Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why I Don't Twitter

I don't Twitter. I can't Twitter. Why? Because I am Twitter-challenged.

The problem is I am a writer. Or, rather, it is the way I write. My blog entries take days, sometimes weeks, to complete as I worry each sentence and paragraph into formation. But that's OK, because they are not time-dependent. Twitter is too fast for me.

I wish I could Twitter because there is something new and potentially transformative about this technology.

At first glance, Twitter looks like a cross between instant messaging (IM) and blogging. So it is difficult for newcomers to see where the innovation comes in. Although the technology itself is not revolutionary, Twitter is interesting because its usage model -- or potential usage models -- are innovatived.

Instant messaging is like stopping by someone's office for a quick chat: fast, interactive, intimate. Unlike email, which is much more like sending a letter and waiting for a response (or not), the presence information and immediacy of IM gives you the interactivity of real conversations. Blogging, on the other hand, is like posting a note on your office door. People may read it as they walk by, or anyone who comes to see you will see it. They may even scribble a response (i.e. comment) on it. This usage of blogs is far more public and yet still a personal style of interaction.

Twitter is just blogging in shorter, more frequent bursts. This speed and shortness (one line at a time) is what gives it its similarity to IM. But the broadcast mechanism (not targeting a specific individual and asynchronicity between writing and reading) is what makes it blog-like.

As I say, the technology itself is not innovative. You could use a regular blog for this purpose if you wanted to. But it is not the individual twitterer that is transformative.

Whereas IM is like a one-on-one conversation and blogging is like posting notes, Twitter is like the office watercooler, the coffee machine, the cafeteria table; wherever groups gather to chat and exchange the trivia of the day. What makes Twitter interesting is the collection of twitters around various topics, events, or pre-existing social groups. Twitter supports these communities (calls "blocks") to some extent and there are new hacks that make it usable on an event-by-event basis (such as eventtracker).

The ability to define the realm of twitters you follow and respond to those twitters creates a virtual meeting place with the type of interactivity and ease of use email, teleconferencing systems, and virtual worlds cannot match. Yes, there is significant confusion and cacophony. There is far more noise than signal. but quite frankly this is exactly what makes face-to-face meetings both enthralling and vital to the knitting of a social fabric among geographically dispersed individuals.

You don't choose your lunch companions because they will teach you something new. You choose them because they are fun to talk to, comfortable to be with, or just familiar. The fact that trivia and tiny fragments of information get shared in the grousing, joking, and storytelling that might end up being remembered and critical later on is the serendipity that is hard to reproduce in a less casual, chaotic environment.

It is this chaos of random facts that twitter reproduces and that makes it fascinating. In the public realm, the volume of twitters is almost intoxicating. As a mechanism to maintain the connectivity of random personal interactions, Twitter looks like a very attractive tool for organizations that are spread around geographically.

Unfortunately, despite all its potential, there are two possibly fatal flaws in Twitter.
  • As I said before, I can't Twitter. It is the same personality deficit which makes me hang back and not talk a lot during parties or at large group luncheons. I listen, I observe, but I tend to be much quieter than I am in one-on-one interactions (which is why I can IM but not Twitter). If I am not alone in this affliction, Twitter may only be useful to a certain personality type -- significantly reducing its potential usefulness as a group collaboration tool.
  • Despite its simplicity and ease of use, the twitters themselves have a techie feel that makes them look as cryptic as an IRC channel. The use of special characters and Twitter-specific references (to the posting application) puts off novices and occasional users. For example (picked at random):

@snbeach thanks! @Digimom ah, no, we had them remove the clothes before they delivered it.

Twitter is still in its infancy. The technical/presentation issues might be addressed as the service evolves. However, the social hurdles will be harder if not impossible to overcome. But daydreaming just a little bit, if someone could mix the intimacy of IM with the social context of twitter (and the ease of use of both), they might just come up with the next new killer app...

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