I am coming out, for the record, against the increasingly popular social networking tool Twitter.
If you’re not familiar with it, Twitter is a relatively new web-based service headed by Evan Williams, a founder of pioneering blog engine Blogger. The concept behind Twitter is that you keep in touch with friends– and fans– by posting short “micro-posts” (such as “early night now – paintballing tomorrow!”) via your browser or mobile phone. Anybody who subscribes to your updates then receives a constant stream of text messages alerting them to whatever you’re doing now or sometime in the near future.
Almost too bizarrely, much of the upper echelons of the blog world have been slowly but surely slathering Twitter with praise over the past few weeks. The din of endless and largely empty accolades reached a fever pitch this week, as thousands of geeks descended on my friend Ben’s adopted home of Austin, Texas for the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) film and technology festival.
I’ve been tangentially aware of Twitter for a few months, and after a couple of different casual passes at the service, I grudgingly signed up over this past weekend, only to awake from my group think-inspired stupor on Sunday to retract my short-lived attempt at using the service.
Lest you judge me for not having tried out Twitter before I come out against it, please understand that I’ve also never tried cocaine, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand it, and I am also opposed to its use as a recreational drug.
So, here is what really bothers me about the Twitter phenomenon:
1) This is not the future of blogging. Okay, fine, we’re in a post-blogging world. Agreed. But there are a number of different fascinating directions that blogging is going in, and in my opinion, Twitter is not one of them. In fact, I would argue that although Twitter appears to be similar to blogging– you use a web service to write short posts– the content and the purpose differ dramatically from the act of blogging. So while some aspect of blogging involves navel gazing, the ultimate benefits of the craft result in more shared knowledge, expertise, and opinions on a wide range of topics with either universal (your insight into Middle East politics) or extremely targeted, but nonetheless shared (your passion for a specific type of thermos) appeal. But in my observations, Twitter strips all of that communal knowledge sharing and keeps only the least interesting aspect of blogging: the aimless, devoid sharing of personal details.
If this is about mobile blogging, as some Twitter proponents have opined, then it is my contention that our mobile devices are now clearly failing us, and not our blogging tools. For example, I’d much rather see the proliferation of powerful mobile devices, such as Microsoft’s SmartPhones and Apple’s iPhone– which encourage full-sentence, full-thought blogging– than I would see blogging technology, and thus trends, develop downward in scope and breadth in order to accommodate our current swath of abysmally bad mobile phones. If you think the average mobile phone is engineered better than, say, the WordPress blogging tool, I’d like to debate you on that issue.
2) There is way too much empty praise going on. Dave Winer wrote of Twitter, “Whenever so many people are so excited about something there must be some substance.”
I strongly disagree with that sentiment. Whenever I sense a critical mass of praise over something in a short window of time, I am instantly suspicious of its substance by sheer instinct. Rather than seeing all of this sudden praise as indicative of Twitter’s inherent quality, I see it as a symptom of a fairly large problem within the blogging community. It’s fad-chasing, pure and simple, and its indicators are all present with Twitter-love: The Constantly Writing About It (check), the Rushing to Institutionalize It (check), the Endless Namedropping Of It (check, ad nauseum).
For material proof of my suspicions, consider well-respected blogger Steve Rubel’s recent hedge on the entirely crowd-driven Twitter-craze: “I want to see how Twitter shakes out. It could be a fad.”
You can’t get much more proof than that: a well-known, well-respected technology blogger publicly demonstrating this point for me. Hence, I argue that a bit more analysis, and a little bit less ‘follow-the-leader’, are in order with respect to Twitter’s emerging influence.
3) Twitter is too clever for its own good. The clever, self-absorbed overtones present on Twitter’s website– be it large fonts, error messages crafted in inane human-speak (“So sorry I lost yr filez,” etc.) and insular “community” mentalities– are, like most fads, constantly at the risk of looking and feeling extremely dated the very second that they’re passed over for whatever the next fad is. It gets to the very nature of the fad: The damningly short period of time from which something is converted from amazing to ridiculous.
So if you’ve been bitten by the Twitter bug recently, please think about these questions. Are you only using Twitter because technology influentials are takling about it? Is it adding any real value or meaning to your already crowded plate beyond that occasionally comforting feeling of not being left behind by the cool crowd?
You may love Twitter– you may even think it is the Future of All Blogging– but I truly don’t, and those are some of the reasons why.
Update, April 13 2007: It’s important to note for disclosure that I am now testing the Twitter service at the request of some friends who have urged me to try it in order to gain more perspective on it. I’ve agreed to do so; you can look in on me at http://twitter.com/jgclarke.