter or on applications that have similar functionalities. Twitter could adopt some way to “digest” tweets so you could turn off Twitter temporarily and yet scan tweets easily at later times. Or they could adopt some ways to mark tweets as “important” so you could see the tweets from your friend alerting you to a relative that just died, while filtering out the news about the celebrity that just died.
When you have to parse every statement down to 140 characters, you throw out complexities, paraphrase, and, inevitably, make your meaning less clear. You start to think in simpler thoughts. After tweeting for so long, I find it to be a struggle to think things out and examine ideas in a more complex form. Hence the lack of longer writing on this blog. That is a trend I desperately need to reverse. The answer to that is to go back to the tool I use for complex expression – this blog!
The immediacy of Twitter also means that my micro-thinking – my lack of reflection on and examination of the thoughts running through my brain – gets broadcast immediately. There have been times when I’ve tweeted something and immediately after realized the counter-argument to what I’ve just said, or realized the missing premise that invalidated the conclusion I just came to. Oops — too late.
I would benefit from a pause button on Twitter – a “Read that over – did you mean what you just said?” alert before my words get posted.
Not to worry, though – my every error has been pointed out by my twitterfolk.
4) Equality of Attention.
I know this sounds bad, but there are some folks who are your acquaintances for a reason. You have people you are close to whom you want to hear from every day. You have acquaintances who you enjoy spending some time with, but who are different enough from you that you don’t want to interact with them all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s the nature of friendships. Twitter tends to flatten all that out. You get a lot more of your friends (good) along with a lot more of your acquaintances (not always good). And at times you discover things about your friends that make you want to turn them into acquaintances (disconcerting!).
Short of unfollowing people, there’s not really any way of filtering those people on Twitter. Facebook, on the other hand, lets you do this to a large extent. You can alter your “newsfeed” on your home page to see less of some folks’ status updates and more of others. You can increase and decrease the types of social information you’re getting from your friends. And you do that without their knowledge, and thus without hurt feelings. Allowing these tweaks means that you can control the flow of information to your computer and decline to listen to people who want to be offensive or intrusive without cutting them out of your life completely. In that sense, Facebook succeeds where Twitter fails.
It’s true that Twitter has been a really good thing in my life for a long time. I’ve learned lots of great things about my friends that I never knew before. But overall those benefits have been canceled out by the four drawbacks of Twitter I listed above. And for the past six months I’ve been struggling mightily with those drawbacks, torn about what to do. I think I’ve finally worked out how I really feel, though. I’m not giving up on social networking applications. I’m just rejecting one that doesn’t work well for me anymore.
2012 Update: Oh, you know I’m back on Twitter. I was gone for over 2 years, and I hopped back on when lots of celebrities were joining and we were using it more for work. My use of it has changed radically, though, to account for the difficulties I wrote about above. I have separate accounts: a public one for work, a closed one for friends, and a throw-away one for following celebrities. I don’t check Twitter for long stretches of time. I only look at my work account at work.