American in Spain

What's the point of Twitter?

February 26, 2008

First, a quick follow-up on my previous post in the "What's the point?" series about Facebook. I've ceased to log into Facebook on any sort of regular basis. The same "you gotta sign up to see it" philosophy that I praised as clever now strikes me as the most repulsive element of its design. I'm continually notified that some friend or another has installed some Facebook "application" on their homepage, but when I click the inviting link to see what it's about, I have to agree to give the people that wrote the application some amount of my personal data. Screw that.

Strangely, the part of Facebook that I found to be initially the dumbest, the "what are you doing right now?" status, was the part that kept me logging in. And this is exactly the "problem" that Twitter hails itself as the solution to. So what the heck is Twitter, you ask?

According to their main page,

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

To me, this sounds like the dumbest thing in the world. Why would I go to a website and enter "Preparing pork chops for dinner", and broadcast that to the world? It doesn't make any sense to me. Nor would I repeatedly go hit refresh on a web page to see what my friends are moaning about right now. For me, what makes Twitter work at all is the XMPP interface. That's geek talk for "it can be plugged into almost any instant messaging (i.e. chat) program". What does this do for Twitter? It makes it so that, whenever a friend posts a new message to Twitter, I get box that pops up and a sound just like if they had sent me an instant message. And I can respond just like if I was responding to an instant message. This is huge. I never have to actually go to Twitter's website or see any ads (there aren't any yet, but there will be). And it was using Twitter in this way that finally allowed me to "get it".

After using Twitter, off and on, for a couple weeks now. I've finally figured out how to think about it, and it's made all the difference. Think about this next sentence:

Twitter is to instant messaging what blogging is to email.

Blogging, to me, is about sharing thoughts and events and photos and adventures with lots of people I care about, and that care about me. When I want to tell my family and friends about what I did last weekend, I can either A) write a personalized email to each of them, B) write one email and send it to all of them, or C) write a blog entry about it. I don't know about you, but I don't like it when people presume, by sending me an email, that I will be interested in a long, detailed account of what they did yesterday. And I know that, back when method B was the way to disseminate personal stories, some of my recipients must have been annoyed. What I love about blogging is the open, unforced nature of it. The pressure to read and respond to a blog entry is much lower than that of an email. I have some uncles that read every word I post here, and I have others that just aren't that interested. And that's fine. What blogging does is put that exclusion or inclusion in their hands, and not in mine, when filling the email recipient list.

We're getting back to Twitter, but we've got one more stop to make. I've got some friends with whom I exchange a lot of urls via email. Some emails contain nothing more in the body than a url, and they get responded to with a one-line comment. I've received emails where the entire content of the email was "LOL!" If you don't know what that means, stop reading now, because Twitter is not for you. This is actually a slight abuse of email as a communication platform. I have other friends that use the proper platform for such messages: instant messaging. Instant messaging is like email, but faster, with less detail. Messages like "Hey, check this out!" or "Did you take the dog to the vet?" or "Dinner is at 7:00, right?" shouldn't require sending an entire email message. Instant messaging solves this problem perfectly.

But what if I have a url or a general gripe about the lines at the post office the world that I'd, ideally, like to send to 5 or 6 friends, with the same "you don't have to respond if you don't want to" freedom that I get from blogging? THAT is what Twitter is for. People that care about my day-to-day griping or meme proliferation can subscribe to ("follow" in Twitter terminology) my Twitter feed and get updates sent to them in their instant messaging programs, or any other variety of methods, whenever I post something. And no one else has to know or care. Like with blogging, the burden of who gets informed is taken off of me.

And the point of Twitter. QED.

For those of you that either don't want to sign up or are still living life without RSS feeds, I've placed my most recent Twitter messages on my sidebar. To get to the urls, you'll have to click on the "time ago" link to go to Twitter's website and then click on the url. Or you can always follow all my messages on my Twitter homepage.