Friday, March 27, 2009

Adventures in the Twitscape

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. -- The Serenity Prayer

Some things, I've learned, are just going to happen. No matter what. And the less you kid yourself about their inevitability, the happier you'll be. For example, yesterday I purchased a Snuggie. I tried to resist this for a long time. I said to myself, "Self, that thing looks ridiculous! If anyone ever saw you wearing that, you'd die friendless and destitute! The Snuggie is not your friend, no matter how warm and functional!" But every time I saw the commercials, I'd hear a tiny voice speaking an undeniable truth: a blanket with sleeves for the bargain basement price of $14.95 can only exist so long before it must be in my living room. Plus, it comes with a free booklight!

In this spirit, I finally gave up and hit the fast-forward button on something else that is bound to happen to all of us. I joined Twitter.

Twitter, for those who still don't know, is sort of a global version of the Facebook newsfeed. Users post 140-character answers (disgustingly referred to as "tweets") to one simple question: "What are you doing?" Separating it from Facebook is the fact that, along with your friends, many famous people tweet (including members of Congress). In addition to posting your own tweets (I don't think I'll ever get used to that word), you can subscribe to as many other feeds as you like, keeping you informed about the myriad banalities of countless lives, all in two-sentence increments.

For example, when I joined, I became a "follower" of Warren Ellis (one of my favorite writers), Alyson Hannigan (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, y'all), and Senator Barbara Boxer. I quickly began receiving information about their lives. It was Alyson's birthday; Warren Ellis really likes The Pogues; and Senator Boxer thinks the AIG bonuses are "disgraceful." This was kind of exciting! Although the information wasn't exactly useful, I now had a window into the real lives of people I had previously encountered only in media.

But it didn't stop there. Shortly after I became a follower of Alyson Hannigan, I received an e-mail saying she was now following my Twitter. This blew my mind. The redheaded witch in the television, on whom I'd had a crush since 7th grade, was now allegedly reading 140-character summaries of my stupid life! I couldn't believe it! No way would this moderately famous person bother to read anything I posted. I decided to test her. I posted a tweet (grr) specifically wishing Ms. Hannigan a happy birthday and thanking her for following my Twitter. Low and behold, she responded on her own "twitscape" (Jon Stewart coined that one, and we're keeping it) with a message to me: "@[myusername], you're welcome!"

I share this story not just to lose your respect, but also to illustrate the strange and possibly transformative effect Twitter could have on how we communicate. The cool thing about Twitter is it does seem to do a better job of connecting people than Facebook. Sure, you can become a "fan" of Barack Obama on facebook and get his weekly youtube address in your e-mail. But Twitter allows for greater possibility of actual back and forth between the masses and public figures--be they Buffy alums, journalists, or US Senators. It works because tweeting takes so little effort. You can read dozens of tweets in a minute, and respond in just a few seconds. Even public figures, who get flooded with tweets (@#$%) each day, can read and respond to many of them in the time it would take to compose a single e-mail.

But after two days, I'm finding this feature is also Twitter's greatest weakness. How much can anyone really say in 140 characters? Does it help me to know that Barbara Boxer is disgusted with the AIG bonuses, if she can't tell me why? Is there any possibility my conversations with Alyson Hannigan will ever be more than one-line deep? Striking a balance between convenience and usefulness is going to be Twitter's great challenge. If it manages find the right formula, it could prove a truly interesting realm of public speech. If not, it's likely to remain the domain of nerds stalking their television crushes.

One thing is certain: you're all going to join. Just give up.

UPDATE: Twitter either saved someone's life or got a student expelled--possibly both, but probably just the latter. Still, it's one of those "Wow, internet!" stories. I love those.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I give it two months before you realize twitter is pointless. only celebrities looking to market themselves and the pitifully lonely will remain.

3/27/2009 7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is any more pointless than something like Facebook? It's the same mix of narcissism / voyeurism that our society seems to dig.

3/27/2009 8:09 AM  
Blogger Carbolic said...

Dan, I guess you didn't see this recent article in the NY Times.

Let me summarize: no, Alyson Hannigan is not twittering you. It's her ghostwriter/marketing person. But I hope you've enjoyed the fiction of being a part of some famous person's life.

3/27/2009 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The snuggie is really cheap. I got two at for $15, but they kind of suck. They're made of the same material as Delta's airplane blankets. I hear that the Slanket is better. Full disclosure: I am wearing Crocs.

3/27/2009 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Facebook is less pointless - sharing photos and notes are useful tools that fit a need, and it does it well. Two-line tweets? not so much. Twitter will burn out much sooner than facespace.

3/27/2009 5:38 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, I agree facebook is more useful on the whole. Thought I made that clear. I just think twitter is better at connecting people who don't/can't know each other.

I don't think either will fade away anytime soon, but time will tell.

3/27/2009 9:06 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Carbolic, I'm sure many celebs are using ghosts, but Hannigan ain't one of them. She's not quite that level of famous, plus she has promised multiple times it's really her.

I suppose it could all be a lie, but don't crush my dream!

3/27/2009 9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Twitter can actually be useful.

3/27/2009 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People, people! Stop crushing Dan's dreams. Dan: Lilypad really does love you, and Snuggies are made out of pure angora. Your post was delightful.

Love, Your biggest fan

3/28/2009 1:41 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Aw, thanks biggest fan! I'm your biggest fan!

3/28/2009 10:13 AM  
Blogger Toney said...

Twitter succeeds because it excels at kindling whatever exhibitionist tendencies we have (apparently everyone has some). And while it can be useful occasionally (the first great example of this that I recall is from last April), I think it's actual greatest failure is that it can be implemented very easily by any of the other online connectivity hubs/social networks.

In fact, Facebook already has it. Your "user status"? How is that different than Twitter? The voyeurism capability is there, as well as the potential for interaction. Similarly, your gChat status answers the "what are you doing?" question. For instance, Armen has had some silly Lost thing going on in his gChat status for weeks.

Still, people have been predicting the death of Twitter almost since it began, and it's only getting more popular. Who knows if it will ceiling out.

3/28/2009 10:58 AM  
Blogger Armen said...

Whoa Whoa Whoa. Slow down there Toney. I have the Lost thing going because I specifically avoid giving a detailed description of what I'm doing, how I'm feeling, who I'm hating, etc.

In fact, I want to slit my wrists whenever I see people using gchat status as a sub for the facebook user status.

3/28/2009 11:11 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I can only guess where Toney finds the basis to assert that "everybody has some" exhibitionist tendencies, but I respectfully disagree. Plenty of people have no exhibitionist tendencies at all -- not everyone is an Armen or Toney. Thank god.

At any rate, I believe commentators above are correct: Twitter will fail where FaceBook succeeds. Not because it essentially duplicates a FaceBook function, and not because of its disgusting vocabulary (eg, "tweet") even though either of those standing alone are more than sufficient to kill off the project.

Twitter will fail because it does not -- and cannot -- capitalize on the basic human tic that drives FaceBook. FaceBook is successful because it taps into humans' basic and evolutionarily driven need to gossip. (Full disclosure: I'm a Stephen Pinker evolutionary psychology type guy . . . the basis for this comment comes from this book, and this one.) This is all my own speculation (so it's probably wrong) but I'm convinced that FaceBook is successful because it allows people to communicate about a photo, status message, or even other people's comments. Moreover, it does so publicly. Public exchanges are (as the scientists cited above have shown) a critical element of social relationships and group structure. Twitter will not succeed because it is essentially declaratory, not colloquy, and because the declarations (while public) are not the kind of exchanges that count in socially relevant ways.

If you think I have just drawn a distinction that is stupid or irrelevant, riddle me this: how much would this blog suck if we turned off the comments?

I'm convinced that the answer to that question measures the distance between Twitter and FaceBook.

3/28/2009 12:07 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Nothing in what I just said explains what the hell gossip has to do with group dynamics and social relationships. Umm, sorry about that.

They have everything to do with each other, however. If you're curious, this summary is helpful.

3/28/2009 12:12 PM  
Blogger Toney said...

Ok, maybe not EVERYONE has exhibitionist tendencies, but the 10+ million users of Twitter do, and the number won't stop growing any time soon. I was being a bit hyperbolic; forgive me that.

I think Twitter's failure will be the result of profitability rather than psychology. They aren't taking in any non-VC dollars, which will make investors clamor for a sale. Unfortunately, this very lack of profitability is a turn-off to potential suitors. Facebook, the most likely buyer of Twitter (and strategically, the company most likely to implement a Twitter-like model, and out-Twittering Twitter), offered $400 million in stock and $100 million in cash. $500 million? Really? Twitter thinks they are worth more than that? Here's a good write-up on the failed deal.

I realize the desire to have Twitter stems from 1)implementation of it's "feature" into the Facebook (or whatever other hub) feature-set, and 2)the ability to influence it's user-base (and relatedly, some of the cool data-mining they do). But still, Facebook-valuation issues aside, even $200 million seems like a great point to sell something with the limitations of Twitter. YouTube was getting over 100 million video views a day when they sold to Google for $1.5 billion, and I think everyone can agree that YouTube's functionality is vastly superior to Twitter's.

Anyway, maybe Twitter thinks they can get more as they grow, but in this economy, I would take $500 million and run. Especially if Facebook offered some leadership retention.

3/28/2009 1:05 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I agree Twitter's future is uncertain. I posted about it because it seems to have seized the zeitgeist for the moment (if they're trying to figure it out on Fox News, you know it's hit the big time), and our blog has never really weighed in.

My post is not meant to be Twitter-praise. I'm just sharing my first impressions. However, I do think it serves a function facebook does not. As I explained in the post, facebook is all about people you know. Twitter is about people you wish you knew. It's a different kind of voyeurism, and I think there's a market for both.

Plus, I think it's a little early to proclaim the death of Twitter because "facebook does it better." Have you noticed that myspace still exists for some reason?

3/28/2009 5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tina Fey's twitfeed is hilarious.

3/29/2009 12:36 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

"Twitfeed." I like it.

3/30/2009 12:05 AM  
Blogger Armen said...

Sounds right to me

3/30/2009 4:51 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Hahahahaha. Well done, Armen.

3/31/2009 9:59 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Another new twitter term from Stephen Colbert (and Meredith Viera's reaction is hilarious):

3/31/2009 10:09 AM  
Blogger Devin said...

Tonight, Justice Breyer asked Patrick whether he knew anyone who used Twitter.

Patrick's response: "Unfortunately I do, your Honor."

4/14/2009 9:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, that moment was priceless.


Judge Tattel: "You just don't like the way this statute was written, do you?"

Patrick: "Frankly your honor, I don't."

Also when PB answered Breyer's long hypo by saying "if I was osama bin laden's attorney, then yes."

Both sides were really good, and very impressive and I know I could never have done that well. Kudos!

4/15/2009 2:05 PM  

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