Why Twitter has lost; Or, against brevity

In the wake of the rumors that Twitter was going to up its character limit, I started spiffing up my Twitter profiles: I added a few photos, started adding people to my various lists, and even started using it a bit more. Then, of course, it seems that those rumors provoked such a backlash within the hardcore Twitter community that Jack Dorsey was forced to shelve any modifications to the format. Here we have, in a nutshell, the reason that Twitter has lost: it’s utterly unwilling to make any modifications to its established product that might make it attractive or useful to those who aren’t already committed users.

For better or worse, for example, I’m friends with a lot of colleagues on Facebook. This is annoying– sometimes I just want to post something silly or random, and it’s annoying that I have so many professional colleagues mixed up in my FB. (And yes, I know there are ways to tweak that, but who has the time?)

In a way that’s only rivaled by a very few high quality email listservs, Facebook is the place I go to hear what people in my field are talking about and working on (and from a usability standpoint, it’s actually easier to skim and follow discussions on Facebook than in my Gmail). My colleagues make comments about work they’ve been doing, share fellowship, grant, and job postings, pose questions, and generally take advantage of the fact that we’re all working on our computers N hours a day. My colleagues from grad school have a really phenomenal little group that often contains very specialized questions: requests for bibliography, questions about translations, and the like. It would be nice, in some ways, if some of these discussions were on Twitter: we could draw on the breadth of Twitter’s userbase, have discussions in real time to a greater extent, and get away from some of the ickiness that attaches to FB (and perhaps bring in people who stay away from FB because of said ickiness).

But just as a for instance, I was messing around this morning with looking at the character length of these discussions. These aren’t Tolstoyan ruminations or Herodotean digressions: most of these discussions are sparked by a brief, sometimes humorous comment someone has made about their work or something they’ve found in their research. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of them are over 140 characters. Even just setting up the necessary context for many of these comments takes more than 140 characters. The only comments by my colleagues that fall under the 140 character limit are quick, humorous, and usually relate to popular culture (and so don’t have anything to do with professional communication at all).

Let’s be clear here: these are professional writers, and ones who’ve had a lot of success, too. These are people who write books and articles, and who and communicate for a living, who– as their posts make clear– are constantly engaged in the process of moving their ideas from insights to well crafted arguments, and for a variety of audiences, too. The argument that these people are incapable of concision and brevity strikes me as completely off base. (I make no such claims about my own capacity for brevity, however.)

The reality, I think, is that Twitter works great for subjects where everyone knows what you’re talking about: if you’re just railing about the latest idiotic or offensive thing that Trump has said, or some piece of celebrity gossip (and we all do), you don’t need any context. If you’re have something to say on subjects that require context or nuance, forget it.

But it’s not just that: I’m frequently astonished at how often Twitter falls down at its core functions: many, many times the most salient or compelling quotation on the news just won’t fit into 140 characters: I found a great analysis of some of the religious freedom legislation that’s been going through legislatures around the country a while ago, but the best quotations from and the core insights of the article just wouldn’t fit into 140 characters, and so I never ended up posting that analysis.

The result is that other services are eating Twitter’s lunch. Facebook, as I said, is pretty standard for a lot of scholars in my field. People in visually or design-oriented fields make a lot more use of Instagram than they do of Twitter. But it’s more than the fact that people self-select into platforms tailored to what they do instead of Twitter: it’s that these platforms are constructed in such a way that allows for novel kinds of use, and meaningful discussions beyond (and perhaps in spite of) the intentions of the platform’s designers in particular. I was surprised by how much substantive discussion there was on Instagram, for example, after the Freddie Gray murder and the unrest in Baltimore, and in a way that totally changed my feelings about the platform. Facebook allows for (even if it does not always brilliantly facilitate) real moments of connection: a friend going through medical difficulties, contact after a long period of disconnection, political debate that (sometimes) goes beyond kneejerk reaction. (And these are just things that have happened to me in the past week or so.) Every time I’ve tried to recommit to Twitter, I’ve had the opposite reaction: a lack of users beyond a narrow band of journalists, technology writers, and bots; friends with accounts who never post anything (and whose tweets get lost pretty quickly in the maelstrom); and, above all, the utter lack of any meaningful contact or communication through the platform, and the sheer disinterest of the company in fostering it. Twitter’s decision to stick with the current design of their broken platform may keep its users in the short term, but will do little to win anyone else over.

Advertisements