Thursday, May 21, 2009

Twitter: Good or Evil (or Irrelevant or Same ol')?

Everyone seems to be talking about and using Twitter these days (I'm not on it and have no plans to join in the immediate future). It seems as though Twitter is the newest wave of social media hype, for better or for worse. If you cut through the frenzied enthusiasm about Twitter, however, you get a picture of a service that is just another method of communication, with all the positives and negatives that that provides (albeit with a unique short-message twist).

Twitter has proven itself as one of a number of social media platforms that can be used to report breaking news events faster than traditional news reporters can arrive on the scene. The most important and striking example of this was the coverage of the Mumbai Terror Attacks. Other sites, notably Wikipedia and Flickr, also contained up-to-the-minute details of the attack that mainstream media sites such as CNN cribbed for their stories on the incident. Twitter has also been used by activists to organize and rapidly disseminate information. Consider reporters in Egypt that were able to alert colleagues to their arrest via Twitter. Others recently mounted a campaign to expose's system that placed gay and lesbian-related items lower in the site rankings.

But Twitter not only has the power to educate and organize, it also has the power to misinform. Consider the recent swine flu panic: Twitter users reacted to the global scare by essentially amplifying the pig paranoia rather than providing any useful information about the disease. The 'social' factor of Twitter exacerbates this phenomena: often users post not to communicate substance, but to fit in. The result is a hysterical echo chamber of misinformation. (In fact, the author of the linked Foreign Policy article speculates that Twitter would be a very good medium for someone who wanted to intentionally incite fear in the populace.) Valleywag nicely summarizes this point: "What Twitter actually does is inflate problems out of all proportion, as Twitterers noisily tweet about how with it, on it, and over it they all are, repeating each other's messages without adding anything of value. Any [person looking to inform themselves] would go mad long before he extracted useful information." The desire of many Twitter users to be on the cutting edge of news also enhances their gullibility, and the lack of context inherent in 140 character posts makes it much easier to pull the wool over a reader's eyes. Twitter users fell for the faux news items of Patrick Swaze's death and nefarious items snuck into Obama's stimulus package, to cite only two examples.

The fact that entries on Twitter are limited to 140 characters apiece makes it difficult to convey much useful insight in one post. Many use Twitter for precisely that reason -- they have little or nothing to say. Glenn Greenwald nails it: "About Twitter messages, John says 'they all read like cell phone text messages between 12 year olds,' and indeed, the only purpose I can discern is that it provides a format for expressing thoughts that are too inconsequential to merit a stand-alone article or post. For precisely that reason, it is unsurprising that Twitter has become a huge hit among our media stars, for whom triviality is a guiding principle." Appropriately, a vast cult of celebrity Twitter worship has emerged, with eager fans eating up every last tasteless morsel that is tossed to them by their gods. The fact that Twitter is often an outlet for the mundane is hammered home by spoof sites such as MyLifeIsAverage.

Quite possibly the most devastating critique of Twitter is not that it incites fear or inhabited by vapid users, but that there is simply nothing special about it -- that it is more of the same. Seth Finkelstein maintains that Twitter is just another sucker's game that only serves the needs of a tiny elite: 'After I saw Twitter in use, I realised the difference was that, while IRC had all participants equal, Twitter implements a distilled version of many problematic aspects of blogging. Namely, a one-to-many broadcasting system that serves the needs of high-attention individuals, combined with an appeal to low-attention individuals that the details of one's life matter to an audience... Twitter is low-level celebrity for the chattering class. And the pathologies of celebrity are all on display, including the exploitative industries that prey on the human desire to be heard and noticed. My answer to Twitter's slogan of "What are you doing?" is: 'Not playing a sucker's game.'" Twitter, in other words, is just another way for the powerful to broadcast their message and for advertisers to blast users with pitches for their newest products and peer into consumers' minds, all the while deluding the average user that it's an empowering service.

Clearly, Twitter is many things to many people. Perhaps that's the only conclusion that one can draw from such a myriad of uses. Twitter is a communication medium and, like any other one, can be used and abused for just about any purpose. Although Twitter encourages its own unique kind of communication from being a 140-character accepting social media service, many of these sites' quirks are simply a reflection of their users, and it's wrong to blame the tool for having too much influence in shaping what people do with it. As one responder to Greenwald put it, "Criticizing the form [of Twitter] is like criticizing haiku as a form."

  • TechCrunch takes a pessimistic viewpoint, in the context of the Fort Hood Massacre.
  • Valleywag lays down the rules for the manipulate-the-gullible-public-into-believing-someone-is-dead-when-they're-not game
  • Joel Spolsky also has some unkind words for Twitter
  • Study: Men follow Men and Nobody Tweets
I finally caved. danny_colligan is my twitter handle.

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