Is All the World A-Twitter?

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The Twitter fail whale error message.
Image via Wikipedia

By Mandy Boyle
Advertising Sales Manager/Entertainment Editor

I confess. I’m one of them. I @ reply, retweet and Follow Friday. But what exactly does that all mean? Well, to start out with, I’m one of millions of other people on Twitter, a social networking and microblogging site that has the world, well, “a-twitter” over how useful it is, who’s on it, and what makes it so different from any other network.

At its base, Twitter is free social networking site that allows for users to send and receive messages known as tweets. Tweets can then be sent via mobile texting, instant message, or the web to other users who choose to follow or subscribe to your feed. The end result: a constant stream of information that you can choose to participate in, listen to, or shut off.

According to eMarketer, a digital intelligence agency, the population of US Twitter users will grow 200% in 2009 before slowing to a still-impressive 44.4% in 2010. Already projected to have more than 12 million users in the United States alone by the end of the year, Twitters seems to be poised for success.

However, a recent Harvard Business School study estimated that most Twitter users sent an average of only one tweet in their lifetime. Not to mention, in April, Nielsen Online found that only about 40% of the service’s new users return the following month. So what exactly is causing people to sign up and become inactive within a matter of weeks, days, or even hours? The answers could lie in Twitter’s approach to interaction.

By nature, Twitter is a flowing conversation. To keep things going, users have to contribute. This commitment of time, energy, and wit can leave many users confused and frustrated. After all, there’s only so many ways to answer the question, “What are you doing?” Factor in the prospect of having to spend even more time online or on your cellphone and you’ve got a network that’s got many technology adopters stumped.

“For many people, the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd,” wrote Clive Thompson in The New York Times Magazine. “Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.”

Sure, sharing what you had for lunch may be absurd, but what about breaking news? Beautiful photographs? Inspiring stories? Answers to questions? All of these things, and more, can be found in Twitter streams. For me, it isn’t about sharing the everyday. It’s about appreciating common interactions in an area where the conversation flows freely from keyboards around the world.

Another possible cause is that of the 140 character message limit. Learning to send messages concisely is a skill; one that can be practiced if you choose to tweet. If you’re not the type that can slim down what you need to say, it’s probably going to be tough to adjust to the format. As a user, you have to be short, direct, and agile to keep conversations going. Some people just don’t have the time, or the skill, to make their tweets coherent let alone meaningful. Instead, they give it a few tries and head back to their blogs where they can spill forth the diatribe of the hour.
Finally, some people just don’t get it, let alone have time to participate in it. There are things to do. Tasks to accomplish. Why share what’s going on with everyone?
“While many Twitter users consider the service addictive, there also seems to be a growing backlash—a feeling that Twitter-mania might be a 2009 fad,” said Paul Verna, a senior analyst for eMarketer.

In my opinion, I think Twitter is here to stay. Its most active community, comprised of maybe less that 1% of all users, offers much information and conversation. Research even indicates that active users are the driving force behind the entire volume of tweets. They really speak to people, not at people, which I think is the key to the success of any Twitter user. It’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about how you’re doing it.

Why do I tweet? It’s because I love taking part in the stream of conversation and participating in the constant flow of communication. I love the fact that I can message back and forth with professionals in any given field. I love having tons of information at my fingertips. I love being able to keep in touch with friends. I love the brevity. I think that Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet law at Harvard Law School said it best: “The qualities that make Twitter seem inane and half-baked are what makes it so powerful.”

Some of you may just ask why can’t I just use Facebook instead? Well, they’re two entirely different networks with two entirely different purposes.
Facebook tends to drift off and go into dozens of different directions. Instead of updates that kept people informed and engaged, my news feed is stuffed with quiz results, scoreboards, and videos. Granted, all of these new possibilities for entertainment are intriguing, especially for someone who is interested in pursuing a career in engagement (I’m an advertising and public relations major). However, I find these updates to be messy and in many cases, annoying. I got tired of the clog. I trimmed down my feed settings to clean things up. Now, I’m happy to say that I don’t have to see every time I have a sheep thrown at me.

With things like Mafia Wars and Farmville, who has time to actually stay in touch with friends and family anymore? For me, Facebook has lost its original purpose to connect students, friends, and family. Its ability to communicate and build community seems to have taken a backseat to building revenue and applications. Facebook isn’t about people connecting anymore. It’s about apps and quizzes and mindless chatter that goes no where.

For me, Twitter is a conversation. It’s also an active community driven by the few, which I’m proud to say, I’m one of. I don’t have to worry about tons of spam clogging my stream. I don’t have to feel like I’m constantly being sold to. I don’t have to feel like I’m screaming out into the masses hoping, just for a moment, that someone is listening. On Twitter, I know that I’m being heard. I participate in conversations. I get answers to my questions. I share knowledge and take part in new discovery.

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