What's the point of Twitter?

February 26, 2008 By: erik Category: Internet, Musings, Reviews 2,280 views

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First, a quick follow-up on my previous post in the “What’s the point?” series about Facebook. I’ve ceased to log into Facebook on any sort of regular basis. The same “you gotta sign up to see it” philosophy that I praised as clever now strikes me as the most repulsive element of its design. I’m continually notified that some friend or another has installed some Facebook “application” on their homepage, but when I click the inviting link to see what it’s about, I have to agree to give the people that wrote the application some amount of my personal data. Screw that.

Strangely, the part of Facebook that I found to be initially the dumbest, the “what are you doing right now?” status, was the part that kept me logging in. And this is exactly the “problem” that Twitter hails itself as the solution to. So what the heck is Twitter, you ask?

According to their main page,

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

To me, this sounds like the dumbest thing in the world. Why would I go to a website and enter “Preparing pork chops for dinner”, and broadcast that to the world? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Nor would I repeatedly go hit refresh on a web page to see what my friends are moaning about right now.

For me, what makes Twitter work at all is the XMPP interface. That’s geek talk for “it can be plugged into almost any instant messaging (i.e. chat) program”. What does this do for Twitter? It makes it so that, whenever a friend posts a new message to Twitter, I get box that pops up and a sound just like if they had sent me an instant message. And I can respond just like if I was responding to an instant message. This is huge. I never have to actually go to Twitter’s website or see any ads (there aren’t any yet, but there will be). And it was using Twitter in this way that finally allowed me to “get it”.

After using Twitter, off and on, for a couple weeks now. I’ve finally figured out how to think about it, and it’s made all the difference. Think about this next sentence:

Twitter is to instant messaging what blogging is to email.

Blogging, to me, is about sharing thoughts and events and photos and adventures with lots of people I care about, and that care about me. When I want to tell my family and friends about what I did last weekend, I can either A) write a personalized email to each of them, B) write one email and send it to all of them, or C) write a blog entry about it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when people presume, by sending me an email, that I will be interested in a long, detailed account of what they did yesterday. And I know that, back when method B was the way to disseminate personal stories, some of my recipients must have been annoyed. What I love about blogging is the open, unforced nature of it. The pressure to read and respond to a blog entry is much lower than that of an email. I have some uncles that read every word I post here, and I have others that just aren’t that interested. And that’s fine. What blogging does is put that exclusion or inclusion in their hands, and not in mine, when filling the email recipient list.

We’re getting back to Twitter, but we’ve got one more stop to make. I’ve got some friends with whom I exchange a lot of urls via email. Some emails contain nothing more in the body than a url, and they get responded to with a one-line comment. I’ve received emails where the entire content of the email was “LOL!” If you don’t know what that means, stop reading now, because Twitter is not for you. This is actually a slight abuse of email as a communication platform. I have other friends that use the proper platform for such messages: instant messaging. Instant messaging is like email, but faster, with less detail. Messages like “Hey, check this out!” or “Did you take the dog to the vet?” or “Dinner is at 7:00, right?” shouldn’t require sending an entire email message. Instant messaging solves this problem perfectly.

But what if I have a url or a general gripe about the lines at the post office the world that I’d, ideally, like to send to 5 or 6 friends, with the same “you don’t have to respond if you don’t want to” freedom that I get from blogging? THAT is what Twitter is for. People that care about my day-to-day griping or meme proliferation can subscribe to (“follow” in Twitter terminology) my Twitter feed and get updates sent to them in their instant messaging programs, or any other variety of methods, whenever I post something. And no one else has to know or care. Like with blogging, the burden of who gets informed is taken off of me.

And that…is the point of Twitter. QED.

For those of you that either don’t want to sign up or are still living life without RSS feeds, I’ve placed my most recent Twitter messages on my sidebar. To get to the urls, you’ll have to click on the “time ago” link to go to Twitter’s website and then click on the url. Or you can always follow all my messages on my Twitter homepage.

  • Makes sense. Doesn’t make me any more likely to use it, but at least I see the point now. I’ve pretty much given up on Facebook too. And you hit the nail on the head about why blogging is better than emailing.

    • Couldn’t agree more with you, bud. Biggest waste of your life, but yet people still tweet their sweet asses off.

  • You perfectly encapsulated my major objection to Facebook, and you also perfectly encapsulated what I like about Twitter.

    I do wonder why some people sign up to follow me though. It’s one thing for you, Sgazzetti, Andrea and me (for example) to respond back and forth to each other @twitter but it is another thing entirely for people I don’t know to follow me, and some are. Why? Some of them are people who are just trying to rack up a whole bunch of Twitter contacts…which doesn’t make any sense to me at all; others genuinely seem to want to keep up with my twittering and I don’t get it since most of it is without any context or cleverness whatsoever.

  • Thank you both for your kind words of nail hitting and encapsulation.

    Jane, you know how you had doubts about whether or not we should talk about Simon behind his back on Twitter? I think we’re in the clear now.

    • The question that i have for everyone on this website is nothing other than this (and please respond honestly): Why, on God’s green Earth, would i want to know what in the hell you, my friend, his friend, his mother is doing at that precise moment? I mean people ”Tweet” some of the dumbest shit ever. To me when i read that someone is telling the world, “Going to movies, chilling, bed” that i’m a whole lot dumber for having known your schedule (lol). Not to mention, Twitter is no where near as popular as Facebook is and nor as cool. However, people still waste their lives ”Tweeting” their asses off about nonsense that no one in the world cares about, simply to seek out attention.

  • Heather

    They have a club now on Facebook that is anti applications, I joined it……….

  • Once again, I am on the outside, with my nose pressed against the glass, gazing longingly at all the cool people inside and dreaming of joining them…

  • I finally get it! I’ve been wondering for a while now, so thanks!

  • Okay, so now you’ve made me think of a wonderful idea to keep in touch with family better than I am now.

    I like the idea of integration!!

    So it’s possible to a) use my IM client to post twitter updates and b) have my family get them via their IM OR SMS right? and c) they can reply to it from SMS or IM just as if they sent an IM or SMS??

    If all three of those can be answered “yes” then I think I’ll give twitter another chance. Thanks for the hope!

  • Spreadsheet Ninja, I’m afraid that Twitter has removed Jabber (IM) support since I posted this. And they have removed SMS notification for Europe (since the only cost of SMS in Europe is to the sender and all that was falling on Twitter). But you can still post tweets via SMS in Europe.

    There are, however, pretty nice IM-like clients. I use Twitterific on my Mac and iPhone. You don’t get notification immediately on the iPhone yet, but if Apple ever turns on the “push” connection for all apps, then it should work.

    So if we remove “IM” from all your questions and assume you are in the United States, the answers are A) no, B) yes, and C) yes.

    Another benefit I’m seeing lately is integration with Facebook. I have lots of people that don’t bother with Twitter, but, for whatever reason, check Facebook constantly (I’m the exact opposite). And now they can all see my Twitter status.

  • jenn

    a point to twitter! and a good one, too. the ‘plain english’ video did not prove anything to me, but your comparison between blogging and emailing are spot on.

  • Steve

    its a pointless exercise… and thats why it succeeds, because its about ‘dead bang on’ the level of most peoples intellect nowadays.

    And given the number of Attention Deficit Disorder cases out there, its about the right text length, before they get bored and move on…

    God help us all. (that actually would fit, pity no-one says it)

  • One man’s analogy is just one man’s.
    To me, twitter is to blogs as blogs are to magazines: shorter, condensed summaries.
    I still don’t give a damn if you’re cooking Porkchops. But if I find you interesting, then I do want to know what you’re reading lately.
    To me, that is the real point of twitter, and why I don’t mind following 500.

  • ‘But what if I have a url or a general gripe about the lines at the post office
    the world that I\’d, ideally, like to send to 5 or 6 friends, with the
    same “you don\’t have to respond if you don\’t want to” freedom that I get
    from blogging?’

    But you can send these by email. You say ‘Messages like “Hey, check this out!” or “Did you take the dog to the
    vet?” or “Dinner is at 7:00, right?” shouldn\’t require sending an entire
    email message.’ Why on earth not? Besides, if you then decide you need to append a description of how to find the pub where you’re having dinner, or what the dog has eaten since he fell ill, you’re not restricted by Twitter’s stupid character limit.