January 27, 2009

Twitter is not fit for (my) purpose(s)

For people who aren't aware what Twitter is (and they must be few and far between after mentions from high-profile users Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross), it's a "micro-blogging" service. Users are given a box that they can type up to 140 characters in and nothing else, and can "Follow" other users to receive their "Tweets" on their own page. I myself have been a member for nearly 2 years now, and what started out as a bit of a novelty in the beginning has lately begun to get on my nerves.

Things you need to know about Twitter

  • There are a lot of users. Probably into the tes of millions at this point
  • Increasingly more celebrities are joining, and are goading other celebrities into doing it. As well as the aforementioned Fry and Ross, there are people such as Russell Brand joining in
  • Twitter is famous for its outages, usually because they happen when it's busy. Notoriously, it launched with a bad architecture and no suitable plan for scaling the service, and the "Fail Whale" (an image used on the error page) has its own cult.
  • Twitter is highly addictive (and I'm addicted)

Things that work really well

  • It's yet another step towards decentralised, social news. What started with blogging has been continued into micro-blogging (it's easy to "tweet" with a mobile phone and sites such as Twitpic allow you to send images to it and have them auto-twat). When the plane crashed into the Hudson River, a user took a picture and posted it to Twitpic almost immediately after it had happened, and this was run on a lot of news networks.
  • The concept of a very low-effort service works remarkably well. Having a Twitter stream that contains a stream of consciousness and cool links has basically zero effort, similar to updating a Facebook status.
  • Because so many people are on Twitter, there are usually people with similar interests to follow. I follow a lot of people in the Communications Office at the University (@tomabbott, @ellielovell, @lovelychaos, @jamiepotter, @juliapidgeon) because I like to hear what they're getting up to, and equally I follow some "power users" of the software I work on for the same reason.

Why it doesn't work for me

I like Twitter. I like to read my friends' thoughts, and what they're getting up to, and see interesting links that they post. I like this so much that I even wrote my own instant message program that gives me all the tweets my friends make and lets me reply to them. This works really well:


However, this isn't something that I should have had to do. The one rule of Twitter that has been proven true time and time again is what Twitter give, Twitter taketh away. When I started using Twitter, it had its own IM "bot" which you could subscribe to and get updates from, in exactly the same way (but with a little more functionality and not requiring me to run it on a server!), but they took it offline and it never came back. They also launched with SMS support - you could text Twitter a status update, and your friends could as well. This was taken away for the majority of world users (in the UK, you can send a status update but you can't receive anything) - making the service fairly useless without an Internet connection.

Another problem I have with Twitter is the rampant (and rapidly spreading) commercialisation of the concept of "tweets". Much in the same way as companies paid people to blog on their behalf back when it was "cool", companies have their own Twitter streams, and advertise seemingly under the noses of people. Stephen Fry, for example, generally comments about the latest piece of technology he's bought. If he gives it a good or bad review, that influences thousands upon thousands of people - this is fair enough, if you're trusting enough of Stephen Fry to respect his opinions. But what of this so-called "Twitterati"? These people are only famous through Twitter, and seem to be in an endingless arms race to get more "followers" so their messages can get through to more people. Digg's Kevin Rose posted a blog post on "10 ways to increase your Twitter followers" - a complete bastardisation of the entire concept of Twitter. The only reason to have more followers is ego massage or profit, and you can be sure that for a lot of people the second reason is the primary. Carsonified (who run technology conferences) launched a competition recently (and then rescinded it) which was a Twitter-backed glorified pyramid scheme; Tweet an advert for their conference and then force your friends to re-Tweet it, irritating just about everyone in your friend stream with a constant invasive advertisement. Whilst Carsonified is a company benevolent enough to admit they were wrong, what happens when Apple says "get 20 people to re-tweet a link to the new Macbook Air and you can win one"?

Recently there has been a rise in so called "Twestivals" - meetups between groups of "Tweeple". There's one in Birmingham in February that @ellielovell, @lovelychaos and others are busting guts to promote and help organise. I, myself am uneasy with the concept as a whole, and this is from the standpoint of someone who has helped organise and been to this kind of meetup of Internet communities before. They're actually great fun, people with similar interests come together and discuss seemingly random and sprawling topics. However, none of the meetups I organised ever had a sponsor, and none of them ever charged an entrance fee (which will go to charity). Also, isn't the whole point of Twitter that these people don't have common interests? Twitter have done a good job in making the service accessible to lots of people, so why not just throw a party - there's no reason to have it related to Twitter at all.

This also relates to the main problem that I have. For me, the whole concept of Twitter doesn't work at all. Whenever I go over following around 50 people, I drown in the amount of tweets and end up un-following people. This is because Twitter's biggest strength (its simplicity) is also, in my opinion, its biggest flaw in the lack of metadata. When I follow people, I don't want to follow everything, I just want to follow certain topics, or possibly exclude certain topics. When I follow @ellielovell, I want to hear pretty much everything because it's usually interesting, but I don't want to hear anything about Twestival because I'm not going. When I follow @ryancarson, I want to hear interesting technology snippets and commentary on the industry, but I'm not really all that bothered when he's down the pub. TweetEffect actually monitors the effect on the number of "followers" a person has based on their previous tweet - it's a little hard to follow but personal tweets tend to lead to a large downward trend in the number of followers, so I'm sure I'm not alone in wishing that I could exclude these tweets. The problem is the de facto method of "tagging" a tweet doesn't work because too few people know about it and it eats into your 140-character limit (plus, you can't "follow" a certain tag for a certain person). People get around this by having multiple Twitter accounts occasionally, but usually not, and this isn't really a solution. The reason I don't follow more than 50 people at once is simply because the whole concept of Twitter means that I can't.

Anyway, I'm off to Tweet about this blog post. I'm not sure whether I'm ranting about Twitter, or whether I'm just disappointed that I don't think the concept fits my needs. I sometimes feel like I under-utilise the tools available on the Internet - I don't feel like Twitter is a suitable social network for me, like I don't feel that subscribing to RSS feeds in a feed reader is very useful. I only subscribe to 5 or 6 RSS feeds and I don't use a feed reader at all - I use Live Bookmarks in Firefox to get a current state of "What is the feed showing now?" - maybe I'm just Doing The Internet Wrong.

- 18 comments by 6 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Mathew Mannion

    Other things I could have mentioned (but didn’t):

    • Jonathan Ross is one of the most interesting people that actually use Twitter, but his Twitter stream is like watching whales knit
    • I have used several of the (many) applications out there to try and organise tweets into groups of people, and I don’t like any of them
    • I’ve not had enough caffeine today

    27 Jan 2009, 13:42

  2. I’ve started to become annoyed with Twitter too recently.
    When I followed only friends, I didn’t mind getting an instant message whenever someone twat. Since I’ve been following more and higher profile users, it tends to get annoying having twitter messages popup every few minutes.

    I was thinking of reviving my twitter IM bot, just so I can add features like a silent mode, or buffering all/certain users to reduce the number of IMs I receive

    27 Jan 2009, 14:02

  3. Steve Rumsby

    I think the original intention of Twitter was precisely that you saw everything that somebody twittered (or tweeted). The whole point was to make people’s everyday lives more visible to those that were interested, so you got to know them better. I didn’t get that at first, and found all the “here’s what I’m having for lunch” tweets irritating. I’d go looking for interesting people to follow, find them, and then not follow because of all the “I’m off to the pub” stuff. Eventually I changed my mind, because of two things.

    First, somebody said that Twitter was about “now”. You shouldn’t get too hung up on reading everything. That’s not the point. I didn’t want to miss anything so whenever I came back to Twitter I always went back to where I left off and started reading. It took too long. Yes, not reading everything partly undoes the “see everything they’re doing” aspect described above, but you do still see a lot of it. And I started getting interested in the details. Seeing a different side to people’s lives from the side you normally see, whether they are a celebrity (yes, I follow @Wossy, @stephenfry and others), a work colleague or a friend, is interesting. To me at least. Plus…

    TweetDeck makes following lots of people much easier. Divide them into groups and pay more attention to some groups than others. I have a column for people I really do want to keep up with (Warwick people and a few others), a column for other people and a column for Twitterbots (news feeds and similar). I read everything in the “Friends” column and don’t worry too much about the others. I’ll catch up if I have time but not otherwise. The only time this gets difficult is when I don’t have a PC to hand and I’m watching Twitter on my iPhone. There’s no iPhone version of TweetDeck yet, but it is coming soon supposedly.

    I still can’t imagine following thousands of people though. You’d just have to live with ignoring stuff. I’m currently following 185 and that’s easily manageable for me.

    So, I think that seeing everything somebody tweets is the point of Twitter. It may not be what you want, but there are ways to manage it. That might still not make it fit for your purpose, but that’s what it is. It can’t be all things to all people.

    I agree about the commercialisation of Twitter. I don’t think it works as well as they think it does, though. A lot of Twitter fans I follow simply have nothing to do with people who simply promote themselves and don’t engage. Twitter is about “joining the conversation” and people who don’t do that tend to get ignored. If you ignore such “people” (many of them are bots anyway) then they’ll eventually go away, and even if they don’t you won’t see what they’re posting so what’s the problem. The same for the people who are just collecting followers. I thought the same as you when I saw the “10 ways to increase your Twitter followers” article. That’s just not the point. That said, Twitter has to make money somehow. If it can get that money from people who in turn make money by using the service, and so I end up getting it for free, well I can live with that. I await with interest Twitter’s commercial plans – other than a paid subscription I don’t see how they’re going to do it.

    Twitter is still young. They’ve kept it simple and resisted the temptation to add stuff that will over complicate it, relying on others to layer extra functionality over the core service. TweetDeck and Twitpic are great examples of that. There’s some evolution to go, I’m sure, but that is best informed from use and I can’t yet see how Twitter will be used in a couple of years from now, so I can’t see how it should best be changed if at all. Give it time…

    I currently have 200 RSS feeds in Google Reader, for comparison, but I’m starting to cut that down. Some of it is getting duplicated via Twitterbots and I prefer to get things there.

    27 Jan 2009, 14:16

  4. Mathew Mannion

    First, somebody said that Twitter was about “now”. You shouldn’t get too hung up on reading everything.

    But I do get hung up on reading everything, because that’s my choice and that’s how I use Twitter. I don’t want to miss out on a cool link or something funny that someone has said. I’m not sure if that means I’m a freak or has got OCD or whatever, but if Twitter was simply interested in what was happening now then I’d stop using it simply because it wouldn’t serve that purpose.

    I mentioned above that TweekDeck doesn’t do it for me. I disagree on principal about having to install a program just to see what my friends have been getting up to, it’s a ludicrous waste of my time and, frankly, system resources. To get an instant message every now and again is fine with me – it sits there as a work necessity open already – to have a program that allows me to search Twitter and find new people… how is that any different to having Facebook open all day? I don’t have time to give that kind of effort to Twitter.

    I await with interest Twitter’s commercial plans – other than a paid subscription I don’t see how they’re going to do it.

    One of the points I don’t think I got across very well is that I agree with you that this is one of only two routes I think they can go down (the other being “sponsored tweets”) – Twitter give, Twitter taketh away.

    There’s some evolution to go, I’m sure

    Again, in my case, if Twitter evolved it wouldn’t be something I’d welcome. Twitter, for me, has regressed considerably from an available-anywhere service via IM and SMS to a service that’s only available on the web or on a specialised desktop application. If it wasn’t for some kind of pathological need to read everything that my friends are tweeting, I doubt that I would continue to use it – I’d pretty much given up with it before I wrote my IM bot as my history shows. I stick by my original comments that I believe the fundamental concept is flawed – but your statement that you have 200 RSS feeds shows that you have an almost polar opposite viewing behaviour on the Internet in comparison to myself – I use RSS feeds how you use Twitter, and vice-versa :)

    27 Jan 2009, 14:48

  5. Steve Rumsby

    But I do get hung up on reading everything

    Which is going to be a limiting factor in how many people you can follow. No getting around that. If you want to read everything it will take time, and you only have so much time to spend on Twitter (I find work keeps getting in the way:-). Either you follow people who don’t tweet too often or you don’t follow too many people. Being selective, as I do with TweetDeck groups, give you a mix of the two.

    I disagree on principal about having to install a program just to see what my friends have been getting up to

    You don’t want to install TweetDeck (or whatever) to read Twitter, but you do install an IM client? What’s the difference, in principle? It would certainly be easier if twitter.com/home had a nice tabbed interface with groups. Obviously the Twitter folks think their time is better spend elsewhere (like killing off the fail whale, perhaps). It is a work in progress after all. Your priorities might be different from theirs…

    If you want an alternative, try using Digsby as an IM client. It also talks to Twitter and shows you tweets as they come in, and lets you post. All without either keeping open a web page or having a twitter-specific app.

    I agree about the incoming txt updates. It was a shame when they went away.

    I use RSS feeds how you use Twitter, and vice-versa :)

    Interesting thought. Actually, the way I use RSS feeds is changing. Lots of people read RSS feeds in a single aggregated stream. I hated that and always read feeds one-by-one. I never liked the way that mixed everything up. Now that I’m used to a mixed-up twitter-stream I’m also getting used to a single mixed-up RSS stream. And so I don’t see that much difference any more between RSS and Twitter. I follow BBC news bots in Twitter and am unsubscribing from the RSS version. Putting everything into a single stream makes it easier to keep up! I’ve even considered creating a Twitter account, using twitterfeed to push all my RSS feeds into it, and following that to avoid the need for an RSS reader altogether!

    I do see your point, but even if the concept is flawed it seems to work for plenty of people. There must be something worthwhile in there. It may not be perfect, but it never will be perfect for everyone, and it is worth persevering with. In my opinion at least.

    As for the “monetisation” (I hate that word, if indeed it is a real word), this is actually my main problem with Twitter and all its related services. It is so far all free. A whole pile of money and resources is being spent on making it, twitpic, twitwall and all the others work, and work reliably. And none of us pay anything for any of them. That can’t go on, clearly. What’s going to happen when we have to pay. Clearly you wouldn’t. Would I? Not sure. Depends on how much. There are other “cloud” services in the same boat, of course. I can’t help feeling there’s a day coming soon when the could is going to come down and well all be surrounded by fog:-)

    27 Jan 2009, 15:21

  6. Mathew Mannion

    You don’t want to install TweetDeck (or whatever) to read Twitter, but you do install an IM client? What’s the difference, in principle?

    An IM client is an essential program on my computer, and I have no use for Digsby since my IM bot already shows me tweets (and implicitly logs them in my gmail account to let me search through them). Also doesn’t work on anything except Windows last time I looked, and since I’m only ever on OS X or Ubuntu that’s an issue :)

    27 Jan 2009, 15:31

  7. Steve Rumsby

    I have no use for Digsby since my IM bot already…

    You were complaining about having to write an IM bot, but when I offer an alternative you say you don’t need it because you have an IM bot. I see circles here…

    Admittedly the circle is broken by the Windows-only property of Digsby, but they are supposedly working on both Linux and MacOS (but they have been saying that for a while now, so who knows when it will actually happen).

    You also didn’t explain the difference in principle between installing an IM client and installing TweetDeck. Saying that the former is essential isn’t a principle. Why is it essential? Not that this is particularly critical to the point at hand – I’m just being argumentative now!!!

    27 Jan 2009, 15:42

  8. Mathew Mannion

    Why is it essential?

    It’s essential because without it Ellie wouldn’t be able to ask me Sitebuilder questions, and I’d have to walk across the room to answer support queries or give help to the support staff who are given a particularly technical question, as well as having to read out web links by hand :) An IM client has been on every machine I’ve used since the heydays of ICQ, Yahoo Messenger et al. circa 1996, I don’t think it’s a leap to suggest that using that solution is better than installing a separate program over which I have no control.

    In actuality I didn’t mind writing an IM bot so much. I’d written the Warwick Ask Bot previously which also uses XMPP, so I’m fairly well versed in the protocol and the libraries I used. A bit of playing with the Twitter API was actually quite fun :) It’s true that I could have used Digsby (was I a Windows user) for the same purpose. I do have a couple of features in the bot – one of the people I follow was constantly posting what music they were currently playing from blip.tv or something at some point, so I wrote a little bit of code to ignore those tweets – a feature not available in any other client I’ve used.

    27 Jan 2009, 15:53

  9. James Taylor

    I’m fortunate enough that I don’t really have THAT many tech savvy friends, who also use Twitter. Those that do tweet infrequently enough (every few days) that my feed is manageable. I guess it’s like anything really – if you end up adding hundreds of friends on Facebook you increase the amount of time you need to spend maintaining it all – otherwise you drown in stupid ‘Vampire invites’ or other such pointless nonsense. And Twitter is no different.

    I am following a few ‘celebs’ some of who are incredibly verbose but if it got to the point that I couldn’t keep up with what my friends were saying, they’d be the first to go – I don’t REALLY need to know (nor am I that interested in) what Kevin Rose or Wil Wheaton are chatting about in the grand scheme of things.

    28 Jan 2009, 08:51

  10. Steve Rumsby

    I’ve just discovered filttr.com. Might be worth a look.

    28 Jan 2009, 15:06

  11. Robert O'Toole

    I reckon that a microblogging service built for teaching would be really very useful. In fact i’ve investigated how this would help with the MA that I teach on – in which the students work quite independently, but need to give each other constant support, and get support just in time from the tutors.

    But the one thing it really should support is:

    I just want to follow certain topics, or possibly exclude certain topics

    ...proper keyword tagging of posts.

    And perhaps second in importance, including images, audio and video directly in the posts.

    Here’s a diagram: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/elearning/arts/research/futureplatforms/livearchiving/

    29 Jan 2009, 14:50

  12. Robert O'Toole

    It also has lots of potential as a kind of continuous back-channel that can be used during lectures and workshops.

    29 Jan 2009, 14:52

  13. Steve Rumsby

    Off and on for the last few months I’ve been thinking about how Twitter, or something Twitter-like, might be useful as an “enterprise” service. I always end up wanting to add extra functionality, like tagging and access control, and that always trips over Mannions’s Law. And as much as don’t like the answer, I have to admit he’s right.

    It is easy to think of stuff you could add to Twitter to make it work better in a more specialised situation. It is hard to do that and keep it Twitter, though. You might end up with something that is still useful, but it most likely won’t be Twitter. And unless there’s a compelling reason to use it, people won’t.

    29 Jan 2009, 15:06

  14. Robert O'Toole

    Twitter’s fine for twittering.

    But there’s a lot more potential to microblogging than 140 simple characters. And perhaps some very compelling reasons to explore the possibilities.

    30 Jan 2009, 13:58

  15. Steve Rumsby

    Depends on what you mean by “microblogging” I suppose. How much extra can you add to it before it stops being microblogging and turns into plain blogging?

    Just as a thought experiment, what if WarwickBlogs had a “quick entry” text box at the top of each blog (when viewed by the blog owner), with a “tags” box underneath and a “Post” button. That’s not so different from Twitter but with tags, and could allow Textile markup for embedded images etc. Might not be too difficult to implement either (he says, knowing he doesn’t have to do it!). No need for the 140 character limit either. Mixing “tweets” with normal blog posts in a single stream might, or might not, be desirable depending on usage, I suppose.

    Does the idea have any merit?

    30 Jan 2009, 14:49

  16. James Bateman

    I couldn’t agree more with Steves comments re: monetisation. Its just like facebook, which has become a commercial resource. We’ve just spent our way through $100+ of free advertising. How long till twitter goes the same way? Not long..

    I use twitter to publicise my blog entries from a blog at http://www.medicaleducator.co.uk/blog. Things like tinyurl.com make give the option of adding in lots of links. As a medical doctor, I’ve made quite a few useful contacts with this, and the automated posting onto twitter with 100+ targeted followers really gives your blog alot more exposure, which is why I think its great.

    The only problem is, its had so much coverage on the radio and TV recently that it will get clogged up with junk, something which is beginning to happen. Im getting 2-3 medical organisations following me per day, which is quite a lot.

    Anyone who’s interested my TwitterID is JamesBateman! I haven’t searched for Warwick Bods on there, but I know a few of the Masters Lecturers are on, which brings about more potential problems…

    06 Feb 2009, 16:32

  17. Robert O'Toole

    How much extra can you add to it before it stops being microblogging and turns into plain blogging?

    A tweet has no title. Or perhaps, its body is its title. Which is fine as a tweet.

    We could add the following, but retain the tweetiness of tweets:

    How short video or audio tweets?
    Images (actually in the tweet itself, rather than linked)?
    A really fast and simple way to keyword tag?
    Autogenerated geotags?
    The ability to collaboratively tweet – so a single tweet can belong to more than one person (students working together in a group).

    And then add a system that interprets that metadata to put a tweet into context – so for example, it knows what room you are in, what you are working on, what event you are in etc (and i mean as a pedagogical tool).

    Plus a smarter search tool.

    12 Feb 2009, 15:06

  18. Robert O'Toole

    And visualization tools that show tweets in context (geographical, semantic, timelines, social networks).

    That would be an awesome teaching tool.

    12 Feb 2009, 15:08

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