19 February 2009

"Twitter ye not"

Just a maintenance post, and a chance to get something off my chest about twitter.

People seem to be using it all wrong.

OK, I know that's hardly fair: there's no "right" way to use something like a messaging service. And I'm following some very inventive feeds using it in clever, non-obvious ways. But it's medium that leads people to become egomaniacal and arrogant (especially as their follower numbers mount - which I think causes a form of Messiah Complex). Let me give an example.

A well-known specialist journalist of my acquaintance is a heavy twitter user. He likes it so much, he's said in the past that it might replace, for him, email and RSS feeds as a means of staying in touch with his interest groups. But subscribing to his twitter feed has been a painful experience. (He's not the only culprit - I've unfollowed lots of people for the same reasons I've ditched his twitter feed.)

There are three huge problems. First, as a twitter fan, he uses an awful lot of twitter shorthand. For those of us not au fait with the jargon, that makes them impenetrable. (New tweet conventions seem to spring up every day - some obvious, others positively runic.) I think that's unforgivable for a journalist. As professional communicators, what we write should be clear, direct and concise. The 140 character limit on twitter rewards directness and conciseness - but it torpedoes clarity in many tweets.

SOLUTION: tweet a lot less. Blog more - where you can write to the right length, then perhaps use clear, plain english tweets to flag up new posts. (Note: this journalist blogs plenty and does tweet new blogs... in between screeds of unintelligible tweets that make my head hurt.)

Second, twitter is a broadcast medium. But it encourages person-to-person communication. The number and proportion of this journalist's tweets directed with the "@" sign to specific individuals is huge - and most of them are utterly uninteresting to me as a result. Because I'm only seeing part of the conversation - and have no interest in following everyone my colleague follows - the signal-to-noise ratio gets even worse.

SOLUTION: tweet a lot less. If the conversation is one-to-one, for god's sake email. If it's a relatively narrow interest group, why not go to a group or chat-room - try using this for hot topics: http://www.tinychat.com/. If you tweet, you tweet to all your followers, and it seems rude not to address them all in that case.

Third, twitter is an over-public medium. Think of the internet cloud as a giant pub. If I want to talk to someone I know quietly in the corner over a beer, I use email or IM. If a small group want to chat about football or politics, hugger-mugger in a booth, it's a chat-room or perhaps a comment thread. If I have something I want people to read, I might leave a flyer on the tables or in the loo - put up blog post or a web page. Twitter, however, is the equivalent of the bloke in the pub who won't leave you alone. He has to tell everyone he's ever met there exactly what he's been up to - IN A RATHER LOUD VOICE. And he'll often bore you with stories about conversations he's had with other people (often people he barely knows). He's slightly shouty and a bit of a boor and he thinks everyone really likes him. (Let's just be clear: I'm not saying my journalist friend is like that - just that heavy twitterers can come across that way.)

SOLUTION: tweet a lot less. Why not do it only when you have a very open question that anyone in the pub might be able to answer? Perhaps use it as an online equivalent of shouting "there's a fight in the street!" - a public service to those in the pub: clear, unambiguous, concise and useful. Then if someone rushes out with you to take a look, you can discuss the brawl one-to-one without annoying anyone else.

In short... tweet a lot less. I'd like to follow more people - I like people, lots of people have interesting things to share - but there's a limit to how many tweets I can plough through in a day. If that limit is, say 200, and everyone puts up 5 tweets, that's 40 people I can keep track of. If two people stink up Tweetdeck with 50 a day each, then my twitter population halves.

I still follow my journalist's blog entries via RSS. He's interesting, well-connected and informed. Articulate, even. But his twitter feed is dead to me. My favourite US political journo, now a White House correspondent, is next... unless she calms the frick down. (Sadly, her blog is less frequently updated.) An expert in global accounting also need to re-learn the value of email, IM and texting (especially when she's being flirtatious) or she's on the block. (Her RSS feed is good, thankfully).

As the late great Frankie Howerd might have said: "Twitter ye not!"


Dennis Howlett said...

I know who you're talking about Richard (ahem). I think it's important to understand that we're in a period of experimentation. Dave Winer wrote an interesting piece the other days where he talked about needing 2 forms of the medium: one for broadcast and one for specific groups.

The problem with chat is that it is ANO piece of technology that folk need to consider and what many of 'us' are doing is trying to pare back.

Don't under-estimate the real time value. I recently used Cover-it-Live, cross pollinating commentary in that environment to other media including Twitter. The experience was 'interesting' as I juggled 5 apps simultaneously in order to consolidate the 'feed' of information. However, the upside is that reach estimates suggest we were able to 'touch' close on 30,000 people. That's a huge level of amplification. The other day, the judicious if frequent use of Twitter allowed a colleague to amplify messages behind a cause that saw over 100K people congregate in 2 days and which saw a major company drawn into engagement on an issue of importance.

The better way to use Twitteresque services for specific groups is through a mediated channel. BUT - that doesn't exist except in the development labs of a project I am working on that will allow a mixing AND separation of public and user specific use cases.

Ultimately we live with the tools we have and it is perhaps a measure of Twitter's success that it has opened a door into a world that provides choices we never knew we had.

Speaking personally, I'd rather live with Twitter and without email than the other way around. Email is a huge time sink while Twitter is hugely efficient. In the process, I've pretty much abandoned RSS.

I'd suggest trying Tweetdeck. It helps keep Twitter messages ambient - as was the original intention.

Richard Young said...

Thanks for the views, Dennis - not least because you're playing with this (and related) stuff much more than me, so you're better informed about how it's maturing. Early days...

Tweekdeck has helped (been using for about three weeks), and having a decent client on my iPhone also makes a difference. But volume and relevance remain an issue. For me, Gmail has made a big difference to email as a time sink. Conversations, labels and the best darn spam filter out there (plus built-in chat and feeds) deliver a far higher hit-rate than Tweetdeck. And while Google Reader checked three times a day isn't "real-time", it's plenty fast enough for me to feel I'm on top of breaking issues and opinions.

So... while I don't dislike twitter, I like it best when it fills that gap between Gmail, RSS and IM - it has a niche for me, but that function degrades badly when the signal-to-noise ratio canters out of control.

Final point: what's the buzz about Gist? Looks like it might solve some of my problems, but the site is a little... opaque.