Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Twitter as a failed (but useful) experiment

Like a lot of political junkies, I’ve been giving twitter a go, to see it’s use for political information/discussion. I’ve liked much of it, as a time-wasting tool, it is a great resource, and whilst it wasn’t a twitter revolution in Iran, the service surely had some significant effect (real or imagined it’s largely the same thing in such situations). I’ve also found it fun and exciting to be on the feed of some important people, esp journo’s who blog and so therefore usually have too many good links they want to share, or those which just have a quick wit (such as @annabelcrabb).

That said, I have to say I think the medium is an essential failure as a next-gen social media tool. Blogging and facebook clearly have their niches, and serve a lot of people, replicating what we do normally (read articles on paper/gossip with friends in cafes) but quicker and easier via our computers/phones. Both work well for political followers, but twitter seems to be half of one, half of the other, without ever making a whole. The tiny size of each tweet means that it is not quite a blog post, at an infuriatingly short 140 characters. But equally, twitter doesn’t have the mass publishing of blogging, in that unless I know to add you, I won’t ever see your tweets (or will only see 1-2 in a torrent of mass messages, but more on that later). And unlike a bookmarks where I can visit occasionally and quickly get to know what your site is about/like, tweets are too small to be useful as coding devices for working out if someone is worth paying attention to. A few good lines and you add them. And all of a sudden you are following 200+ people and your main page is filled with around 20 messages, each with a small picture, popping up constantly on all sorts of different topics and issues, none quite perhaps what you wanted to read/hear about today. So whilst political/fashion/sport blogs generally stay on fashion, tweeters like to casually range, though only a few bring anything worthwhile to fields outside their main area.

Then there is the problem of following everyone who is talking about a particular topic. Unlike blogs/newspapers and the power of google searches, it is rather hard to find where exactly everyone is talking about a particular issue, due to a lack of clear organisation for what is the right #hashtag to join. During the Iranian uprising a lot of people tweeted that certain #hashtags were being watched by the Iranian intelligence services, sending people scrambling for thousands of different #tags. Now whether they really were being watched or not, it certainly disrupted the service. Even without such nefariousness, it’s hard to find a good channel of commentators as anyone can jump on. Other mass channels such as the “#GoodNight” channel make even less sense as a channel. No one would sensibly want to read such a channel, but it’s common use means it ends up in the top 10 channels almost every night.

Which brings me to my final problem, the sheer amount of people on twitter makes the service rather useless. If you are an Australian political junkie, it’s been a lot of fun recently to watch #qt, the channel for question time in the Australian parliament. Only with the recognition that politicians were joining in, what was a small thing for journalists and those of us who actually enjoy watching question time, has become just another channel for those with an axe to grind or a desire for attention. End result, it feels like you are just being shouted at, and only catching glimpses of the people you want, or able to check about half the links you might like to.

Though Australian tweeters problems are nothing compared to when you watch US events live in twitter. Right now, the US house of congress is about to vote on Obama’s health care bill, and everyone is tweeting on #hcr along with #tcot #pelosibill, #killbill and others. But on #HCR, I’m im refreshing about once a minute with between 200-2000 tweets a minute appearing. These include personal messages “is watching the debate with fascination” or “to my congressman Rep. blah blah – please vote for this bill” “rumor going around 35 dems voting against the bill”
etc etc. Actually finding what is happening in terms of if they are voting yet, how the voting is going, or what the major players think is simply impossible amongst all this noise.

Instead I find myself even more reliant on a good journalist, on location to give me at least some idea of how it is trending, even if they’re sometimes using rumors, they are likely to come back to it and update, and I can easily check if such changes have occurred, or cross reference against a few others I also trust. So i’ve switched to sites like TPM, The Daily Dish and NYTimes and Instapundit.

My guess is that twitter will continue to live as a social media tool, but it’s role will be less vaulted as a home for political junkies than as a stream to dip in and out, or as a side bar for people to comment or to post quick stuff not worthy of a full blog post ala on The Punch or for sporting events where it will be a fun way to follow sporting events or ultra localised events ala #tinpotcountyfair.

Twitter was certainly a useful experiment, and I expect more rather than less people to be updating via phones or pc’s their immediate thoughts/rumors on events. But it probably won’t be presented on just one site or in the cluttered torrent of tweets format that you currently see on twitter. What it most needs is a way to be filtered, sorted and organised, such as upcoming services like Geon. Then it will become a truely powerful tool. Though again, the experience for me really just proves the worth of a good journalist.
And now I’m off to post this blog, and trying and drum up traffic for it on twitter. If you’re interested or disagree, you can follow me here (@AndrewOssieCarr) and tell me why you disagree.

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  1. Fhakk

     /  November 10, 2009

    Twitter was not a failed experiment. It was a social networking site which has hit its physical limitations. There was never going to be any doubt that this software was going to be big – look at the millions of users around the world. In terms of social discourse, it has become a valuable tool (but not essential). I think, however, that while it is certainly been a fantastic platform for bloggers, politicians, journalists and the general public to get their messages across (albeit to a generally small audience), there are certain limitations. The quality of journalism certainly hasn’t improved, just the speed in which its delivered. It’s been able to burst the bubble of the public sphere, but hasn’t been able to hold its own. And certainly, the static and chatter created by major events is extremely off-putting.

    I think, for the journalist, it’s become yet another tool to get one’s story through to the masses. It will also be another tool which will eventually be gentrified by the mass media.

  2. Certainly twitter has enough of a status that it has blasted its way into the mainstream. There is obviously some desire for a short message capacity. But I can’t see twitter continuing for too many years in this fashion. The only thing that is really keeping it going is the novelty factor, and even that is starting to fade.
    It feels like it is close to, but not the final form. Somewhere between facebook status updates and twitter there is a useful medium of insta-thoughts and must-share-links. But neither system quite works for the purpose.