The reluctant Twitterer's dilemma.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 10 2009 1:00 PM

Do I Really Have To Join Twitter?

What to do if you're just not that into microblogging but don't want to be left behind.

Twitter. Click image to expand.
Twitter

Twitter is growing so fast it's sometimes easy to forget that to a lot of people, the concept is completely bizarre. According to comScore, the microblogging site received about 10 million visitors in February—a 700 percent increase over last year. To the initiated, the surge seems justified. Committed Twitterers argue that the 140-character-or-less tweet represents the next great mode of human communication. To vast swaths of the population, though, Twitter is inscrutable: Wait a minute—you want me to keep a perpetual log of my boring life for all the world to see? What if I just spend my free time watching Golden Girls?

In other words, it's hard for many to shake the feeling that Twitter is a waste of time. It's not only Luddites who feel this way; in the last few months, a surprising number of people in the tech industry—people who fancy themselves the earliest of early adopters—have mentioned to me that they have a hard time wrapping their heads around the service. Many float the idea that Twitter is little more than an overhyped, media-driven sensation.

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Is Twitter a fad? It's certainly received more than 140 characters of love from the press recently; everywhere you look, someone in the news is tweeting. But the people on TV rarely seem to address something very basic: What's the point of tweeting? And should you do it? I get variations on this question often from readers. Let's say you're a moderately tech-savvy person who takes well to new forms of gabbing—you've got an easy facility with blogs, you log in to Facebook when you need it, you text, you IM, and perhaps you even talk to your friends through Skype. Is it time for you to jump into microblogging, too? Would you be missing out on some important cultural touchstone if you sat out this round of techno-innovation?

The short answer: Eh, go ahead and give it a try if you like, but there's nothing lame about waiting to see whether Twitter pans out.

Much of what we do online has obvious analogues in the past: E-mail and IM replace letters and face-to-face chatting. Blogging is personal pamphleteering. Skype is the new landline. Social networks let us map our real-life connections to the Web. It's not surprising, then, that these new tools deliver obvious social utility—Facebook is the best way to get in touch with old friends, and instant messaging is the quickest way to collaborate with your colleagues across the country. Twitter is different. It's not a faster or easier way of doing something you did in the past, unless you were one of those people who wrote short "quips" on bathroom stalls. It's a totally alien form of communication. Microblogging mixes up features of e-mail, IM, blogs, and social networks to create something not just novel but also confusing, and doing it well takes time and patience. That's not to say it isn't useful; to some people in some situations, Twitter is irreplaceable. But it is not—or, at least, not yet—a necessary way to stay socially relevant in the information age.

As a practical matter, Twitter is a cinch to get into: You sign up, pick a few people to follow, then start typing out your thoughts, making sure to keep each post below the 140-character limit. (There are also some conventions you've got to get used to— here's a short primer.) But Twitter, unlike Facebook, favors one-way connections—you can follow my posts, but I don't have to follow yours. As a result, novice Twitterers are met with instant discouragement—you start out with nobody reading your posts, and because the people you follow don't have to follow you, there's no guarantee that you'll ever convince great numbers of people to listen to what you have to say. Twitter is not a meritocracy; you may be the cleverest quipper in your circle, but celebrities and people in the media inevitably win the most followers. There is no justice in the fact that a banal Twitterer like Sen. Claire McCaskill has attracted an audience of more than 19,000. (A typically riveting McCaskill tweet: "Leaving for KC soon. Meeting about American car manufacturing. Then on to Springfield. Press avail there.") But that's how Twitter goes; if you join, be prepared to deal with a lot of people who are undeservedly more popular than yourself.

Slate V: Flutter: The New Twitter

Microblogging, like regular blogging, rewards persistence. Twitter is littered with half-hearted tweets—people who joined the site with dreams of sending out pithy little posts regularly and then drifted away after realizing that keeping up a microblog can be an unrewarding chore. The best Twitterers post a few times a day, but with care—like the best bloggers, they aim for comedy, insight, and drama and to share cool links. They also don't overload their followers. I've dropped people for tweeting too often; more than three times an hour seems excessive.

Does all this sound daunting? It should. Lost in the hype surrounding Twitter is any suggestion that tweeting is not for everyone. Sure, it's easy to join Twitter, but Twittering isn't easy. And it's not instantly rewarding, either. If you're a politician, a celebrity, a marketer, or a journalist, you've likely got very specific goals for Twitter—to sell yourself or a product. Twitter can pay off grandly for these folks; have you heard about the Korean taco truck in Los Angeles that's built a cult following by tweeting its roving location to customers? Last month, I pointed out that by connecting companies with their biggest fans, Twitter has also helped a few people find jobs in this tough economy. So if you're out of work and have nothing else better to do, Twitter might be for you.

But what if you're not selling tacos and you don't care to establish a brand for yourself online? What if you just work in accounting—what can Twitter do for you? This is a harder nut to crack. Some people are fans of the medium itself; they join Twitter not to tweet but to subscribe to streams from Shaquille O'Neal, John Mayer, John Dickerson, and other world-class Twitterers.

But if you're not into that, Twitter doesn't seem to offer much that you can't already get elsewhere—for instance, at Facebook. A few months ago, I urged readers to join the social network because you could no longer mistake it for a passing craze; Facebook, I argued, is now a permanent part of the culture, as critical to modern society as e-mail and the cell phone. Since then, to much annoyance, Facebook has redesigned its site to be more Twitter-like. These changes diminish Twitter's attractiveness: Are you just looking for a way to occasionally send a mass message to your friends? Facebook, where you've already established a circle of followers, can be a much faster way of doing so—especially now that it looks so much like Twitter.

Microblogging may not be a fad; there are probably enough people who want to broadcast their thoughts to strangers, and certainly enough people who want to read what these folks have to say, to keep it growing.

But that doesn't mean everyone will be doing it, either. Talking to strangers is strange. It takes a certain type of person to do it well—or even to want to do it.If you're struck with horror at the prospect of telling the world what you ate for dinner, where you're going on vacation, or what you read in the paper this morning—well, that's OK. You're just not that into Twitter, and you're not alone.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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