Twitter - how I convinced myself that it mightn't be a complete waste of time

  • Posted on: 18 September 2008
  • By: agittins

After a year or more of occasionally glancing sideways at it, I finally decided to take a look at twitter. Most of my brain is telling me that there's no net value there, and that the signal to noise ratio is never going to make it anything other than a monumental waste of time - especially for someone who can't even keep up with his RSS feeds. A part of me, however, thinks otherwise.

A word of warning to people-people - the following is written by an introvert (an INTP in fact) and as such, will probably read as fairly cold and unfeeling, perhaps even rude and elitist. This is not the intent, but purely a side-effect of an analytical approach to looking at social networking. I love my friends, but since this is about communication not relations, the warm and fuzzy parts of the issue are ignored to give a clearer view of the problem. Yeah, it's probably creepy that we can turn it on and off, you should watch Dexter as a prime example of the extreme :-)

As an introvert, I find social noise highly disruptive and energy-sapping. A room full of talking people is a resource drain, while for an extrovert the same situation would be energising and invigorating. This is why part of me doesn't want anything to do with twitter - it's scared that it will be full of extroverts gushing about how their dog just ate dinner, or little Timmy just said his 94th word or similarly banal stuff that, as a geek, holds zero value. This is the sort of pattern you see on facebook and myspace already, so it's not an unreasonable assumption that twitter could be the same, perhaps even more so since it seems geared toward the most casual of chatter.

Perhaps I am looking for something more business-like than Facebook. You'd think the logical response to that would be Linked-In. But linked-in is in my experience little more than a glorified addressbook. It works reasonably well as a way to keep up to date with the contact details of past colleagues and may work reasonably well at getting in touch with 'vouchable' resources but it does little to encourage ongoing discussion or contact. I think this has a lot to do with linked-in being very formal in its feel. The requirement that you have an established relationship with someone before contacting them (or having a mutual contact) means that you are not going to necessarily feel comfortable just blurting out random discoveries or questions, as most of the people on your list are going to be people in disparate fields of expertise - great if you have a HR question or want advice from a Patent Lawyer, but not necessarily so good for a tricky Python issue unless all your colleagues are programmers. Being fairly business-like, linked-in takes care of the very serious side of social networking, but not a day-to-day gathering of like minds.

I think twitter can be different. I think twitter in a way gives you social permission to listen only to those worth listening to. Something like myspace or facebook seems to come with a social obligation to acknowledge everyone you know - if you are aware of someones existence and they send you a friend invite, you are somehow compelled to accept it regardless of how interested (day to day) you might be in that person's life. Generally, the people in facebook who send the most status updates are those whose status updates you are the least interested in. In a way, it treats all friends as equal.

Not all my friends are equal. There might be those for whom I take a keen interest in day-to-day happenings. Actually, there aren't (yes, I'm a terrible friend), but there could be. There are those for whom I have a general interest in what they're up to, and those who I just like the idea of still being in touch with, but don't necessarily have much interest in chatting to more than once a year.

Then, there are those who may or may not consider me a friend, yet I'd pay good money to have some sort of probe into their brain, because I know that they discover or create extremely interesting data on a regular basis. These are likely other INTP or closely related types (ie, introverts, thinkers, geeks). I probably don't care that they just bought new shoes, but I might care that they spent 2 days looking into shoe performance and have made interesting discoveries about the issue, or they have just solved a really tricky sendmail routing problem. These are the people, who when they have a lightbulb moment are worth stopping and listening to. Yep, not all of it could be immediately useful (I sit down way too much for shoe performance to matter much) but certain congruences are inevitable. They also seem the ideal types of people to, for instance, mention something about laptop bags to, as there's a good chance one of them has similar requirements (geeks need lots of pockets for their gadgets) and might have already done the right sort of research and made a tricky find.

The way that twitter encourages an asymmetrical relationship between those you listen to and those who listen to you might be the right approach to solve the signal-to-noise ratio, while still encouraging the sharing of discoveries. One is free to ignore the irrelevant ramblings of your loved ones while listening intently to your gurus, and those poor souls who think you have something worth listening to can come and go as they please.

It's quite a leap of faith though. By definition, the type of people I really want to hear the casual chatter of are those who don't tend to value casual chatter. Yet, whenever a group of fellow geeks get together for lunch there is never enough time to catch up on the interesting things that have been discovered, tested or fixed. The most interesting of these discussions tend to be things that never would make it into a mailing list discussion or similar because the mutual interest may not be obvious at first. I think it's ironic that of all people, it's the geeks who seem least equipped to take these discussions out of meatspace and into an online space where these sorts of things can take on a life of their own. I know it sounds a lofty goal, so I don't hold out much hope for twitter, but I'll give it a go.