Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What I do and don't understand about Twitter

For a while, I didn't see the point of Twitter at all:

It seems like basically a blog service but with a word limit that's so restrictive that it's awkward to do links.

Or like IM without the spontaneity.

Or like Facebook's status updates without Facebook.

So, it's like a severely limited version of a bunch of other social media, with nothing extra to compensate? What's the point?
Since I wrote that, I've slowly started to see the point. It's sort of like IM but better: everyone's content gets merged together, so you can experience it as an ongoing stream rather than a discrete, private conversation. OK, that's nice.

But that's leaving something out: who is engaging in those conversations? Ideally, you'd be connected with huge numbers of friends on Twitter. Well, I know very few people who regularly use Twitter. Meanwhile, I'm on Facebook and have about 250 friends, which is not an unusually high number for Facebook. I'd be surprised if even 50 of them are on Twitter.

Why does that matter? Because Facebook already has a feature that's much like Twitter: you can write a "status" message at the top of your profile that will also temporarily show up on your friends' Facebook homepage. I think the Facebook status even has a more generous space limit than Twitter.

So here's the problem: let's assume I want to let people know what I'm doing -- say, making carrot-ginger soup (real example). Why would I post this to Twitter instead of Facebook? Even on the liberal assumption that 50 of my friends are on Twitter, that's just a tiny fraction of 250. So I can do the same thing on either site, but a lot more people will see it if I use Facebook.

A Slate article from yesterday gave an elaborate explanation of why Twitter isn't going to "kill Facebook." According to the article, Twitter has an edge because it gives users real-time content, right when it's posted, while Facebook manipulates the timing of its content. (The article then dismisses its own point by noting that Facebook is apparently going to overhaul the interface to be more like Twitter.) That may be good fodder for a Slate writer who needs to make a clever point in an article, but is that what's really going to determine whether Twitter "kills" Facebook (or Facebook "kills" Twitter)? I have to think most people choosing between the sites are going to care about the same thing I care about: how many people I'd want to be in contact with are using these sites?

Aside from all that, I have been warming up to Twitter. I see it as an alternative to Facebook for older people. Twitter might not make sense as an alternative to Facebook if you're in your 20s, but if you're over 40 or so, it allows you to partake in the joys of social media without having to figure out: "What's this Facebook thing all about?"

So I'll keep my account around, simply to stay in touch with interesting people who happen to be middle-aged. But it still seems pathetic next to Facebook.

Maybe that's why the mainstream media are so obsessed with Twitter. They're informed enough to know that social-networking websites are a big enough craze to be worth reporting on. And it's clear what the most important such site is right now: Facebook. But either they don't get Facebook or it's too complicated to try to explain how it works in the limited space of media soundbites.* Twitter, by contrast, is entirely based on simplicity and brevity, so it's easy to convey it to a mass audience and seem like you're tuned into what the kids are up to these days.

* Of course, if that's the reason, then you have to wonder: if the mainstream media aren't adept at explaining something as trivial as Facebook, can we trust them to report on complicated issues that are actually serious?

UPDATE: Follow-up post.


geoffrey t pan said...

You can have Twitter automatically update your Facebook status with your latest tweet.

John Althouse Cohen said...

So I've heard, but I have a couple problems with that.

First, I don't know how to do it. I Googled for it and looked at the Facebook Twitter app before I posted this blog post, and it wasn't apparent to me what I was supposed to do.

More fundamentally, though, the idea of cross-posting to 2 sites doesn't appeal to me. That would seem to make Twitter just like Facebook except without tons of features, which makes Twitter seem pointless. What's the motivation to regularly check in on 2 sites if they have the same content?

John Althouse Cohen said...

I thought of another reason I won't do whatever setting automatically turns your Facebook status and Twitter page into one-and-the-same.

I've been using Facebook for years. The format has always been "John is doing such-and-such."

I recently got a Twitter account, and it clearly does not use that format.

Now, I know Facebook just changed their interface so that you're not prompted to use the "John is ..." format while you're typing. But that's still what Facebook is to me.

In other words, not only does cross-posting to 2 sites seem pointless, but they don't call for the same content, so it wouldn't work anyway.