Internet, Startups

Why We Tweet: A Theory

In my last post here, I suggested that Twitter-cum-phenomenon was starting to feel like the Florida real estate market circa 2005 (hype growth of the service far outstripping the substantive value it provides). Given that Oprah focused her show on Twitter yesterday, I thought I should follow up that last post by trying to unpack the riddle of Twitter’s appeal.

Dave Winer wrote this on Scripting.com earlier in the week:

I read Farhad Manjoo’s piece in Slate about Twitter. It’s the best of a class of commentary that says that Twitter is something you can skip if you aren’t interested in periodic 140-character reports on mundane people’s lives. As I read the piece it made sense, so I was left wondering why I was and still am attracted to Twitter and use it, daily.

I set up my first Twitter account (one of 5-6) back in September 2006. It had just launched, but geeks here in San Francisco were talking and blogging about it. I have been an on, then off, then on-again Twitterer, and have asked the same question regularly: “Why am I here? What am I really getting out of this?”

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The Twitter team’s web craft (by that, I mean the art of building a seductive and usable service) was what initially attracted me. It has always been a joy to use and is impressively made, in a million very subtle ways.  Understanding what they’ve done well I think helps us to understand the appeal the service has had, even when so many of us have so often said: “I don’t get it.”

Here are the things I’ve particularly admired as a fellow web crafter:

1. Asynchronous Following

At the time Twitter launched, the canonical social media approach was “friending” — a reciprocal relationship. Myspace, Flickr, Facebook, and dozens of other imitative social networks required (and still require, in many cases) this form of relationship. The requirement of reciprocity can feel restrictive, confining, claustrophobic and artificial all at once. Twitter picked the lock on this — first, with a hybridized approach of “friending” and “following” (like subscribing to a blog feed, but in a way that feels much more personal), and then abandoned “friending” altogether.

Asynchronous following allowed Twitter to become a publishing platform, but with the ease and intimacy of a communications service. Celebrities and others could use Twitter to broadcast to their fans and followers, with hardly any effort at all.  Ashton Kutcher can have over a million followers because there is no reciprocity — he doesn’t have to follow them back. And it has allowed those 1 million + Twitterers who follow Kutcher get to indulge in one of the web’s guilty pleasures — lurking and stalking, with a crafty and weird combination of both anonymity (“I’m one of a million, Ashton can’t tell I read that Tweet”) and intimacy (“I’m listed as one of Ashton’s followers!”).

2.  Ease-of-use and the 140-Character Limit

Novelists often talk about the tyranny of a blank piece of paper. That same terror probably keeps blogging from becoming a more popular. Writing is damned hard, it takes time and effort, you have to be committed. Twitter, by sticking hard to the 140-character limit in order to inter-operate with SMS, instantly solved that problem (I don’t think that was a lucky accident; after all Ev and Biz built blogger and saw first-hand the hurdles in front of bloggers).

Suddenly you could publish publicly on the web with less effort than it takes to write an e-mail. The short-form limitation took the pressure off, and leveled the playing field. Yeats, were he on Twitter, wouldn’t necessarily Tweet better than you or I.

3. The Feeling That You’re Not Alone

Last — and for me, by far, most crucially and impressively — were the simple ways the Twitter team visually articulated the notion of “following” on Twitter.  The co-mingling of Tweets you write with those from people you follow was an absolute stroke of genius. It gives the appearance — an illusion, perhaps — that someone is out there paying attention.

It’s instructive to think about this in comparison to blogging. I am typing this post from my very trusty and capable WordPress.com dashboard. To my left and my right are every command and tool I might need as a publisher. But when I hit the publish button, I’ve not a clue that anyone will read this. It goes out to the ether, to a WordPress.com server, and then sits inert in the form of a web page that may or may not ever be seen.

Contrast that to Twitter. Whether I’m writing a Tweet from a client like Tweetdeck or Twhirl, or Twitter.com, not a publishing tool in sight. But I’m surrounded by people. Tweets from people I follow. As soon as I hit enter, my tweet is right there in the stream. I know, intuitively, that people will probably read my Tweet; after all, staring me in the face are short messages from the people I follow. Maybe a few of my 300-odd followers will read what I’ve had to say.

I hadn’t thought about the contrast with the actual act and process of blogging until this past week. And, in the end, this contrast solves the riddle for me.

This UI, and the publishing mechanics of Twitter, are not technical innovations; they are psychological ones.  They give you the visceral feeling that someone out there is listening, that someone is paying attention to you.  Inventions from the community — like the use of “@” for replies, and retweets, have simply reinforced all that.

You don’t get that from blogging –  the notion of an audience feels more abstract; your readers more distant; the perception that you are being heard more attenuated.

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In the end, we’re left with a paradox or two. The act of Twittering  sustains — people Tweet because it’s easy, and it gives them the appearance someone is out there, listening. But the substantive value of these Tweets for readers is at best debatable.

The act of blogging feels isolated, silo’d, lonely even — at least compared to Twitter. But the substantive results from blogging can be impressive, useful, even life-changing for the reader.

UPDATE: Virginia Heffernan has an interesting take on Twitter in tomorrow’s NY Times magazine.

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