The Twitter Experience (So Far)

I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of months though and although I agree that sometimes it feels like it is totally overhyped, I still use it on a regular basis which must mean that I think it adds some value to my online life somehow. Could I live without it? Sure. Would I miss it a lot? Not sure, but probably not. Do I use it constantly? No. Do I think it is the bestest thing in the whole wide world? Absolutely not. Worth the hype? Nope. Totally amazing? Not really. Something that still needs some time until it’s fully evolved? Yep. Definitely.

I’d like to make this my major statement regarding Twitter on this very day: I don’t think Twitter is done yet. I think the foundation is there and now we’re going to watch this thing evolve and either go somewhere or die.

What makes Twitter special?
I still have a hard time at describing what really makes Twitter unique and not a mere replacement of something that’s already there. There’s probably always one service more that you can throw at me asking „Isn’t Twitter like that?“ So just let me explain how I think Twitter works:
Twitter allows me to throw short observations at the world in a way that is mainly monologic in nature. Dialogue is possible, but not necessary for Twitter to work. What I tweet, how I tweet and how often I tweet is up to me. I may subscribe to other people’s tweets and other people may subscribe to mine, but there’s no forced connection between the two.

How is that different from other services?
You could compare Twitter to blogs, and you’d immediately crash into the 140 characters thing. On the other side no-one’s stopping you from blogging in 140 character entries only. Plus, blogs for me are really about content and though time is an issue in terms of posts being written at a specific date in time and probably outdated by the time I read it, blog posts are usually made to stick a bit longer than a few days. Tweets go out of date fast. I myself don’t care what I tweeted last week. I do care what I wrote in my blog three years ago. I also put a lot more thought in my blog posts (even the shorter ones), re-checking them for typos and readability. I don’t do that for tweets. I also assume that a lot of bloggers share that attitude of weighing their content and trying to make their posts readable and relevant in one way or the other. I’m not saying that every blog post in every blog is important and has valuable value, but the general idea behind the two things is fundamentally different. I tweet about something that’s caught my attention right now, while it might have never ended up in my blog, because I wouldn’t be able to come up with more than two sentences for it.

Compare it to Skype then. Skype is a service where I sign up and you sign up and I can send you something and you can send me something and we can have a dialogue. But: Skype is conversational. It’s intended to chat (vocally or via writing). To be able to connect with you via Skype I need to find you (same on Twitter) and then you have to confirm that you want to talk to me. Plus, for Skype to work you have to use it at the same time. I could send you a message while you’re offline and you’d get it when you get back online and skype me back, but that’s not really how Skype works. Twitter shares the conversation aspect when it comes to direct messages and mentions, but that’s more like a side-effect and a nice additional feature.

In my opinion the service that comes closest to Twitter are tumblelogs. Tumblelogs share the subscribing factor (which could be compared to following on Twitter), the focus on short posts and the timeliness of the content (although tumblelog posts might still have relevance just like in blogs). The easiness of adds to the feeling that tumblelog posts don’t need to be carefully constructed. From this point of view, tumblelogs just like tweets is more like throwing stuff at the world without caring that much about whether the world actually thinks it matters.

How do I use Twitter?
I may not be the typical Twitter user, and I’d like to know how others are using it. I have about 25 followers and follow about the same number of people, which I guess is a very small number compared to the average Twitter user (or maybe not?). Out of these 25 people I follow, I know half in person. A lot of them are actually co-workers, the rest are real life or internet friends. Then there’s small number of people that I already „followed“ using blogs and whatnot on the internet, but who I do not personally know. The rest is basically „famous“ people, although the range goes from „pretty famous“ (e.g. Stephen Fry) to „geeky famous“ (e.g. Felicia Day) or even „developer famous“ (DevExpress’s Julian Bucknall). Who these people are that follow me other than those that know me, I have no idea. I don’t know who they are or why they are following me and where they know me from.

I tweet mostly what I would sum up as observations about whatever I just thought about. Sometimes I use mentions to reply to something someone else tweeted. Sometimes I post links or pictures. Sometimes I do what would qualify as status updates, which is what a lot of people (probably those that don’t use Twitter themselves) assume Twitter is really about, but I’d say this happens rarely. I might write „Going to bed now“, but probably only when it was really early or really late at night, so the timestamp actually would add another level of meaning. I’ve read plenty of tweets about people getting up, and the underlying message was often only clear when you considered the time they tweeted it (4 am compared to noon).

I could totally live without Twitter. I don’t really think I would miss it and I don’t care for it the same way I care about blogs. However there have been a few examples very recently that made me think about what I think Twitter is actually really useful for.

What can you use Twitter for? Like, really.
Example no. 1: A few days ago a co-worker asked me to bring some new episodes of Dollhouse. I told him I would try to remember and failed. Repeatedly. Then the day came when he was worried about a long boring weekend to come up and asked me again to please provide him with un-boring stuff to get him through the weekend. I told him I’d try to remember it and he said he’d just twitter it. And he did. The nifty thing here was that all the advantages of Twitter made it the ideal tool. The message was also totally unobstrusive. If I hadn’t read it, no biggie. It was just a tweet, no more. E-mail or Skype would have been a lot more attention-seeking and put a lot more social pressure on me. Twitter matched the importance of the request. If I had forgotten it again, despite getting a mail, I would have felt like it was my fault. With Twitter we were both accepting the risk of me forgetting it, but it was okay.

(Failed) Example no. 2: A few nights ago there was a fire close to where we live. We actually walked down there, not for the thrill, but because it was worrying to see and smell smoke and we wanted to get an idea about what was happening and how close it was to where we live. The next morning I tried to find out what actually happened and after the local newspaper didn’t help me I tried Twitter search. In this case it didn’t work either. Apparently the event was not interesting enough and/or no-one using Twitter was living anywhere close. However, by doing this, I realized that for a lot of cases this is a good use case. Something happened, search for it and use that as you starting point for further research. Sure, information on Twitter can be horribly incorrect, but chances are you’ve got a good base on which to build on. Plus, information on Twitter is likely to be more up to date. If I consider myself an example, I would have waited until the evening to blog about the fire, but I would have tweeted about it right in the morning (if not the same night coming home). As it turns out, I didn’t do either.

Where could Twitter go?
I honestly have no idea where exactly Twitter could go, but I have a few more general ideas about useful features. Twitter is good as a newsticker. You can’t take anything for a fact, but it’s the internet, so you should be used to the concept of questioning the sources. Twitter is good for unobtrusive messages not directed at anyone particulary but also not actually worth a blog post. I do admit that in most cases to use Twitter you need to have a tiny attention whore in your heart, just like I do. Don’t deny that you do, too. The tweets I like most are those witty obscure comments on… well, anything basically.

One of the other use cases I see is active information seeking. You have a problem, type it in and see whether someone of your followers reacts. You don’t direct the question to anyone in particular. Maybe the problem isn’t important enough and if there’s no reaction you just solve it yourself or let it be. Maybe you just don’t know who could know the answer, but you guess that someone in your list of followers might. Maybe this is just another channel to use while blogging about it and sending out emails to someone else at the same time.

The thing I like most about Twitter is that it doesn’t carry the same social pressure with it that a lot of other services do. I simply hate the awkward dance you sometimes experience on Skype when no-one seems to be sure whether they’re expected to say something more. (You know, like „Have a nice day“ -„Well, you too.“ -„I will.“ -„Bye then.“ -„Bye.“ -[some smiley] -[another smiley]. The actual problem has been solved long ago and then you have a long list of unimportant mutterings just to ensure politeness.) I hate that I feel bad when I ignore someone contacting me on Skype because although I’m at my computer I just don’t have the time to talk about something completely different. Both email and Skype still have this social aspect of asking for a reaction, leaving you with a bad conscience when you don’t. Twitter is the service right now that feels like you can do with it whatever damn you please, because nobody’s expecting anything from you.

And that last thing might be what could save Twitter a good and prominent spot in the web world. Because it really does offer a unique way of communication, blending a few characteristics of existing services and adding its own flavor. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Also, don’t believe the hype. But don’t assume that you know what it does and can do, because you’re probably wrong.