Twitter started in the summer of 2006 — eons ago in tech time — but I’ve been ignoring it until recently. I’ll spare you my excuses/reasons/justifications. I could say that novel technologies need time to find their niche; people need time to learn their good and bad points. The real answer is probably sloth. Now that Twitter is a well-established technology used by millions, I’m attempting to answer (for myself at least) two questions: “What is it, exactly?” and “What is it good for?” If you’ve been similarly slow to jump on the Twitter bandwagon — or you struggle to come up with any reason why you should — you may have asked those questions yourself.

So far, here’s what I’ve learned.

1: Twitter is not a PC function ported to the cell phone — it’s the reverse

We’re used to seeing computers applied to devices like cars, TVs, microwaves, and phones, with the aim of improving their functionality or performance, but in the case of Twitter the direction is reversed. It’s not the computerization of the cell phone (that would be the smartphone) but a “cell phoning” of the PC, which brings the existing world of cell phone interactions to the computer. As a result, Twitter gets some of its characteristics from cell phones and some from personal computers.

2: Like the cell phone, Twitter is designed to be “always on”

The mobility and simplicity of cell phones make tweeting very convenient, which leads to Twitter being always on — worldwide, and up all night. The old metaphor for the Web of “drinking from a fire hose” is far more appropriate here. Although the Web may be overwhelming at times, it changes relatively slowly. Twitter is constantly updating in real time, a thousand conversations happening at once. The flow is rapid and relentless.

3: Welcome to the party… here’s your blindfold

Twitter is like an everlasting cocktail party… in a Very Big Room. However, like a phone conversation, Twitter lacks any real-time visual or spatial cues. In a physical room, people are distributed in space –near or far from you, more or less audible, visibly grouped or alone. You can see when people are talking together, flirting, arguing, or looking bored. You can see how individuals are dressed and how they behave, and you can use that information to decide whether to talk to them. On Twitter, though, people at the party are reduced to voices and hidden from view. You can’t even tell when they enter or leave. It’s like a telephone party line, but with some aspects of a PC chat room.

4: “I can’t see you, but I can follow you” (or organized eavesdropping)

Twitter includes a couple of methods to compensate for the absence of a spatial dimension. User-created hashtags organize discussions by topic — although there’s no central list of topics, few hashtags are ever defined, and no attempt is made to avoid duplication or crossover between them. The web of “following” relationships also helps, showing you who thinks who is interesting… although not why, or how much. Following is also lopsided. I’m interested in you, but you (initially at least) don’t even know me. It’s less like a conversation, more like organized eavesdropping.

5: Twitter is public and on the record

It can be tempting to take the rapid back-and-forth of a Twitter exchange as a normal, casual conversation, but it’s not. Face-to-face or telephone interactions are ephemeral. Whatever is done or said quickly vanishes, except in the memories of the participants — which are neither perfect nor public.

Twitter (inheriting from the PC) is a written record, kept indefinitely, available to anyone who’s interested. In fact, it’s promptly broadcast and, like any broadcast medium, there’s no audience control. When you tweet, you don’t get to select who reads you. That combination of recording and broadcasting provides numerous opportunities to get embarrassed by something you said. Twitter encourages you to respond quickly, never forgets what you said, and happily passes it along to friends and enemies alike. Painless tweeting can be tricky.

6: Twitter is particularly vulnerable to entropy — e.g., cryptic URLs

Entropy has been described as the loss of information, and entropy rules on Twitter. There’s just not much room to express yourself, so everything gets squeezed. The 140-character message limit (a function of current cell phone technology) means that a standard URL eats up a lot of space — hence the use of URL shorteners. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the shortened version to indicate the Web site or Web page you’re going to. Clicking a link in Twitter might take you to a New York Times article… or it might not. Information that was in the URL has vanished. It’s not irretrievable, though. If you’re willing to step outside Twitter, there are a number of “unshortening” options, such as Unshorten.It, a Web site and browser add-on.

7: Much of the conversation on Twitter is just pointers

That 140-character limit makes conversation difficult unless the context is mutually understood, and that leads to an abundance of links. Links connect you to Web pages, pictures, or video intended to provide the context. It’s as if everyone at the party were limited to talking about something outside — “Hey, look at that!” “Oh, look at that!” Much of Twitter is just incomprehensible unless you follow those mystery links to see what people are talking about. In a sense, Twitter’s less a conversation than a search engine, continually generating a list of links to what someone thinks is interesting or important.

8: Twitter is good for getting timely information to a specific interest group

The other way of dealing with Twitter’s message length is to rely on shared context, as between close friends or a group with shared interests. Less needs to be said; more can be assumed. It doesn’t always work, though. If the problem is too small to cause a stir on Twitter, you’re out of luck. On the other hand, if the entire West Coast is having connection problems, any helpful information tends to be drowned out by repeated inquiries, irrelevant information, and complaints. When everybody at the party is talking about the same thing at the same time, it’s pretty hard to make sense of it even if you do know the topic.

9: Did I mention lack of context?

It’s hard to provide context on Twitter. Visual and spatial cues are missing; Web sites, pictures, and videos pull you out of the conversation; and verbal context is limited to 140 characters. It takes time and effort to provide context, whereas Twitter’s speed encourages a quick response. And lack of context is a serious problem — it leads to misunderstanding, confusion, and the temptation to click on something else instead.

On October 6, 2012, I noticed that #tomastranstromer was near the top of the trends list, and I wondered what it was about. Many of the tweets in that category were not in English, which didn’t help. Others seemed to be about writing, and a fair number were references to Transformers (the movie was just out at the time). Nowhere did I see, “Swedish writer Tomas Transtromer has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.” I had to go to a Web site to learn that. Admittedly, if I had been watching Twitter at the moment the award was announced, I would probably have seen that context. But if you come in late to the conversation — a few hours is sufficient — the context can be hard to uncover. Even major news gets swept away by the current. The “Invisible Children” video about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, which accumulated 85 million hits on YouTube, stayed in the Top Ten trends for only three days. It was headed into Twitter oblivion before most of the Unplugged had heard about it.

To its credit, Twitter recognized the context problem, and its “#discover” mode now provides internal context — the trail of tweets, responses, and retweets that led up to the tweet you’re looking at. External context, though, is still often missing.

10: Timing is everything

If Twitter has one thing going for it, it’s timeliness. But that timeliness puts a burden on the user, in reading and in tweeting. It’s important to tweet at the right time of day, assuming you want to reach the largest audience. Tweeting at noon Eastern (4 PM GMT) works for the Americas, Europe, Africa, and India, but people in China, Japan, and Australasia are probably asleep.  A tweet at 8 PM Eastern (12 AM GMT) is good for them, but not Europe. Frequency is also important. According to experts, if you want to be a presence on Twitter, your “tweets per day” ratio should be at least 10. My own ratio is less than one. I wonder if there’s any place on Twitter for the fractional tweeter?

TechRepublic’s 2011 list 100+ geeks to follow on Twitter has Stephen Hawking as #1. He’s clearly interesting, but following him is not like following other people on that list. Stephen Hawking has made a grand total of 43 tweets — and none since January 2010. And yet despite being another fractional tweeter, he has well over 166,000 followers, more than 3,000 per tweet. Perhaps all is not lost for the Twitter user who doesn’t keep up.

Upsides, downsides

Twitter is sui generis, unique, a hybrid of cell phone and PC technology. Like all technologies, it has its good and bad aspects. On the upside, there’s no faster way to find out about things happening now. It’s also a useful cross-network white pages directory… and it’s a terrific distraction. On the downside, you have little audience control, the information is disjointed and lacks context (less so in #discover mode), and topics roll by at an alarming speed. Timeliness may not always be a virtue. Not everything that is new is important; not everything that is important is new. Some things benefit from time to research or time to consider.

I’ll keep going back to Twitter, though. There’s nothing else quite like it, even if so far I’m just a wallflower at the party. Feel free to give me a clue, if I don’t seem to have one. You can find me on Twitter, @GGSloth.

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