It might be surprising, but despite my high level of connectivity, I don’t do so well with the social web applications. I started with Orkut back in the day. We got all of our friends onto it, then we got tired of it after a few weeks. I have a Facebook account, but I don’t actually use it for anything. I primarily just use e-mail, IM and web forums for communication with the new world, and the telephone to communicate with the old world. Twitter is the first thing to put a kink in the works in quite some time.
The reason I think I don’t stick with the social networks is that they require significant investment. When you read a blog, you are just taking. You don’t have to put anything into someone else’s blog to get something out. With a social network like Facebook or MySpace, you have to put work in for value to come out. If you lack the need or desire to make that investment, a social platform will not yield benefits to you, no matter how good it is.
When Twitter came along I largely ignored it. When I heard it described, I dismissed it as stupid. Apparently I didn’t learn my lesson with Dance Dance Revolution. I made a Twitter account, but I didn’t use it much. I have Jaiku and Pownce accounts too, but I didn’t use those either. I’m big on joining, but not actually using. When Twitter started to actually take over the web, I decided to sign into my account and give it an honest try. I followed some Internet celebrities and some other people I know. I also put my account out there, so GeekNights listeners and other fans would follow me, and I would follow them back.
My immediate impression was that Twitter was just a promotion platform. Other than the mindless twitters about eating or sleeping, most of the stuff I saw was people trying to get visits to their latest blog post or their new podcast episode. That’s well and good, but if that’s all that Twitter had to offer, I didn’t need to be a part of it. I also have too much pride to shamelessly promote my own material on Twitter.
Then I realized the next valuable aspect of Twitter is the role it plays as an idea dumping ground. During the course of my day sitting at a computer I will occasionaly have thoughts that try to escape, but have no place to go. It wouldn’t be something big enough to write a blog post. It wouldn’t be appropriate conversation with neighboring co-workers. It wouldn’t be relevant for any web forums I’m on. If I can’t find an online instant message buddy to appreciate it, then I’m stuck with it. Twitter solved this problem. When I have a need to express some small idea, I can always dump it to Twitter. No need to pick a random friend to harass on IM. Just toss it into the wild.
Just a week or so ago, I put the Adobe Air Linux beta on my laptop, and started to use Twhirl. What a difference proper client software makes. By using Twhirl, I have finally seen the core of Twitter. Twitter is the new IRC.
Back in the day, and some people even today, would hang out in IRC all day. They find a server, and they make a channel to hang out in. Everyone in the channel has something in common, usually relating to the channel topic, but discussion is not limited to the topic alone. You form a bond with the people in your channel(s), and you discuss many things with them. It is something special to have a room where people you are close to are available for instant communication at almost any time. IRC people always keep that chat window open somewhere while they work, and Twitter people do the same.
Of course, IRC has its problems. You might have to manage multiple channels. People might come in the channel you don’t want to hear from. If you leave the channel, you might miss something someone said. Twitter is the answer to all of these problems. It is one gigantic worldwide IRC channel where you only have to hear the people you want to hear. Everyone is using one IRC server, and you customize your own channel one person at a time. You can also view the complete history of Twitter at any time.
Even though I recognize this, Twitter still feels a bit dirty to me. I can’t explain it very well. There’s no logic behind it. There’s just a feeling I get with Twitter that it is somehow unclean. I feel the same way towards IRC, that somehow when I use it I am going into the dark, seedy part of the Internet. One cause of this I think is the lack of technological polish on IRC and Twitter. Pownce, which is much more polished, doesn’t feel unclean at all. I may not be able to completely explain these feelings I have, but I can certaintly use Twitter despite them.
Technologicaly speaking, Twitter may need some work, but psychologically I think it is doing everything right. It fulfills two basic needs of people who are hooked into the web. It gives tiny tidbits that fall out of people’s brains a place to live, and possibly grow. It also gives people a customized feed of info to feed off of without having to pull it in. We prefer the web to old media because it is pull rather than push, but Twitter gives back that tiny push feed to satisfy serendipity and novelty.
Despite early skepticism, I think I’ll be keeping my Twitter open for a bit. Follow me if you like. We’ll see how long this lasts.