Commentary

The dilemma of Twitter

Twitter. Love it, perhaps hate it, or don’t get it. One thing is clear, Twitter has experienced profound media exposure, perhaps surprisingly out of proportion with the service it actually provides. No, there are no tools to help you sell things, no you can’t create galleries of your favorite pictures, no there isn’t a lengthy profile to fill out, no you can’t embed video. Twitter is simply 140 characters of whatever you want. Twitter is the bottled water of the Internet, in foresight dubiously useful, in hindsight surprisingly popular. With all this exposure has Twitter reached maturity and left the realm of novelty, or is it still riding a honeymoon through the limelight?

The tinkerers new toy

Twitter’s simple elegance has led many to explore creative ways of utilizing their 140 characters. Take Mario Klingemann’s (Quasimondo) Mona Lisa stored in a single tweet, whose rendering certainly needs no reference image to be recognizable. Or Grant Skinner’s Tweetcoding contest, a challenge to create something in ActionScript 3 within 140 characters. The small message footprint is seen as a challenge to mold and work within instead of an obstacle to overcome. It has the appeal of tinkering with an old toy, whose functionality may seem limited, but that very limitation makes it appealing to extend with modern tools, to see what is possible with what is available.

Taking a stroll down The Museum of Modern Betas, a website devoted to showcasing emerging beta websites, more often than not a new service showcased is one that aims to extend the functionality of Twitter.

Why extend the functionality of a site that could have more built into it to begin with, or spend time beating the most out of 140 characters when there are options available to disseminate texts of much larger length? The answer may lie in the special place Twitter holds within the eyes of its devotees, as well as the surprising versatility its simplicity allows.

A failure made for a t-shirt

Take for instance, the appearance of the Fail Whale—which, let us remember, denotes a failure of the system to function. On a whole, the flying whale’s appearance is met with mild irritation, but eventual forgiving acceptance. As if we’ve just missed the bus, but it’s a beautiful day out so why not wait a little longer. The whale appears, but it will pass. What other service enjoys such forgiveness on failing?
Perhaps it is because Twitter has no aura of presumptuousness or expectation. Twitter didn’t tell you to use its service, or how to use it. Twitter didn’t try to sell you something. Twitter didn’t promise something big. Twitter just gives one simple service with clearly defined boundaries, the rest is up to you.

Prior to being usurped by Facebook in popular favor and acquiring a reputation of ugliness, MySpace followed a similar road to success. It gave you the tools to create a webpage, link it to your friends (and strangers), and decorate it any way you saw fit. Its tools enabled something without being overbearing. Twitter’s format enables a particular kind of messaging to take place, and even more subtly, Twitter enhances its service within its limitations. The short message format forces conciseness, producing messages that are composed of the bare essentials. This format offers an effective way to convey information quickly in a way that is analogous to the “sound bites” of broadcast media.

Riding the honeymoon

Fundamentally, no matter the length of the message, Twitter is just like other media, it is nothing without the content it contains. The millions and millions of tweets. From the mundane and trivial, to the very present and important. They are the daily messages from people across the globe, some of which have been the first to report breaking news (for example, US Airways Flight 1549′s landing in the Hudson River). Twitter has been a face for citizen journalism and along with sites like Facebook have brought the term “social media” into mainstream use. Lest we forget, however, the Web has always been social media from its roots. The World Wide Web established a protocol for linking documents together through hyperlinks, the very type of links you click on webpages today. These were documents created by people, with links added by people elsewhere to make sharing information easier. The effort of masses of people created a vast network of documents, linked in (hopefully) relevant ways. This group effort is the basis of what makes the Internet so wonderful. Incrementally a vast library of information has accumulated, accessible from around the world. Google’s mission of “organizing the world’s information” is as noble as it is important. Web development should, as it always has, concern itself with organizing what information is on the Internet.

It is no surprise then that there are so many services appearing that attempt to utilize and extend the information on Twitter. The challenge is how to extract the useful information from the trivial and meaningless tweets. However, as the saying goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and what is “useful information” is not always clear. And herein lies the dilemma of Twitter. Its flexibility within its confines is powerful, yet limiting. It is a versatile tool for the goals of many audiences, but without a clear way to target any particular one. All users are sending tweets into the pool without any inherent way of organizing them, since tweets lack any user generated metadata outside of the messages themselves. Yes, there are the existing hashtags, however, these rely on formatting conventions, and as with any system without standards they may become disparate in implementation, reducing their efficacy. Twitter’s advanced search is certainly useful, but it is a way to mine information, not consume relevant information in a passive way, the latter of which would be more appropriate to Twitter’s format.

Additionally, the character limit of messages, while keeping things concise, does not work with long URLs. Encouraging the spread of URL shortening services does nothing for the reliability of the information Twitter holds (see my other post: Why URL shortening is bad), unless Twitter itself acquires one of these services. If Twitter is more than a novelty or tinkerers toy, whose database of moments is to be taken as an important resource to be preserved on the Internet, tackling these issues may become tied with the continued sustainability of Twitter. At very least Twitter will need to utilize its own information in a way that offers a financial gain, since as of yet Twitter, the actual company, has yet to have any revenue from their namesake. For the time being, if the acceptance of the Fail Whale is any indication, Twitter may still be riding its way through the limelight.