I've never been a fan of Twitter. Looking at people's status updates (or "tweets", as its members have been told to refer to them), all I saw were a bunch of @ signs and TinyURL addresses. There seemed to be very little that was actually there.
But new media experts around the globe were embracing it. Some people who had been star bloggers a few years ago had all but abandoned them in favour of this new service. They heralded it as some holy grail of journalism (a suggestion I've already attacked head-on), as the best way to get breaking news and as being better than blogs.
So a few weeks ago, I setup a Twitter account. I did what I was supposed to do, follow some friends and start posting updates. Few of them would be considered really interesting. Anything important went on the blog, where I have more readership.
Before long I started getting messages that people were following me. A lot of people I don't know. They probably found me through mutual Twitter friends, since I hadn't posted my Twitter account here until now (mind you, it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out). Unlike blog readership, which I'm sure includes hundreds of people I've never met, Twitter seems more personal. I get a message whenever one clicks on the "follow" button, and I see an image of that person's face with a list of their updates.
I installed one of those Twitter programs (I settled on TwitterFox, which I'm not entirely crazy about but will do for now) to facilitate the Twittering, and I setup my cellphone so I could send Twitter updates by text message (unfortunately the reverse isn't true, so I can't read other people's Twitter messages through my cellphone).
Anyway, you're here to read about why I don't like it, despite having used it for a month. I'll give it to you in point form:
- The signal-to-noise ratio. When people talk about all the great information available on Twitter, they're right. But the problem is that all this great information is buried under piles of @ replies, links, corrections, jokes and pointless trivia. It varies depending on the user, but the way Twitter is setup seems to encourage the noise rather than discourage it.
- Technical limitations. This is the other biggie, and it goes beyond the 140-character limit, though that's certainly a big part of it. The biggest annoyance is links. Because most URLs won't fit in the 140-character limit, various URL shortening services like TinyURL are used. The problem is that this obscures the actual URL. (Some Twitter clients will decode such URLs, but it would be easier if such a thing were handled internally.) Twitter RSS feeds leave a lot to be desired (clickable links would help), and some simple features like "retweeting" need to be done manually or through some third-party application. I realize that text messages are the reason for the 140-character limit, but how much of Twitter's traffic comes from cellphones?
- Single point of failure. Though I haven't yet experienced the Fail Whale, I expect it will come up soon. Twitter hasn't yet found a way of making money (though they're working on it), and the fact that it's a privately-run service means if anything happens to Twitter's servers, everyone is cut off. There is an open-source competition in Laconi.ca/Identi.ca (an Evan Prodromou project), but like the old instant messaging wars, it's not about what service is better, it's about what service your friends use. Laconi.ca is planning Twitter integration, which might help that, but until then you need to use both services unless you want to be disconnected.
- Microblogging vs. instant messaging. This is largely a cultural thing, which means it could change. But the impression I get from looking at Twitter posts is that it's more of an open chat than it is about open blogging. Lots of replies (many consisting only of useless things like ":)") or other messages that are more about conversation than information.
- Unwritten rules. I've seen this previously for blogs as well, with self-appointed community leaders dictating rules for how others should use a medium. Even though we're not sure how Twitter should be used, there's no end to the number of etiquette rules. You can't update too much. You have to follow others. You can't follow too many people if not enough people are following you.
- Duplication. If it's on Twitter and it's big, someone (either the twitterer or a follower) will put it on a blog anyway.
- Constant plugging. Some Twitter accounts are setup to automatically read from an RSS feed, post the first 100 or so characters and include a TinyURL link. I could just add that feed to my Google Reader and save a bunch of steps. In other cases it's not automated, but bloggers will point out every time they post something new to their blog. It's redundant and annoying.
- Time wasting. You're in the middle of a blog post or reading something and bam, there's another Twitter message to read. You're interrupted by someone pointing out something they saw on the Internet that was funny. Did you really need this in real-time? You get back to what you were doing and bam another Twitter message. Very little of what gets posted on Twitter needs to be read immediately, and yet that's the way it is. It's a distraction and it wastes time.
- @ replies and #hashtags look ugly. Sure, you can turn @replies off when they're not directed at you (or your friends), but then you risk losing important information that's passed that way.
- No privacy. Even if their updates are public, you can't follow someone without them knowing unless you do so by manually checking their page or putting their RSS feed in your feed reader. In fact, everyone knows who everyone else follows. Perhaps this is a feature, but it doesn't make much sense for me. Twitter makes no distinction between types of followers, and I don't want people thinking I'm friends with people and groups I just want to keep tabs on.
Despite all this, I'm not dismissing the concept of microblogging. Laconi.ca solves many of the technical problems (which suggests that Twitter can solve them too), and others can be fixed over time with culture change.
Despite its failings, people still use Twitter and (like Facebook) it's a source that journalists have to mine for information. It involves filtering out a lot of noise, but there are nuggets of gold inside. So whether I like it or not I'll still have to keep using it. Unlike David Akin, who is de-twittering, I still think there's information that can be delivered using this medium.
But I won't be using it any time soon to disseminate any important information. Follow me if you want, but you're not going to see much quality. Anything I have to say, even briefly, of any substance will just be said here. There's no minimum length for my blog posts.