Twitter Pros and Cons

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2843, 2010-10-22, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-9) and their website.

Nowadays we hear a growing number of people peppering their conversations with bird-like sounds — "tweets" and "twitter". To anyone who is not up to date with the Internet in general, and social networking in particular, it may sound as though today's younger generation has suddenly taken an interest in ornithology. Actually, the source of the craze is Twitter, which is, in the words of the Wikipedia entry, "a free social networking and micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the author's profile page and delivered to the author's subscribers who are known as followers."

Within a year of its launch in 2006, Twitter began to experience remarkable growth in use, which has only increased during the years that followed. According to the Web analytics company Compete, at the beginning of 2008, the Twitter site was receiving half a million unique visitors every month, and by December of that year, it was up to 4.43 million — an astonishing growth rate of 752 percent. Just a few months later, it was up to 8 million and counting. Each day, anywhere from 5000 to 10,000 people signed up for new accounts. By February 2009, the year-over-year growth rate had reached 1382 percent. All of those statistics (except possibly growth rate) are likely higher now, with the number of Twitter users reported in the tens of millions.

This surging popularity is undoubtedly a consequence of several factors. The technical media pundits, including bloggers with massive audiences, tend to jump on whatever Web bandwagon is in the spotlight, and this sort of buzz simply builds upon itself. In turn, more individuals, businesses, and other organizations see any new hot phenomenon as something that they too should adopt, if only to appear "with it" — regardless of whether or not they have objectively determined that the benefits outweigh the costs, and whether or not they even understand the technology in question, as well as its advantages and disadvantages — which are worth considering for a communication technology such as Twitter that is rapidly permeating daily life for anyone on the Web.

Micro-Blogging at Its Best?

For Twitter to have become so widespread, there definitely must be more to it than the compounding effects of media excitement and coverage. One obvious factor is that countless individuals do not have the time, interest, or writing capacity to maintain a steady stream of blog posts — each of which is expected to comprise at least several paragraphs. For people in this predicament, micro-blogging can be a godsend, because each Twitter "post" is limited to a sentence or two (or more, with extensive abbreviating), which can take most of the pressure off of the aspiring blogger, since just about everyone is aware of the size limitation. Moreover, there is no expectation that a tweet will contain any associated multimedia, such as digital photos and short videos, which would otherwise add to the effort needed to create an acceptable post. Also, getting started with Twitter is relatively straightforward and quick (in fact, the most challenging aspect may be in coming up with a Twitter username that has not already been taken). In contrast, starting up a conventional blog — even with some of the better hosted solutions — can be more involved and, to the non-techie, rather intimidating.

The anecdotal evidence of Twitter's value just keeps piling up, as more people meet new friends, learn about job openings, find freelance projects and collaborators, discover last-minute and unpublished travel deals, meet new gaming buddies, get real-time weather reports from people in the area, locate fellow travelers to share expenses, elicit honest feedback on restaurants and movies, and much more.

Many Internet users prefer getting as much news and other information as possible in a central location — namely, their RSS newsreader — rather than having to visit favorite sites regularly, including Twitter. Fortunately, you can subscribe to a Twitter feed and view it with a reader that does not support authentication (like Google Reader). But you will see only 20 tweets, and you will not get any updates — which makes it essentially useless. For such a scenario, FreeMyFeed is a service that will take a feed that requires authentication and, by adding your username and password, give you a new feed that doesn't require authentication.

For businesses, Twitter can serve as an effective component of a company's social media strategy on the Web, to the point where now the homepages of countless large US corporations each has a link to the company's Twitter page. Admittedly, many of these tweet streams are nothing more than duplicates of the company's RSS newsfeeds, filled with links to dull press releases. However, there are some organizations that truly understand and leverage the interactive nature of micro-blogging and social media, and use it to engage their customers and prospects. For instance, most of the major cable news channels now try to incorporate tweets from viewers into their broadcasts, which naturally attracts viewers who would like to express their opinions, or at least see their names on the screen. In addition, Twitter can be used internally as an always-on communication medium for a team of any size.

But are the world's top corporations managing their Web presence well enough to have secured the Twitter accounts for their company and product names? Apparently not. According to research by trademark attorney Erik J. Heels and published on 8 January 2009, an astounding 93 of the top 100 US brand names have failed to secure those names on Twitter, and consequently a "Twittersquatter" in each case has taken the username that the company's marketing staff should have locked in as soon as Twitter became clearly visible in the commercial world. Don't let your promising startup enterprise make this mistake.

In the realm of politics and governance, social news is playing a greater role. Just like the use of fax machines and e-mail in the past, political observers and protesters are discovering the value of being able to immediately send out short messages to all their followers, typically transmitted from cell phones. Twitter has been used successfully by all sorts of governmental and nongovernmental organizations in most Western countries, Israel, and elsewhere. At the US federal level, NASA has used Twitter to send out real-time updates on a number of missions, including the Mars Phoenix Lander and the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. At the state level, a growing number of universities are not only announcing schedule changes via Twitter, but allowing students to participate in discussions during class. Elementary schools are preparing children for a networked future, by teaching them how to communicate using various social platforms.

Twitter has even proven its utility for pranks. In December 2009, TechCrunch.com reported that a best man in a UK wedding waited until his newly-married friends were absent on their honeymoon, slipped into their house, and placed under their mattress a pressure-sensitive device that tweeted the weight on the mattress, the start time, the duration, and the frenzy index (on a scale from 1 to 10). Now anyone on the Internet can follow the action.

Media Hype at Its Worst?

The raw statistics may give one the impression that Twitter is fast becoming the greatest thing since, well, Facebook. But some of the figures might turn out to be misleading, because the total number of users does not imply that all of them are active. Back in April 2009, David Martin of Nielsen Online reported that more than 60 percent of American Twitter users fail to return the following month after signing up. So for each person who appears to be energetically tweeting their every thought and action, there may be several others who tweeted for a few weeks or months, and then lost interest — much like the abandoned personal websites of the late 1990s.

Yet statistical puffery could be the most innocuous of the barbs aimed against Twitter and its proponents. Critics of all stripes have argued that most tweets are pointless drivel, churned out by a user base composed of "twits" — narcissistic individuals desperate for attention, and corporate suits fearful of missing out on the latest online craze and thereby appearing disconnected from and irrelevant to hip young consumers. Scott Adams perhaps nailed this perspective in his Dilbert cartoon of 24 November 2009, in which Dogbert states, "I decided to Twitter because everything that pops into my head is fascinating."

Given that every tweet is limited to 140 characters, one must wonder just how much value can the Twitterati offer the world, and whether it tends to attract people with terribly short attention spans — in terms of both reading and writing. Social observers may worry that Twitter is but one more steppingstone in the degeneration of human thought and communication, as we descend from substantial books, essays, and letters, to ghostwritten fluff books, grammatically-challenged blog posts, and tweets describing bodily functions. Moreover, circumscribed messages in any medium run the risk of some readers misinterpreting and being offended by a quip that cannot be set in context. Will this lead to an escalation of the Twitter-fueled flame wars already spotted in the wild?

This of course assumes that the participants can read the tweets of others, and either counterattack or give those tweets a virtual thumbs up (by "retweeting" them). What happens when the entire Twitter system is unavailable? Such has been the case on several occasions, apparently caused by software instability, excessive traffic, and other problems that can strike at any time. During such an outage, visitors to the site cannot access their tweets or followers, but instead see the now famous "fail whale", an image depicting a white whale being hoisted out of the water by eight red birds, with an explanation that cleverly begins "Too many tweets!"

While some commercial enterprises have wholly embraced Twitter, and others are still testing the waters, the bulk of the commercial interest appears to be limited to the United States. Some of the largest firms in Europe and the UK are generally ignoring this new social networking platform, and have no intentions of trying it — even companies in the Internet and telecommunications sector, such as British Telecom. In fact, the top search result for "Twitter" on that company's site, as of this writing, is a short article announcing that actor Stephen Fry will suspend tweeting to his more than one million followers, so he can get the "absolute peace" and "zero distraction" needed to finish writing a book.

If even one of the most enthusiastic techies of the world is finding the "Twittersphere" too distracting, then what hope can we mortals have? Will Twitter gain enough users, stability, and respect to eventually eclipse Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking systems? Or will it become the poster child of content-free online blabbing, a notorious waste of time, and something our elders will warn us about in public service announcements on television titled This Is Your Brain on Twitter?

The truth is no doubt somewhere in between. Like any tool, Twitter can be used wisely or poorly. Just be careful what you communicate to the world on Twitter — even unintentionally, such as if you get married under the watchful gaze of a mischievous best man.

Copyright © 2010 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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