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Twitter: Not Just a 140-Character Facebook Status

January 5, 2010

I have a Twitter account and I’m only mildly ashamed of it (you can see the link to the right of the most recent post’s header). I don’t post very many things, the exceptions being notifications of new posts here and interesting news articles or other websites. I also communicate with people I know as well as writers and websites that have Twitter accounts.

The inspiration for tweeting?

The inspiration for twitter?

My favourite example of using Twitter in this way (and you’ll hear me say this to anyone who derides Twitter) is that I tweeted a few comments at my personal hero Tim Harford and actually got responses (twice!). If you sent an e-mail or, god forbid, a snail mail letter, to a writer or TV personality or critic, would you expect a response? I wouldn’t. But somehow Twitter is different. Tweeters spend as much time responding to other tweets (from fans or colleagues) as they do simply tweeting their own stuff. In fact, if you follow any kind of writer or news organization on Twitter, you’re much more likely to encounter useful, interesting information than what people usually think of as typical Tweets.

Now I’ll show you two Twitter feeds that exemplify different sides of why Twitter can be great.

First up is the Nieman Journalism Lab.

As an organization that discusses how newspapers are surviving the 21st century, it’s only fitting that they’ve embraced Twitter and done so successfully. So what can you expect from following the Nieman Lab on Twitter?

  • Interesting news articles (from outside sources) related to the subject material of the blog

This is doubly beneficial for readers: not only do you get links to material that’s been vetted by writers you (as a reader of the blog) already respect, but you also potentially find new Twitter feeds to follow. My relationship with Twitter is a lot like how I use Google Reader: to gain information. When I find a blog or website that I enjoy, I often follow it both in my reader and on Twitter.

  • Notification of new posts on the website

For those who don’t use a reader, Twitter provides an alternative. Writers tweet new posts on their websites, notifying followers. (Nice additionally because readers often have a delay between when the article is originally posted and when it appears through the RSS feed.)

So this is one kind of Twitter: updates about the website and the people running the Twitter feed, related links and possible other perks (job postings, contests, etc.)

Next is Alan Sepinwall‘s Twitter.

He’s a TV critic who likes a lot of the same TV that I do. So very often the things he says on Twitter interest me. He’s also pretty well known in TV critic circles, which means famous people (TV producers, writers, and creators, etc.) are more likely to respond to him than to me. This ties in to my first point.

A few days ago, Sepinwall and a few other TV critics on Twitter (Twitics, according to Sepinwall) had a discussion about the show Big Love. By discussion, I mean a bunch of critics tweeting at each other, having a kind of public, realtime-observable conversation. Even if you aren’t as interested in TV or TV critics as I am, isn’t this really cool, just as a phenomenon? It wasn’t pre-planned (as far as I know) and is different from one blogger writing a post and having others comment. If I was pretentious I might call it organic. So that’s one benefit of following someone like Sepinwall on Twitter: reading a discussion that really couldn’t happen anywhere else (certainly not in a newspaper).

Another perk: Just as a blog allows a newspaper reporter to be more candid and unrestricted than print journalism, Twitter allows for casual tweeting, which can be humorous or informational.

Sepinwall often answers reader questions; for example (from his Twitter feed):

Pilot + 2 more. I like it. RT @zacharydaniel: have you seen any episodes beyond pilot of Caprica?

He’s also not averse to silliness, as seen here:

I’m so cold that I’m wearing a Snuggie someone got us for the holidays. I’ve never been so filled with self-loathing.

Followed by:

I wish. I’m just not sure it’s possible to wear a Snuggie ironically. A Snuggie just IS. RT @sassone Are you wearing it ironically?

Not all Twitter feeds are created equal

Even though the title of this post (and much of the content) argues that Twitter is not just a place for 140-character Facebook status updates, some people use it for just that. Look here if you want to see that kind of Twitter (sorry Ms. Meester, I enjoy your acting more than your tweeting). If you want to be infuriated by obnoxious tweeting, look no further than John Mayer’s Twitter.

But don’t judge all of Twitter based on the fact that many use it as a way to tell followers about how rainy it is outside or how you are sad because you lost your teddy bear. Judge it based on those who use it effectively and strive to provide their followers with real updates that will be enjoyed and appreciated. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Twitter as a medium (it’s all drivel, meaningless status updates, etc.) but rarely criticisms of specific Twitter feeds, which is how the service should be measured. Just as you wouldn’t go about criticizing WordPress (the service that hosts this blog) if you hated my blog, don’t criticize Twitter as a whole for the failings of individuals.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Teshi permalink
    January 18, 2010 5:31 pm

    The operative word in this post is “can”. Twitter “can” be a useful tool. However, like most interweb things, the signal-to-noise ratio weighs heavily towards the “noise” side of things. With Twitter, this ratio is perhaps even more extreme than normal.

    Furthermore, Twitter is soundbyte (textbyte) heaven. Not everyone thinks (or should express themselves) in 140-word blurts. I appreciate that Twitter forces you to be succint and thus prevents the deadly going-on-and-on-and-on-and-on syndrome, but when tweets are being used as news as well as (ugh) Average Joe commentary on news, I think that the briefness of tweets contributes to the oversimplification of opinion.

    Which, in case you were wondering, is a Bad Thing.

    • January 18, 2010 10:31 pm

      I agree that it’s very easy to use Twitter for nothing more than drivel and irritating soundbytes for Fox News to pick up. But just as printed books can be ridiculously awful pieces of work and masterpieces, I believe Twitter, in the right hands, can be very useful and beneficial to tweeters.

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