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A thought about Twitter that is a bit longer that 140 chars

This is likely to be incoherent — which is why, despite it being about social media, it isn’t over on jonbounds.co.uk — I’m trying to define why I (amongst others) are starting to worry that we’re falling out with Twitter. I’m not going to attempt to explain stuff, just have to dump this out of my head. I’m still working this stuff out, and I’m just thinking around the reasons why I can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

It’s something that I tried to define on the B’ham Post blog, about why online social networks fall apart after a certain stage – I posited that it was something to do with people reaching their Dunbar number and the social pressure that comes from ostentatiously limiting your network:

“There’s a number called Dunbar’s Number (it’s cited to be around 150, but isn’t strictly defined) and it reflects the limit of the number of people with which you can maintain social relationships. Online you might find this number slightly higher, you may just be good at “maintaining social relationships” or you may be able to “keep in touch” with more people if many of them don’t spend much time on that particular social network. But eventually your network size will strain at Dunbar’s Number and you’ll have to start making decisions:

“Do I accept that friend request? I don’t really know them well, but don’t like to offend them by ignoring it.” “Can I delete the contact that I don’t talk to as much any more? But they’ll know I have, I can’t just casually drift off.” “I don’t really like that bloke from work, but it’ll be awkward if I don’t accept him as a friend.”

And the easiest decision is not to use that social network, no more complicated bits of social etiquette to fall over. So people are off to BookFace or MyThing or whatever is next.”

But, while I think that’s true, and it’s certainly something I’ve considered when deciding whether or not to follow people on Twitter, it’s not the whole story.

I’d like to say at this point that I’m not one hundred percent sure that Twitter is what we call a Social Network, due to its asynchronous following/friend structure — it’s more some kind of “always on” ambient messaging network, a hybrid of online forums, email and text messaging. But, by the by, it does support networks, so we see network effects like those I described above.

It seems churlish to moan about adoption of a tool that we’ve all been heaping praise and overwrought social analysis on, but it does create problems. Problems that will have to be dealt with, if we’re to get over the hump:

  • The “mainstream” explosion creates a great deal of noise, whether it’s your contacts talking about @stephenfry, to @stephenfry or sending messages that contain the word @stephenfry in the hope that he’ll notice (or just for fun). Filtering mechanisms just can’t filter this stuff reliably — what you’re in the mood for at any one time varies too much.
  • Use by the “offline famous” (those bringing in existing, huge, one-way networks) can lead to the system being overloaded by “broadcasting” — people falling over themselves to re-tweet the messages of the famous. At this point I’d say that the “online famous” can be guilty of this too, but they usually understand the power of it more, and if they still “broadcast” then they’re not worth bothering with.
  • Until this point I’ve managed to remove Chris Moyles from my life by not listening to radio one, and quickly making by distaste for him known whenever people mention him to me — they soon learn not to. But can you reasonably do that when the messaging system is built to be so ambient? Not really. I have no influence over people I’d otherwise love to follow.

But can’t you just “not follow” people? No, not really:

So stop telling me that I can just ignore changes I’m uncomfortable with to a tool that I’ve spent a lot of time using and building up knowledge with. I’m not suggesting that widespread adoption is a bad thing, just that the tool we’ve been using has no filters — filters that exist more naturally in the real world, and aren’t needed so much in the different messaging systems that “social networks” have provided.

Twitter is different because there isn’t any “other stuff”, no different places for different types of conversation. No interest grouping, no one-to-one spaces, no filters. That’s why, so far it’s worked so well, and why it may trancend “website” and become something more, but it’s also a problem.

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