The co-founders of Twitter say it will change the world. They should remind people that it's also fun.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 15 2010 5:34 PM

Tweet Now, Revolt Later

The co-founders of Twitter say it will change the world. They should remind people that it's also fun.

Evan Williams. Click image to expand.
Twitter co-founder and CEO Evan Williams

"Twitter is not a triumph of technology," Biz Stone, the company's creative director, told an audience in San Francisco this week. "It's a triumph of humanity." As Stone describes it, Twitter is a tool for times of revolution and strife, a service that can break news, bring down tyrants, and salve the wounds of the forsaken. When Capt. Chesley Sullenberger landed his plane in the Hudson last year, Twitter was there. When activists in Iran took to the streets to protest a stolen election, Twitter was there. When earthquakes ravaged Haiti and Chile, Twitter was there. I spend many hours a day on Twitter, but even I was shocked to learn from Stone that I was changing the world in the process. I'd assumed it was mainly a way to find links to the terrible things Tea Partiers say about Obama.

When it comes to Twitter, most people fall into one of two categories. Some people think it's the most trivial thing since John & Kate Plus 8, a cesspool of banality that is destroying civilization. (For examples of this sentiment, scroll down to the inevitable comments under this story.) Other people consider Twitter a revolutionary technology, a service whose significance and sociological importance ranks up there with the wheel, the assembly line, and Ulysses. Put the Library of Congress in this category. On Wednesday, the library announced that it had acquired Twitter's entire archive. Scholars will be given access to this stash, a collection that some historians believe will transform how future generations understand the past. "It's very exciting that tweets are becoming part of history," Stone wrote in a blog post.

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It isn't surprising that people who created Twitter take Twitter very seriously. Dreaming big is a key ingredient in the alchemy of tech entrepreneurship; all of Silicon Valley's leading lights, from Steve Jobs to Sergey Brin to Mark Zuckerberg, harbor ambitions to change the world. And Twitter's founders are right to be proud of what they've built. Just a couple of years ago, Twitter was a promising idea marred by technical failures and no clear way to make any money. Today, Twitter has 106 million registered users around the world, with about 300,000 new people signing up every day. The service is managing pretty well under that load. As Evan Williams, Twitter's CEO, told developers, over the last year the service has significantly reduced errors in "tweet delivery" and server downtime. And with its new "promoted tweets" advertising plan, Twitter even has a good chance of making some money.

For Twitter's own good, though, I wish its founders and acolytes would tone down the revolutionary language. All the talk about Twitter as an aid to mass activism, a trusty friend during earthquakes, makes Twitter sound like the broccoli of social-networks. The high-minded rhetoric exacerbates Twitter's main problem—that people are confused about what to use it for—and obscures its main selling point, which is that it's a lot of fun. Twitter has become the best way to find interesting things or people online at any given instant. Everyone who's interested in news ought to be on it, and even people who aren't should give it a try. That's because it's great entertainment—following a good group of tweeters, like hanging out a well-attended party, is a terrific way to spend part of your day. That's enough of a reason to join it, even if you aren't helping to bring down Iran's dictatorship.

As I argued last year, Twitter is the most inscrutable of online services; despite its growth, a lot of people still find the idea of posting missives to the world both bizarre and frightening. Many—and perhaps most—of Twitter's registered users aren't very active on the site. The company is aware of this problem. "Twitter is too hard to use," Williams conceded in his talk. He put up a slide that captures Twitter's difficulty—an image of the Google search box after you type in the phrase, "I don't get." Google's second suggestion for that query is "I don't get Twitter." (The first is, "I don't get drunk I get awesome.")

Williams says that teaching people how to use Twitter is difficult because different people are looking for different things from the service. Journalists, politicians, and celebrities have taken to Twitter mainly for self-promotion: These people have a lot to say, and with its ego-stroking metrics on how your message ricochets around the Web, Twitter offers an unmatched vehicle for self-brand management. Twitter has also become a boon to marketers. Companies use it to promote products and monitor shifts in consumers' thoughts about brands (a recent study shows that Twitter can be used to predict how well a movie will do on its opening weekend based on mentions of the movie in tweets). Some people even use Twitter to get things done—to find a job, say, or in the hopes of finding redress for terrible customer service.

But while Williams is right that there are lots of ways to use Twitter, the company would do well to promote it for one main use—as a source of information and entertainment. The dominant misconception about Twitter is that you've got to have something to say to take part. Ask a Twitter skeptic why he's abstaining, and I guarantee you he'll say that he doesn't think the world would find it all that interesting to hear what he's eaten for breakfast. This gets Twitter wrong in two ways. First, some people actually might care to know what you've eaten for breakfast. As Cory Doctorow has argued, if a lot of conversation on social networks is banal, that's only because banal conversation is one of the main ways people form and maintain social bonds. You don't ask your co-worker what she did on the weekend because you really care; you ask her because you want to chat. In that way Twitter is only mirroring real life.

The more important point, though, is that you don't need to tell anybody what you've eaten for breakfast in order to get something out of Twitter. (And now that I think about it, in my years on Twitter I don't think I've ever seen a tweet about people eating breakfast, getting coffee, or going to the store). Lurking is one perfectly valid way to use Twitter. Chances are that some of the journalists, bloggers, actors, comedians, writers, and other personalities whom you love in real life are also on Twitter. You can go to the site, sign up to follow these people, and then just read what they write—all while playing the wallflower. There's often something magical about the way Twitter flattens the distance between you and the famous; I find it a thrill to hear about how Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon spend their weekends. Most of the time, though, Twitter, for me, is just a great place to find fun things online. No, that's not revolutionary. But it's not nothing, either.

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

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