Twitter - what is it good for?

3 February 2009

In 1979, Gary Numan sang “You know I hate to ask… but are ‘friends’ electric?”. He was obviously making a very prescient point about the increasingly online and less personal nature of our social interactions thirty years into the future. Although to be honest, looking at the rest of the lyrics he was probably just singing any old random bollocks that came into his head.

All of which leads neatly into a discussion about Twitter.

I was catching up on a few blogs last week and I read three separate people talking about Twitter, so I thought I’d give it a go as it seems to be the latest hot internet thing, just like Facebook was a couple of years ago.

Now, I did get almost embarrassingly excited about Facebook back in April 2007, but so far I’m wondering what the point of Twitter is really. It’s a bit like Facebook status updates, instant messaging and blogging all rolled into one massive time wasting machine.

It’s cool in that I can now add my updates to my website, those same updates can appear as my Facebook updates, and that anybody at all can “follow” those updates, but it doesn’t really feel like I’m particularly gaining anything.

I suppose one of the attractions is that you can “follow” celebrities. Just like MySpace, you can pretend to be friends with a celebrity, with the advantage that it doesn’t require the celebrity to give a fuck about you. Russell Brand, Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross are largely responsible for Twitter’s sudden popularity in the UK, and I can see that the prospect of reading about Russell Brand’s latest sexual indiscretions “live” as they happen must be pretty compelling, for a certain type of person.

So I don’t think I’ve particularly “got it” yet. At the moment I’m enjoying picking up interesting links to look at when bored, and it’s quite fun following people like Charlie Brooker and Richard Herring, whose “tweets” can be quite amusing, but I don’t think it can be too long before the novelty wears off.

I expect Twitter will develop over time, just as Facebook has, and it will find its mainstream niche. Hopefully it will become a bit easier to use - there are some strange conventions on there at the moment for things like “ReTweets” (basically forwarding someone else’s tweet) and sticking a hash “#” in front of a ”tag” to make it appear in some kind of search channel thing, all of which can make someone’s Twitter feed look pretty alien to a newcomer. I do wonder how much it can evolve though before the essential premise becomes lost. The worst thing would be for Twitter to “do a Facebook” and ruin the current simplicity by replacing it with a “platform” for garbage applications.

That said, there are a few simple things they could do. It’s hard to see replies to someone else’s tweet, other than by searching, and it would be good to have a bit more control over whose public replies you can see.

I’m interested in how Twitter is going to develop, so I think I’ll stick around for a bit longer.

If you’re interested in Twitter, here’s a link to a good NYTimes blog post about some of the current conventions and etiquette.

And if you want to follow me, here I am: http://twitter.com/alexwarren