Twitter has been one of those things I have loved to hate without ever having really tried it (much like the Twilight series, or Roquefort cheese). From what I had heard about Twitter, it seemed clear to me that it only was a more public and less personal Facebook, it was just another time waster (in which the web already offers too many for my own good), and the limitation of 140 characters appeared to me to be one of the safest ways of ensuring “chat speak”, which I loathe.
However fond I was of my Twitter prejudices, I decided that it was beneath me to continue to discard a worldwide phenomenon that doubtlessly has an impact with its more than 100 million users (a handful of whom I happen to know, so they can’t all be twits [sorry, I’ve been dying to use that sometime…]). I no longer wanted to discard it without knowing what I was discarding. So I decided to sign up for Twitter.
In a way.
As I only intended this to be a temporary experiment, I didn’t really want my Twitter account to be “me”. I did not want to connect to my friends, to start tweeting and then discover that this was the way life should be. I did not want to end up loving Twitter. I only wanted to know why I hated it.
Thus, I signed up with a fake name, fake birthday, fake everything. If you sometime in the last few weeks have been followed by a stranger whose tweets sound oddly familiar, it isn’t me. I deliberately avoided following anyone I knew, because I did not want to get pulled in. I may have peeked at your profile (mwahahaha!), but I didn’t follow it. I acknowledge that this isn’t doing Twitter justice, because any social media becomes fun only when there is interaction (hence the social part). But what I wanted was simply to get a feel for what the hype was all about, and that I did.
At first a few of my prejudices were confirmed. Language wise, Twitter can be annoying. One example that continued to baffle me was that topics that “trended” (from what I gathered “Twitter trends” are keywords often repeated in tweets), frequently had rather obvious spelling errors in them. This either means that a significant number of Twitter users didn’t know how to spell these words, or that a significant number of them didn’t care and spelled it incorrectly on purpose because this was an up-and-coming hashtag (keywords with an # in front of it). Neither alternative bodes well for Twitter’s influence on language.
That being said, Twitter also has a large number of users who seem to interpret the 140 character limitation as a challenge to squeeze an impressing amount of information in the form of quality writing into each tweet. Even though also these users sometimes have to employ certain abbreviations (“PLZ RT” seems unavoidable), it is comforting to know that there exists a Twitter that doesn’t fck w ur spllng (LOL).
That Twitter can be a time waster is without any shed of doubt. But then again, what isn’t? You can claim all you want that you only signed up for Facebook for networking purposes and that your blog serves 100% as a window to the world that one day will lead you to a publishing contract. However, until you prove to me that you haven’t at least once clicked on an old high school friend’s photo album just out of curiosity, or that one or two of the blogs you visit regularly serve no other purpose than to entertain you, I will not listen to a word you say.
Thus, Twitter can waste your time. But Twitter can also be a useful tool to find and connect with people who share your interests in whatever field that may be, it can be a way of keeping up with news, and it can be a great way of promoting yourself. The reason? Twitter’s simplicity. Anyone can tweet, and anyone can retweet. The second you have one single person retweeting a link you posted, it means that all of his/her followers have the chance to visit the link as well.
The prejudice of mine that crashed most profoundly, however, is that Twitter is just a (poorer) version of Facebook. Twitter is nothing like Facebook. Even though you can customize both your Facebook and Twitter experience, Facebook is by nature much more personal, for better and for worse. For two people to be “friends” on Facebook it takes mutual acceptance. On Twitter you can follow anyone, regardless of whether they are following you (even though there is a possibility of keeping tweets private. This seems slightly pointless considering the purpose of Twitter, but whatever floats your tweet…). This means that I get to read tweets by people who never in a million years would have friended me on Facebook. I even get to interact with them by the simple use of an @ in front of whatever tweet I want them to see. Useful? Mnwellno – maybe. Fun? Definitely.
Another thing about Twitter which separates it from Facebook is that it is highly topicized (yes, I know that isn’t a word, but “categorized” just didn’t do it for me today). Because of the aforementioned hashtags you can search specifically for tweets about topics that interest you. If butterfly collecting is your thing, I am sure you can find someone tweeting about it, without having to look through the status updates of butterfly collectors who happened to only write about what they had for breakfast this one particular day (which could be the case if you friended them on Facebook).
I like Facebook because it is a casual way of catching up with friends. I suppose you could do that on Twitter as well, but either you would have to be prepared to do it in public or you would have to write a personal message (and if you’re doing that, you might as well send an email). Thus for that purpose Twitter does not seem as apt. Twitter appears to be best when you have a specific agenda. It doesn’t matter if that agenda is praising Justin Bieber (who should need no further introduction since it appears to be impossible to be on Twitter without hearing about him) or promoting your blog. The domino effect Twitter can create seems unmatched by Facebook. For instance I noticed that the topics trending often were important news stories. This bodes well for the world, people! Twitter users care about Gaza, and not just Justin Bieber!
Another (rather random) thing I noticed during my twitttaffair was that John Cleese follows 150-something twitterers (tweeters?), and a completely disproportionate number of those were from Norway. I do know that the man likes a good old Norwegian Blue, but why in the world..? These were seemingly normal Norwegians, who for some reason had their tweets followed by Mr. Cleese. Any clarification as to why Cleese prefers Norwegians would be helpful. Thanks. (And before you ask – no, he does not follow me. Naturally I did not use Norway as location for my fake Twitter persona!)
In the end, my undercover experiment taught me to accept Twitter rather than liking it (which I never will, I think) or hating it (which I don’t anymore). I might in the future consider opening a real Twitter account, one where I contact actual friends; follow people I actually want to follow as opposed to Aston Cutcher (ooops, did that give me away? Yeah, it might, but you’d have to look through 5 million followers to find the correct fake me); and actively try to network rather than “fakework” which I largely did this time. If I ever get a book to promote, for instance, I do see why (and now how) Twitter can be useful. In the meantime I intend to continue to stay away.