Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Much ado about nothing

Twitter is an enigma to me. It's a web and phone app that's almost degenerately simple: users post or text 'updates' of up to 140 characters and can subscribe to each other's updates. Apart from a bit of minor extra functionality ('nudges', for example), that's all there is to it. A few weeks ago, I decided to try Twitter after reading an interesting article on how it creates a social sixth sense (Clive Thompson, Wired). I only had two friends using the service back then, both techies. Most of the Twitter users I looked at were techies and, in particular, bloggers. At the same time, though, Twitter seemed like a pretty natural extension of normal texting. In my experience, lots of SMS are just like Twitter updates -- quick blurbs that people send to friends to let them know what's going on. Twitter is a fusion of blogging and texting. I wondered, then, whether its popularity would spread from the blogging crowd to the texting crowd -- middle school, high school, and college students.

Today I'm 'following' the Twitter feeds of seven of my friends from high school, all younger than me. I'm surprised by how fast this demographic shift seemed to happen, but I'm more surprised by how often some of my friends tweet. I clicked through to some friends' friends, some friends' friends' friends, and so on, to get an idea of what high-school twittering looked like. Some of the tweets were interesting. Most ranged from the mundane ("Meh. going to bed now") to the supremely self-referential ("I think that's a tweeting record for me!"). The people who use Twitter a lot are mostly replying to other people who Twitter a lot.

Does Twitter add value? It doesn't make money -- but does it add value for it's users? Can it really, as Clive Thompson says, allow social groups to be "more than the sum of their parts"? Maybe someday I'll experience one of those "amazing feats of social coordinaton". So far, though, the "tweets" I've seen are a lot like SuperPokes, pirate vs. ninja requests, "random musing" blog posts, FWD:fwd:Fwd:Fwd: funny cat!s and so much of the other stuff that's clogging the Tubes today (/b/, anyone?). They're yet another way for people to interactively waste each other's time. My question is: when and how will it end? Like Pets.com, with a bang, or like Second Life, with a whimper?

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