Digital Media, Web/Tech

The Genius of Twitter

It was fun to watch so many people rush to talk about Facebook this past week… on Twitter.

There was a delicious irony in that, of course, but it also provoked an underlying and important question: why do we take to Twitter to talk about Facebook and Google+ and everything else? Why not use those platforms for that discussion?

Twitter’s appeal is hard to pin down, and most often we resort to these answers: that it’s real-time, simple, asymmetrical (with following/follower relationships), or that it’s perfectly tailored to mobile usage.

I think there is an even more fundamental explanation, one that lies at the very core of the service  — Twitter is egalitarian (hat tip to my pal Om for providing that perfect word in discussing this point this morning). We stand on equal footing on Twitter; each tweet looks the same, is of similar length, occupies the same number of pixels. The literal design and UI of Twitter creates the appearance of  talking to each other and with one another as equals.

Compare that to Facebook and Google+, which compel us to use nested comments to have a discussion. If Om posts something on Facebook or Google+, I can comment on his post — but my thoughts are portrayed to the world as subordinate to Om’s. The layout echoes the more hierarchical relationship between a publisher and its readers ; my comment is not presented as an equal to Om’s original post, it’s presented as an homage.*

So we all take to Twitter to talk about Facebook because it’s the one place where we feel like our voice is equal to everyone else’s.

Twitter has been counted out by a lot of folks in the past month or so (with the launch of Google+ and the updates for Facebook). Many have complained that Twitter has failed to innovate. I don’t know how or why it has remained so fundamentally unchanged these past five years, but I like to think that obstinate insistence on keeping the service pure, simple — indeed, egalitarian — is the genius of Twitter.

* The nested comment format is, however, perfect for a response to a friend. Indeed, an homage is exactly what we intend in that instance.

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