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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.

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I’m a Web Developer in e-lab, part of IT Services at the University of Warwick.

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