Sunday, March 30, 2008

Twutter: Twitter Clutter (Or Has Twitter Rewritten Rules of Communication?)

Most of my peers complain about being overwhelmed with communication. Voice mails go unanswered. Social and professional obligations go unmet. Email "in" boxes are overflowing; and keep in mind, we're not talking about one "in" box but many.

Americans already spend more time--two hours per day--with email than virtually any other country on earth . And, 48 percent of Americans feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years, at least in part due to the constant flow of communications.

So clearly what is needed today is yet another new form of communications, right? Enter Twitter.

If you're reading this, you probably know what Twitter is, but I find most of my less-connected friends in the real world have never heard of it. Twitter is a micro-blogging tool. What that means is that Twitter allows one to create brief 140-character-long text messages that immediately get shared with anyone who has chosen to "follow" you. Followers will see your messages, or "tweets," along with the tweets of every one else they follow, on their Twitter home page or, if they choose, on their mobile phone via SMS message. People may send tweets from or from their cell phone.

You will find my Twitter home page here. If you visit, you will see what I've twittered and what the people I'm following have twittered. Here's what you'll find out about me (if you visit shortly after I post this): I recently had a debate with a friend about smoking. I worked on Saturday, but don't mind because I'm happier being busy than the opposite. On Friday night I heard Kiss singing "Beth" while shopping at Walgreens. And at KMart I purchased a 64mb USB drive for just $1.

If you click the "With Others" tab, here's what you'll find out about those I follow: "
Ingrid Michaelson is covering Creep." " OH: its like money but monetized." " I like guitar players who don't use picks." And, "guy from my son's old preschool just bought us a round of Guinness."

If you're a sane person, after reading the last two paragraphs you should be thinking, "Who the hell cares?" In fact, I use Twitter and that's what I think! And herein lies the problem with Twitter--what worked when Twitter was small is going to fail as Twitter grows.
According to TwitDir, there are just shy of one million public profiles on Twitter, and Twitter Facts claims that the number of Twitterers has increased close to 50% in just four months.

As more and more people use Twitter, Twitter will be increasingly threatened with Twutter, a term I coined to mean Twitter Clutter. (Yes, I said I hate buzzwords, so sue me--it's one word that is easier to type and shorter than two words.)

As I add friends who are new to Twitter to my follow list, or as more strangers have followed me and I've reciprocated, the flow of random, inane, meaningless information is adding to my communication overflow rather than aiding it. I am getting more Twutter than I am relevant communications, and this is a problem. One of my mottoes (which you'll actually find among the thoughts I twittered recently) is: Communication without relevance is noise. I don't know about you, but my life was plenty noisy already before adding a new flow of Twutter!

I've spoken with some of my Twitter friends about Twutter and shared some ideas for how we can reduce Twutter, but I've received a surprisingly assertive counter-response. I think early adopters come to feel each new tool is "theirs;" Hence, the way they use it is correct and everyone else simply doesn't "get it."
One friend accused me of thinking I "can dictate how others use Twitter." (Geez, it was only a suggestion!)

The response from the early Twitter adopters can be paraphrased as such: "I am not going to change how I use Twitter, so you can simply decide whether to follow me or not." They are, in fact, quite correct; they can say whatever they want and I can follow them or not. But isn't the idea of communication to be heard and understood? Is it up to our followers/listeners to find relevance in everything we say? Or is it up to us to Twitter/communicate in a way that will be relevant and encourage followers to stay followers?

In short,
does Twitter absolve the age-old responsibility of the communicator to make sure the message is valued and understood by the listener? I don't think so. I believe Twitter will continue to grow for a period as its newness attracts people, but eventually the constant flow of vapid thoughts will overwhelm users, and they'll do that listeners have always done in every medium whenever relevance is lacking: They'll tune out.

Just look at how we "follow" (to use the lingo of Twitter) in other media: No one tries to listen to every radio program or watch every TV show; instead, we seek out the things that are relevant and interesting. Everything else is noise and is ignored. And this puts the onus on those TV shows and radio programs to be relevant; they don't ignore the wants of listeners and viewers but are constantly seeking to make their content every more relevant to keep and attract an audience.

We Twitterers have an opportunity to create or destroy a new form of communications, but we cannot change the rules of human communication. If we insist what our followers think isn't important and that it is up to them to see relevance, we'll be like TV shows that are canceled. Our followers will "cancel" us in one of two ways--they'll either stop following or, in the worst-case scenario, they'll decide Twitter is all useless Twutter and simply stop using it.

There is certainly plenty of precedent for people abandoning once popular online communication tools. Over ten years ago, was one of the first social networking sites to be successful on the Internet. It had one million users (hmm, the same size as Twitter is now) before crashing and burning in 2001. People moved on to other social networking sites they found more useful and relevant, and in fact this chase from one tool to the next has never stopped: People went from SixDegrees to Friendster to MySpace and now to Facebook. But today, Facebook is looking noisier and less relevant, and I suspect within two years we'll see yet another social networking tool--one that provides more usable features and relevant info--overtake Facebook.

The future of Twitter is in the hands of we Twitterers. We can continue to share whatever random thoughts pop into our heads and hope people find it interesting. (For example, according to TweetScan, a Twitter search engine, a dozen people in the last hour have posted about using, cleaning, or decorating their bathrooms. Interested? Didn't think so.) Or, we can take lessons from centuries of human communication experience.

Much like bloggers have, Twitterers must find a way to be relevant to others, or we'll encourage people to tune out from us or from all of Twitter. I'd suggest we look to TV for the kind of models that will work in a broadcast medium like Twitter. For example:
  • Comedies: Twitterers who consistently share funny things will find many followers. But, it better be darn funny. You have to Steven Wright or Mitch Hedberg, not the embarrassing amateur down at open mic night.

  • News Opinion Programs: People crave interesting insights on the news, which has made Meet the Press the longest-running show on TV. (Sixty years and counting!) Those who share pertinent and insightful thoughts will provide tweets worth following.

  • Breaking News: I think it's important to note that Twitter first got buzz during the 2007 South by Southwest festival when people who couldn't attend found they could be kept informed via the tweets sent from Austin. This use of Twitter as an instantaneous news tool for amateur reporters is interesting, but only when there's interesting news to report.

  • Personality: There is a precedent for sharing one's personality, but this is a bit of a trap. How many personality shows have come and gone? Arsenio Hall? Leeza? The Martin Short Show? Simply put, you (and I) aren't as interesting as we think we are--at least not all the time. We're not David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah. And even they don't share everything they do or each random thought as it comes into their heads--they plan and write carefully in order to hold viewers' attention. Is this what you're doing with your Tweets?
Some would argue there's room for a category of Tweets not based on a broadcast medium: personal tweets to keep friends up to date. They may be right, but I'd suggest we already have ways of keeping our close friends informed--we talk to them, see them, and email them.

Our communication with friends is one-to-one and personal, not broadcast and impersonal. Just think of how seldom you send a single email message to your entire address database, and you'll see what I mean. For a decade you've had the tools to say the same thing to everyone you know simultaneously. If you never or almost never took that opportunity, what makes you think Twitter changes anything?

I happen to believe Marshall McLuhan's famous saying that "The medium is the message." You may think you're keeping friends informed and reinforcing relationships, but personal relationships cannot be created and fostered using a broadcast medium. Our friends are our friends, in part, because we care enough to speak to them one to one.

Twitter, I am confident, will find a place, but I believe this will happen not because communication-obsessed early adopters create Twutter by puking every and any thought into Twitter but because we use this communication tool to communicate effectively. Starting today, I am going to strive to be more cognizant of how I can add value to those who follow me on Twitter and not assume every thought I have has value.

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