More talk, fewer tweets

"In the race toward new media, Twitter is receiving a more than its share of praise. Heralded as an exciting new medium of the future, every talk show host and journalist recognizable suddenly rushed to Twitter in order that they could be followed. But the 140 character microblogging site was supposed to be enriching our close personal relationships as well; following our friends and loved ones is supposed to keep us better connected to them.

"Unfortunately, the technology is drastically overhyped. Very few tweets are personal tendrils reaching out to those who care. More often, tweets are presumptuous and self-promoting, and if not that, then they are frivolous and inane. To us, what Twitter represents is more echo-chamber than communication medium.

"And let us take a small moment to mourn the loss of time when people were truly unreachable, when a man or woman could go a whole day without pestering human interaction. Would we really have expected Thoreau to tweet his insights from Walden Pond? (For example: "R inventions r wont to be pretty toys, which diztract r a10tion from serious things.") Would there have even been any such insights?

"Because tweets must remain under 140 characters, there is little content that can be delivered. Most context for such brief messages must be teased from knowledge about the tweeter, or simply lost. This makes tweets seem random and without underlying themes found in longer communications and conversations; this also lends to simpler, unsourced thoughts, rather than complex exchanges of ideas.

"The effect is even more so if the page is not updated frequently, as what relationship survives on one sentence of communication every week? Whatever one you might imagine, you can be sure it is neither substantive nor intensely valuable.

"Conversely, too frequent tweeting can also be annoying, and cause users to unsubscribe, as their feeds are taken over by a single speaker discussing an uninteresting topic in an unfocused manner. The behavior is analogous to someone trying to drown out all other conversation at a dinner party and capture everyone’s attention—it only works if one is truly fascinating.

"Because Twitter is limited in its ability to create a conversational atmosphere, it cannot engage users. Those who are excited about Twitter tend to be so inclined because they enjoy tweeting, not because they are all that jazzed about reading others’ tweets. A common indicator of this is the number of people to whom Twitter users have subscribed. If the number exceeds reason, anything above 200 for example, then we can be sure that messages are frequently missed and probably poorly followed by that user. A study of Twitter found that as few as 29 percent of tweets are ever actually read. Seventy-one percent are ignored entirely. Clearly, there is a lopsided bias toward the speaker; this probably due to a cognitive bias observed in most people who think that what they have to say is more interesting than average, which we know cannot be true. The problem with Twitter is that because feedback is difficult to achieve, most people never learn to suppress uninteresting information, because it costs them literally nothing to disseminate. In face-to-face conversation, the price of uninteresting or ill-timed utterances is the attention and respect of fellow conversation partners. We can detect this flow of social currency through facial, nonverbal or tonal clues. But those do not exist in the Twitterverse. We are left like men shouting on mountaintops; we do not cry out to reach others, but to only listen ourselves talk. We hear only our own echoes.

"Conversation, that exchange of useful ideas, is the reason humans developed language on the grasslands of Africa. It’s the fundamental communication model from which we all learned from and to which we all aspire. The extent to which Twitter and its users succeed is the extent to which they capitalize on the site’s limited mechanisms in order to mimic conversation, the extent to which they fail is wrapped up in their failure to do so.

"Twitter is lauded for its ability to take a snapshot of major events such as the 2009 Iranian protests or the revolutions in Egypt or Tunisia, that is, to capture our utterances at the point at which we as humans are most fascinating. But that is infrequent, and the province of the few privy to a very interesting event who can synthesize and communicate their experience within Twitter’s narrow restrictions. The problem with Twitter is that it is everyone talking at all times; the search cost for the truly compelling tweets are enormous. Indeed, we would probably rather speak to these compelling people on the phone or in person. Twitter succeeds when this is impossible, giving it the dubious honor of being a very good medium of last resort—king of the lepers.

"We ought to put more effort into conversing, rather than tweeting, because virtual relationships are a very poor substitute for actual relationships with followed friends and loved ones? And when these key people are not available for immersive and responsive conversation, we think it best not accept their 140 character table scraps.