Twitter reconsidered

I wrote a post in June of 2009 called Calling Bullshit on Social Media. The goal of the post was to put twitter, and facebook, into an honest perspective, given all the hype and idiocy surrounding the phrase social media. It was picked up all over, as echo-chamber articles about social media often are, and has well over 100 comments and links to it.

In the six months since then my use of twitter has increased, warranting a follow up post.

I don’t retract what I said – but now I have more experience to explore similiar points.

Stats: I’ve been on twitter for 7 months. My follower count has doubled to 3000+ since the above post, while I’m still following about the same, ~350. Total tweet count is 1500+ over the 7 months I’ve been on twitter (@berkun). Which is an average of 7 tweets a day (although I’m not on every day).

  • Despite its problems, the fact is people who like spreading information use twitter. I’m an independent writer and need all the mediums I can find to spread my work. My blog has thousands of subscribers, my books have sold thousands of copies, but posting a link to new writings on twitter spreads faster and, seemingly, wider. Even if all the criticisms are true, the people currently on twitter are people who like to spread things. And they do. It’s heavily populated by people who like to forward, email, tweet, post, blog, telegraph and anything else. I’m sure my traffic and book sales have benefited from being active on twitter. And I’m grateful for readers on twitter, just as am for the blog and the books.
  • Twitter is fun in bursts and handy on the road. There is a breezy, sarcastic, side comment rich flavor to twitter, which makes it enjoyable if you’re on it enough. This seem possible only if you’re staring at a monitor most of the day, which many are. But if you’re not, twitter won’t make much sense. I doubt taxi cab drivers or anyone working retail will ever be a strong part of the mix. Twitter is fun as a break, as an aside, but if you show up expecting an event it doesn’t make much sense. If you travel often, a decent following guarantees someone can recommend something you need in that place, which is handy and life affirming in a good Samaritan kind of way. But is still something a concierge could do nearly as well.
  • It’s clear many people are free (or distracted) much of the time. It is amazing how quickly, during the work day, I see things retweeted, or get comments on my blog posts that originated from twitter. I’m grateful for this of course. It’s awesome and empowering. But what’s curious is the twitter crowd seems to have notifications for everything on all the time. Someone needs to do some ethnography on the daily work habits of twitter users, but by observation there are many who jump in in and out many times in a half hour, suggesting they’re jumping in and out of their actual work frequently.
  • Some of the positives are artifacts of the new. In the early days of email, it was amazing who you could get to answer you. This was, in part, because few were using it. Some of the thrill of twitter, where you can chat with various famous people, will decline as usage grows. It’s more an artifact of new media, than the medium of twitter itself. It’s still a new frontier and some if it’s charm will decline with each wave of mainstream users, in similiar fashion to how email and the web changed, and the small town frontier charm fades. It’s easy for megacorp to seem authentic on twitter, when there’s one guy online representing them. But when there is a team of 30 doing it, with the inevitable policies, and protocols, it will feel like something more familiar, and less interesting.
  • 140 characters actually does prevent discourse. Twitter is great for snarky jokes, and for pointing people at things, but is a disaster for deep conversation. You haven’t had the full twitter experience until you’ve stumbled into an argument with someone who is incomprehensible and angry, and seems to find you equally incomprehensible and angry, even though, outside of twitter, you are neither. Direct messages are just as bad. I wish twitter was attached to a private chat feature free of the 140 limit, so attempts at deep conversation, or arguments where both sides don’t get the context of the other, can migrate and thrive, run their course, and then return people back to twitter.
  • You can easily spot people confusing life with a popularity contest. It doesn’t take long to realize many people with huge followings have nothing to say. There are some good reasons people follow others, but bad ones too. Mostly it’s easy to figure it out. Some of it is taste. Some of it is not. If the signal to noise ratio is off, look elsewhere. If someone feels slimy, they probably are. You often can tell if someone is being genuinely nice, or is just trying to manipulate you into some kind of reciprocation. I try to say hi to people who mention my work, simply because I’m sincerely grateful. But sorting out people’s intentions on twitter isn’t much different than the rest of life.
  • Twitter breaks often. It’s disturbing how often twitter acts strange, is broken in major ways, or doesn’t work at all. It’s understandable for something new, or experimental, but twitter is neither. The client apps are unreliable, and need major UI help. I’ve reverted to using the web page, which sounds primitive to twitter die-hards, but it’s the fastest and most reliable interface there is.
  • The elements needed most in this age are clear communication, patience, and wisdom, which are all in short supply. All media depends on the minds of the people who use it, and twitter is definitely a reminder than many folks either: a) don’t read what they link to b) don’t understand what they read c) don’t really care and just like pushing bits around. I don’t blame twitter for this. Twitter spreads misinformation just as quickly as real information, simply because people do. No technology can ever distinguish between a lie and the truth. However, twitter is faster and sloppier, which has advantages, but also has natural disadvantages. It doesn’t reward the patient and thoughtful. It’s definitely not a tool for encouraging thinking, questioning, or introspection (the innovation I am waiting for), as the spreading of links is not quite the same thing. It quite possible twitter makes those three things harder, given how tempting twitter makes it just to read the next link.

In summary I’m a reluctant, cautious fan. I don’t expect anything to radically change anything else, but its sensible for me to use any new media that helps spread my work.

I don’t believe the hype, but I do see results for some of the things I need to do to be successful. I do get pleasure now and then in connecting with new people I don’t know, or joking with folks I’ve met on the road.

If you use twitter, has your opinion of it changed over time? And if you haven’t tried it, what would it take to give it a serious spin?

30 Responses to “Twitter reconsidered”

  1. Scott Barstow

    Scott —

    I agree with most of what you said here. I am not on Twitter much ( the inspiration seems to come and go ), but I find it very useful when I want something that is on my mind out there for people to consider. I don’t have many people that actually do, but it’s growing.

    I have found that there are certain people / entities on Twitter that consistently deliver high quality information. The rest just seems to be noise.

    I have tried to become someone on Twitter that tweets more than re-tweets. This, in my mind, is a meaningful measure of how much you are producing original thought, rather than just echoing.

    As a new reader, I am really enjoying the content you produce. Keep rolling.

  2. Monica

    I work in social media and use Twitter frequently. And, while overall, I am a big fan of the whole thing and see many merits (several of which you pointed out here), I can’t help but agree with the drawbacks you noted. Especially the “confusing life with a popularity contest” and “lack of real discourse” (and your explanation on that one is hilariously accurate, btw). These are two very large problems with Twitter.

    I can’t say much about the “popularity contest” idea. It is pervasive and the problem is that the buy-in from others contibutes to the situation, making it a self-fulfilling loop. E.g. someone may (or many not) be respected in their field, they have a bulk of followers, others think they are important because of this, and hence more people follow/listen, they are viewed as experts – and the entire situation gets perpetuated.

    With regard to the real conversation part:

    I too have thought it would be ideal to have a off-Twitter place. Somewhere where those wanting to extend a discussion over a specific tweet could immediately link to and have a place to take it beyond the 140 character limit. Personally, I don’t want to clog up my feed with an endless (over-simplified and out-of-context)debate – but often would like to (even publicly) have the actual conversation.

  3. Chris Mahan

    Scott, you’re welcome :)

    and I too use the website; it’s most reliable.

  4. Morgan Cheng

    >> 140 characters actually does prevents discourse.

    Actually, I prefer the 140 characters limit:
    1) It is designed to be adopt to Mobile SMS;
    2) It enforce user to keep words concise.
    3) If you need long words, use short URL point to somewhere.

  5. Eric Nehrlich

    While I’m not a power user, keeping an eye on the Twitter world is my way of following what’s happening at the bleeding edge of digital branding. I’ve been fascinated by watching the ecosystem evolve its own conventions and interfaces to providing a platform for everybody to experiment with branding (personal or corporate) in a conversational world. I love seeing how different people use it, from @timoreilly’s informational links to @zoecello’s life sharing to various companies’ attempts to leverage it. And it makes me think about the face I want to present to the world – do I want to randomly tweet about my life or use Twitter as a platform to spread ideas or re-tweet random inspirational quotes (or, in my case, a random mix of all three)?

  6. Betawriter

    Hi Scott,

    Nice post. I’m an Internet user since 1997 but I’ve never used twitter and I don’t plan to use it. For me, and my kind of work, it adds no value. In fact, it would break focus and concentration. I have more than enough stuff to distract me.

    Maybe if my needs change and my work or income is directly related to my relationships and the number of people who know or read me, as it’s your case, I’ll give it a try. But, apart from the publicity stuff, that is, a one-way directional message to people interested in my work, I’m not interested in that channel as another mean of communication.

    Having followed some twitter conversations of people I know, I can extract a general rule: the more lonely, lazier and less focused on your work or hobbies you are, the most frequently you tweet and the most weird and uninteresting messages you tweet (e.g. “good morning everyone!”, “going to a boring class!”, “the toilet is broken”). I don’t know how such things can add value to communication.

    With university teachers, married, with children, in their forties or fifties tweeting this kind of things, I think something is very wrong.

    Apart from the obvious thing you mentioned: most of the messages are tweeted during work, every couple of minutes. People with such habits are generally not very interesting.


  7. Simon


    Your point about ‘it’s interesting to see who responds’ made me smile because I remember back in the early days of newsgroups when I was heavily involved in bringing OOD into an organisation following (and occasionally engaging) in discussions about how to do OOD with people like Jacobson, Booch, Mellor, et al reguarly contributing to the discussion. Like all channels however at some point the signal to noise ratio increases and the interesting people who really have something useful to say go off to some other less polluted channel.


    P.S. Enjoying Confessions at the moment, thanks!

  8. kia

    Thanks for the insight. Although I have read that social media is a critical component of a marketing campaign, I have yet to jump on the Twitter train. It is difficult enough to generate fresh and interesting content for my website’s blogs and articles. I guess the trick is to give a topic different light in the various forums. Keep up the good work. I am right behind you.

  9. Tisha White

    I use Twitter to follow things I’m personally interested in; for instance, I’m a Louisiana girl, so I’m following quite a few Saints related Twitterers (is that even a word?). Also I’m following some friends, a store in Baton Rouge that sells running gear so I can get info on sales, that kind of thing. For business/work related stuff, I definitely prefer blogs and articles. To me, 140 characters isn’t enough info for me to glean anything useful from it, and let’s face it, they’re probably linking to an article with better info anyway; I could find the same article through Google or through a related blog. I already have more stuff to read than I have time to read it in!

  10. Pawel Brodzinski

    I use Twitter because, after all, it adds some value, namely some traffic on the blog in my case. In my case the value is significantly smaller than in yours and that’s because of difference in scale. At the same time I believe time investment is comparable no matter if you have 200 or 5000 of followers. It is just ROI which is much worse in the first case.

    Another thing I get from Twitter is some fresh air – links I wouldn’t check or find otherwise. Unfortunately signal to noise ratio is rather appalling.

    Having said that I don’t like Twitter. I virtually hate reading what one has just eaten or how much traffic there was along the way to work. I mean if Twitter is a professional tool treat it like one. Share your knowledge, experience and interesting things you read. But, for God’s sake, I don’t want to hear what you ate for your freaking lunch every single day. After all you don’t send emails or blog about that. Personally if I wanted to write what I eat on lunch I’d create another account for those who are interested in that crap. Otherwise it would be just wasting a time of my regular followers. Actually this is the way blogs made a few years ago.

    I catch myself actually expecting similar experience from Twitter I receive from blogs where I choose only these which deliver quality content and doesn’t flood me. Sure, most people won’t use Twitter this way, but the same I can say about blogs. This approach however limit the number of followers (and value) I get, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make.

    By the way this one: “folks either: a) don

  11. Gordon O'Neill

    Thanks for a thoughtful look at Twitter. Twitter is not all things to all people. It has it’s disadvantages and some of it’s most ardent admirers would do well to acknowledge them. I have used Twitter to my businesses advantage, I currently have four clients who came to me in one Twitter way or another, but they are my clients because it was followed up in an email and in person. Twitter is great for networking but it is a gateway for doing business.

    Twitter can also be an extraordinary waste of time if you let it, but so can email. I recently switched my email accounts to only update every hour and it has stopped the distraction from looking at emails as soon as they come in. I suspect I will have to formulate as similar system for Twitter.

    I wrote about my journey to Twitter on my blog

  12. rodica

    I actually dug up a post I wrote in March of 2007 on Twitter. I was surprised to see I still feel pretty much the same.

    I’m certainly using twitter more these days, but I find that I experiment with a lot of the new social media tools in an attempt to understand the culture of online interactions – I think I may have been an anthropologist in a previous life :)

  13. E Pyatt

    I was a reluctant inductee into Twitter and I agree 100% with all the drawbacks you list. Having said that, I do think it’s interesting to see how it and I have evolved.

    Early on a colleague of mine noted that the 140 character limit was actually a writing challenge in being coherent in 140 characters. When I do post, I sort of enjoy that aspect. Twitter has also been shown to be useful for providing real-time information on the ground (e.g. following a tornado, reporting protests from Iran). I am beginning to think of Twitter as another useful tool, if not one I follow 24-7.

    I do have to say that I hope we don’t repeat Congressional Twitter in the State of the Union in 2010. The results from 2009 were not very inspiring.

  14. Joel D Canfield

    I make it a habit, a couple times a week, to sit and watch the Twitter stream, and reply to something that makes sense to add my bits to.

    Otherwise, I do my very best to ignore its existence. It feels very much like being in a stadium full of teenage actresses.

  15. Mike Nitabach

    I hate Twitter. Give me paragraphs!!!

  16. Spiro Spiliadis

    I specifically like twitter for it’s main purpose, and that is research. I strategically follow those that get me the info i want, and i want to learn about.

    instead of searching it comes to me when i want it and when i need it..

  17. Elisabeth

    The only thing I’d like to add to your most excellent summary is what E Pyatt commented: the challenge of being coherent and interesting in 140 characters, without resorting to text language or links.

    The first two people I started following inspired me in this (they both have popular blogs): some of their tweets make me laugh out loud and communicate so much with so little words. And not a link in sight.

    So I gave myself the personal challenge of using Twitter as a playground to write about a complete “thought” in 140 characters or less, in complete sentences. The reason is that I have been accused, and rightly so, of writing too much. (Like now.)

    It’s alot harder than you think.

  18. Shishir

    I agree with almost everything you’ve said here, however I
    think that twitter was/is not meant for long discourses, in
    fact if that was ever introduced twitter’s popularity might
    take a huge hit.

    And it does appear as if people have too much time, to update
    their facebook status, tweet etc etc than for actual work.

  19. Prince2TrainingDay

    I’m glad you’ve made the follow up post, I agree that buzz words like ‘social media’ get thrown around willy nilly and soon lose all meaning, but as you’ve said the likes of Twitter and Facebook do have their applications for disseminating ones work, you just have to filter through all the rubbish

  20. Kevin Webber

    I’ve only recently started using Twitter, and I have to admit, I haven’t quite “got it” yet. I enjoy following Trent Reznor and other people I’ll never have the opportunity to have a two-way dialog with, and I also understand the benefit of being able to scale a message from one person to one million people without any additional effort (the first time in human history this was even practical for the average person). But at the same time, I really prefer the old fashioned way of communicating with interesting people: in person, over a coffee. Or directly, on their blog, with a little more freedom than a 140 character limit offers. I’m also self-employed, so I don’t really have any time to kill in a cubicle; when I have an extra 30 minutes to spare, jogging along the lakeshore always seems more compelling than sending a few tweets about how much I’d like to jog along the lakeshore. ;) For me, it’s mostly a platform to consume information from rather than distribute via, at least for now.

  21. Kevin Peno

    Hey Scott,

    It is for all the short comings you have pointed out that I am becoming a big fan of Google’s Buzz. Buzz allows you to share your blog posts (or pther people’s blog posts if you use reader’s share features), make/see comments for each Buzz item, and actually see the discussion chain related to that Buzz all in a very simplistic interface.

    If you are already a Google user (reader, gmail, etc) Buzz really does make it easy to wrap your life into an easy to follow Buzz. I’m pretty sure there are ways to import your tweets and facebook stuff into Buzz automatically too (possibly in the other direction as well?) if you want to wait for buzz to gain in popularity and/or leverage the benefits, but keep with the hype.

  22. Lynn

    As nothing but a user of twitter, not a “pusher” you could say?, I think of twitter as my toilet feed. :D Great reading when you’ve got a few minutes. I definitely think of twitter as the place to get information in little bites and I do love it for that reason and pretty much that reason alone.



  1. […] Twitter Reconsidered Scott Berkun is fast becoming a central commentator on work, projects, public speaking and social media. He’s one of the new high profile next-gen business writers at O’Reilly media. In this piece, he shifts his view of twitter from the widely held ‘what a waste of time’ to a more thoughtful ‘hmm, people are using it, there must be something there.’ Worth your time if Twitter still doesn’t make sense to you. […]

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