A small word, often misused by people who don’t see the appeal or use of what it represents. Twitter, as we should all know by now, is to social networking sites as Shadow of the Colossus is to action-adventure games. It strips away any clutter from the user interface, reducing the entire experience of sites like Facebook and MySpace to the main component of social networking: the status update.
Facebook is all about status updates. You update your status at your home page, while viewing other people’s updated statuses. Your status is automatically updated by various games, to let people know your status at FarmVille or Mob Wars. You can append pictures to your status updates, or links, to let people know what your updated status refers to. You add friends whose status updates you’d like to see on your home page when you sign in. You can comment on people’s status updates. You can update other people’s walls, where their status updates are published, with your own commentary, or parts of conversation. Facebook is useful for direct communication, this way. Traded status updates on each other’s personal pages.
MySpace also traffics in the status update. You update your status, which shows up on your friends’ home pages, as well as your personal one. Interpersonal communication is more complex to keep track of, and the site itself has been run-down with spam. If we accept Facebook as a simplified version of MySpace, then it can be further extrapolated that Twitter is both sites reduced to binary simplicity.
Every tweet is a status update. You follow people whose status updates you want to receive. Facebook trades in real friends, MySpace is home to low-to-mid level celebrities, Twitter is where the A-Listers hang. Of course, all three also have your friends and family among their members. On Twitter, you can receive status updates from your girlfriend, Friedrich Nietzsche, the director of Toy Story 3, Simon Pegg and Stephen Colbert all at the same time.
Twitter trades exclusively in numbers. Number of followers is displayed under your handle at all times. Number of people you follow is also always on display. It’s easiest to tell apart the accounts of real people who use Twitter often (their firm friends are the only people they follow), real people who don’t use it as more than a temporary distraction at times (hundreds of follows), and the writing staff of popular television shows (no follows, millions of followers). Numbers are used entirely to impress. MySpace went to hell when people started adding friends just to have friends. Facebook imposes a 5000 friend cap, to ensure that celebrities don’t gain fame by having “the most friends on Facebook”. It was recently news when a few A-listers had a competition to see who could have the most followers. We measure in millions, now. Makes my 17 followers seem pathetic, honestly.
So how is Twitter, a social networking site like a multi-vitamin is a four course meal, the root of all evil in the world today? The frank truth is, I have no idea.
I’ve heard it said that artificially limited communication is the start of the downfall of society. This has been said by my brother. My brother is a smart guy. If I’m Watson, he’s Holmes, though I flatter myself by aspiring to Watson. It should be said however, that when it comes to media, he has a very limited viewpoint. Specifically, when it comes to Twitter, he’s wrong. Sure, limits have been artificially imposed on communication in the making of the website, but what he fails to acknowledge (or at least has so far) is the use of Twitter as a tool to link to communicate unrestricted communication. You can use a personal account, not only to announce what you’re having for lunch, but to pass around an article on, say, the 9/11 healthcare bill. Or to use it as a free, uncluttered user interface announcement system for a personal site where again, you have unrestricted personal communication. Saying Twitter artificially restricts communication and is incapable of communicating ideas like the Communist Manifesto or Nineteen Eighty-Four is true, but saying that the internet does is patently false. Twitter’s utility is not in communicating the ideas themselves, but in bringing attention to them.
Twitter is also useful for another number of things. As I’ve mentioned previously, A-list celebrities are all over Twitter. They get the novelty of status updates that they can’t get through Facebook, as a million fakes have ruined their chances of being seen, or MySpace, as they don’t want to be seen as cheap D-listers. They get the ego boost of having over one million people reading their status updates about what they’re eating live. If they have a question, they have their own personal army of fact-finders at the ready for any query. When you have even a thousand fans, you have a thousand people with a thousand instances of Google and a thousand minds finding your one answer. If you have 1.7 million people at your disposal, like Wil Wheaton (that one kid actor from those couple of things you saw back in the 80’s), you can have any question answered, answered wittily and done in fewer than 140 characters almost immediately. You handpick the wittiest replies to your tweets, retweet them, then all of a sudden, one of your followers has his own following. This is incredible. Out of nowhere, a fan of yours has fans of their own, solely because you told over a million people that this person was capable of wit.
That last experience recently happened to me, although not to the scale of a Wil Wheaton fan. I didn’t get any followers out of the deal, though I did get the second most active day in my blog’s history. All of this is summed up in my article tibieryo and The Kleptones, the story of how I wrote a review of Shits & Giggles by The Kleptones, Eric Kleptone saw it and then told his fans about it. Eric Kleptone only saw it because I tweeted him to tell him that I’d reviewed it; his fans only saw it because he tweeted to let them know it existed.
Twitter. It’s everything at once through being nothing at all. Awesome.