Monday, April 4, 2011

Twitter is a Conversation
- That's Why I Gave Up on It

Cool people use twitter nowadays. I don't like to feel uncool more than anyone else1, so I made myself a twitter account some time ago. After a brief trial I gave up and I no longer use it.

Chicken Feet

Tweet, tweet?

I'd mostly forgotten about the whole thing, but I stumbled onto a post about how people who give up on twitter have misunderstood the point. Now, the author is the kind of person who feels that a brief text of 300 words and no pictures is best shown as an embedded Flash applet2 so you'd normally just shrug and ignore him, but he does have a point I want to bring up: Twitter is a conversation. And that, I realized, was the very reason I gave up on it.

What happens when you join is, you start following people. People you know, mostly, online or off. And they talk. And they talk. In brief sentences. All the time. Any one person isn't saying all that much, but follow a dozen people and you get a never-ending stream of brief, disjointed comments strobing across your screen.

You're in a large group of people at a party where everyone sits together but they're no longer all talking about the same thing. A couple of people are talking about work over there; another few discuss politics over here. Someone explains how to make the perfect Chicken Balti while another gets advice on stain removal. Many of them talk to people over the phone as well, so you only hear one side of the conversation.

Great at a party I guess. Not so great when it happens on my computer while at work. When I log in to twitter I invite that group to hang around right next to my desk and loudly chatter away. I lose my concentration and can't focus on my job. So I shut it down for most of my day. But this is real-time conversation; when I log back in I drop right into the middle of dozens of ongoing discussions (or monologues, more often than not), with no good way to catch up. I read "Just make sure it's covered with the oil", and I have no idea if it's a curry recipe, removing ketchup stains, car maintenance or sexual advice.

Seagull hat

Tweet, tweet, twetwetweeeet!

Twitter is brief, free-form, informal, real-time and conversational, and that's exactly why I don't use it. "brief, free-form and informal" really is just saying that it lacks structure. Structure may be constricting and free-form liberating, but structure is actually important for readers to understand what you're saying.

A typical newspaper article follows a specific structure, and as a result we can skim a newspaper extremely effectively. We can read just the headline for the subject, then jump right to the specific details we're interested in. The article structure - and our experience with it - tells us exactly where to find it. Bloggy short-form essays like this one has a well-defined structure too, and scientific papers take structure to an extreme, all to make life easier for the reader3. Twitter streams lack this structure and become hard to follow, especially when you don't follow the thread from the beginning.

The real-time, conversational nature makes it worse. There's no recaps or summaries, no longer, coherent arguments and no background, so catching up becomes all the more difficult. And when you follow several people - and when they talk with several others in turn - a number of disjointed conversations get all jumbled together in a single stream4. You have to continuously follow the chatter to keep track or you'll start from zero all over again whenever you log in.

Twitter isn't the only "conversation tool" out there of course. Most of our communication tools are about conversation. Chat, SMS, twitter, email, online forums, IRC, blogs, multiplayer games, research publications - they're all about people talking to each other, and they all offer some unique combination of speed, reach and longevity.

Chat and SMS have a nearly real-time communication cycle - on the order of seconds - tailored for transient one-to-one conversation. Twitter is just as fast and ephemeral but good for mass communication. Research papers and books are also one-to-many, but very permanent and with a cycle measured in months and years. I guess the classical handwritten long-form letter would qualify as the quintessential one-to-one slow cycle medium. Email is the most long-lived and important electronic communications form we have, and for good reason. It's so very flexible: email supports a communication cycle from minutes up to days or weeks; supports both extremely short and and very long-form messages; it does one-to-one but also group communication; and it lends itself very well to long-term information storage.

Twitter isn't bad. It sits at a particular spot - a combination of speed, longevity and brevity - that proves to be very popular for a lot of people. But no medium is for everybody, and its combination of features just doesn't work well for me.


Not a Tweeter.

#1 You might argue that particular train left the station many years ago. I would not disagree.

#2 You would have thought an "information professional" working for libraries would have the minimal sense not to exclude disabled visitors or visitors using devices without flash, especially when there's nothing to gain. Could he be one of those people who write all their emails as embedded Word-files, just so they can choose their own typeface?

#3 Research papers aren't exactly known to be easy to read, but they are - if you're in the target audience. They are written for a very specific reader: busy scientists that work in the same field and get inundated with new papers every week. They need to quickly and accurately see what the paper is about and determine if the information is useful and relevant for them.

Reading a research paper is a skill; a skill you need to learn and to practice. Once you do know how, you can skim dozens of papers in very little time, and be confident you didn't miss anything relevant. If you don't know how, and you have no background in the field, they can be incomprehensible. Which is OK - you don't learn about a scientific field by reading research papers, any more than you learn how to drive a car by reading manufacturer-issued vehicle maintenance manuals.

#4 "Aha, but IRC and chat rooms are just the same!" Yep - and I've never really taken to IRC either, for much the same reason. And at least with IRC and chat rooms you do see both sides of all conversations.


  1. Hey, interesting post. I'm not a communication professional, not sure where you got that from, but I do consider accessibility when I'm writing my blog. In this instance the post was really just an incidental post - the point was the presentation itself, which was embedded from Slideshare because that's where it was hosted. I didn't think to myself "I'll post something in flash", I thought, "I should blog about that presentation," - but most people will have seen it via slideshare rather than my blog, that's what its hosted on, and that uses Flash. If Slideshare ever stops relying on Flash, that'd be lovely.

    For full accessibility I should have included a transcript of the slides, but it was just a quick post which will be read by a small ammount of people so I didn't, because you can always click the link to view it on Slideshare which *does* have the transcript.

    As I said in the slides, I don't think following people you know on Twitter is the best way forward. Better to follow people who have interesting things to say with regard to your professional acitivities. Then it's less 'over-heard at a party' and more useful and productive.

  2. Hi!

    I got "information professional" from your "who"- page, where you stated that "Ned began working as an Information Professional in a Customer-Services role at University of Leeds library." I figured the term (which I rather like) was a good catch-all label for what you seem to be doing. If you prefer something else I'd be happy to change it.

    Yes, I have a chip on my shoulder about the gratuitous use of stuff like flash. My main thought about your flash presentation was that it must have taken more work to convert it into a flash applet then embed the applet in the post than it would have been to simply cut and paste the original text. Oh well - I still read it, didn't I.

    If it's any consolation, it's much, much worse among photographers, who sometimes create their entire websites in some unlinkable, unscalable, untranslatable - and utterly unusable - flash-based framework. Probably due to a misplaced fear of having pictures copied, and a hard sell from the framework vendor. I wonder if those photographers ever realize just how many sales they miss simply because potential clients can't navigate their sites, and can't share picture links with other decision-makers.

    About Twitter: I didn't really discuss this in detail - my posts get long and windy as it is - but my inspiration was to use this for work, and follow collaborators and other people in my field. I belong at the "ooohh, shiny!!"-end of the focusing ability scale, however, so the constant stream of snippets quickly proved too distracting to me. Even if it's on topic, it's still a distraction.

    Part of the problem is the short form. You get a tantalizing URL-shortened link with a few cryptic words of explanation. Not sure if it's relevant to me so I click, then read, follow another link, then look up some background on Wikipedia, then follow another trail... Suddenly it's six hours later with no work done, and I'm reading up on the mating behavior of elephants or something.

    But most of the issue really is the real-time aspect. The reason email works for me while Twitter does not is that email invites you to defer things. Twitter demands attention now. Stop what you're doing and read it now, react now, answer now, before it scrolls off the end of the page. Sort of like getting phone calls where people don't wait to hear if you have time before they start talking.

    It works for many people, evidently. It doesn't work for me.

  3. Agh, "communication professional", "information professional". I messed that up. Sorry - I'll change it. Still if you prefer another term I'll just change it again.

  4. You said "You would have thought an "information professional" working for libraries would have the minimal sense not to exclude disabled visitors or visitors using devices without flash".

    I viewed the post containing the embedded Slideshare presentation on my iPod Touch - it was not displayed. However clicking on the title takes me to a mobile-friendly version of the presentation which can be viewed without use of Flash.

  5. Janne, I couldn't agree more with you about the overabundant, useless and often counterproductive use of flash. But that's what is taught in many a web design course, partly because html is supposed to be scary and partly because people want shiny websites where form trumps content. I mean, why do I have to wait for 30 seconds for a photographer's website to open when, in this day and age, displaying a couple of photographs should be almost instantaneous...

    As for twitter, I've always been afraid of starting to use it because I already suffer from information overload and because I know how disruptive these kinds of interruptions can be when doing something that requires concentration (writing software, in my case). So it was very interesting to read about your experience confirming my intuition about it.

    But now, back to editing and processing pictures. Break's over.


  6. There's no difference between the amount of work it took my to embed that Flash-based presentation into my blog post, than the amount of work it took you to embed that Flash-based youtube video into the blog post before this one. They're both pieces of external content which exist mainly on a different website, embedded on our blogs, by copying and pasting some code.

    Mine has a transcript available if you click through to the host site, yours does not. I take care to make my hyperlinks accessible, you do not. I don't really get why you got so annoyed.

  7. I also gave up twittering.
    It's broing I think^^
    your photos are so beautiful as always :3

  8. I agree that video is pretty bad; all the problems with flash in general and more. Hearing impaired and non-native speakers have a hard time with narration; you can't easily skim, jump around or otherwise set your own pace; and watching a video - perhaps with earphones to keep the sound out - is perceived as much more asocial than reading a text.

    And too many videos out there really are some web-equivalent of talking heads, where the material would have been better presented using text and pictures. That's why I very rarely link to videos here.

    The one I posted the other day is, I think, a good example of when videos are worth it, despite all disadvantages. It uses the format expertly to explain a dynamical system in just a few seconds; with text and images it would be very difficult to fully bring across the idea. Of course, it helps that it's produced by real professionals.


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