Twitter loses it

13May09

The folks at Twitter have lost their minds:   Twitter Blog: Small Settings Update. #twitterfail #fixreplies

I suspect I’m speaking to three kinds of people:

  • Those still trying to figure out what this Twitter business is all about
  • Those who like it, but don’t  quite understand why it’s so cool
  • Those who know exactly what I’m about to say

That makes the explanation a little tricky, but let’s start at this end:

The world is drowning in ways to chat. Twitter has exploded because it’s different. It really has exactly one difference: its novel way of building your community. Twitter’s community-building dynamics are unique, which makes it interesting. Twitter’s community-building dynamics are powerful, which makes it popular. Twitter’s community-building dynamics are easy, which makes it fun.

Well … “were.” Because the people who run Twitter have decided to toss out their one distinguishing feature, the one thing that makes Twitter unique, and popular, and fun. In other words, Twitter is now … pointless.

What am I talking about?

This is where it matters which “kind of person” you are, and I’m going to have to explain something remarkably subtle, which I know is annoying to those who already understand, and confusing to those who don’t yet. Sorry about that.

The Twitter community-building process is … oops, sorry: “was” … built on two pillars: asymmetric following (just ’cause you listen to what I say doesn’t mean I have to listen to you), and overheard fragments. You can see how those two work hand in hand: you “follow” (as Twitter calls it) someone who you think might turn out to be interesting, usually by looking over their past tweets. But how do you learn about this someone in the first place? Most often, by overhearing some conversation they’re having with someone you already follow: it’s viral, organic, natural, and obvious once someone thought it up.

This is a complete contrast to most other Social apps, where friendship is mutual: I can’t hear what you say unless you also hear what I say, and in fact typically “befriending” requires some sort of bidirectional protocol; both have to express willingness  before any connection happens.

The Twitter model means that particularly interesting people get a very large followership. It’s entirely up to you who you find interesting. You’ve heard, of course, about celebrity Twitter heros; I personally prefer to follow people like @timoreilly, of O’Reilly publications, who is an absolute fountain of provocative and insightful comments, links, and conversations. But make your own choices, follow whom you like. The point is, that whoever you follow is a window for you into a larger world, an introducer of new, interesting people.

Or, “was.”

Because as of yesterday morning, your current friends (those you follow) no longer introduce you to their friends. Twitter is now blocking that. As of yesterday morning, you’ll see far less on Twitter (which, of course, is not without its good aspects), so you can follow more people … but you no longer have any way to discover them.

What Twitter has done, actually is sold out. They were a community building service, they’re now only a community mirroring service.

OK, I admit it, I’m old: over a hundred years ago, a writer named G. K. Chesterton pointed out that special-interest clubs and societies (such as the “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of London, which were becoming popular at that time) were often described by their fans as a “larger world” than the home and family they were replacing, but they were in fact far smaller worlds: the self-selection of like-minded souls means that you never bump into someone too very different from yourself. You pick a club like you pick a mirror, for how flattering it is to your own self, and how well it insulates you from surprises, change, difference — life.

Twitter was a true Chestertonian “larger world.”

Now, it’s not.

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