Last weekend a citizens’ web activist Ray Beckerman wrote about the recent changes Twitter made on their main website, reflecting the strategies they have adopted for future development of the micro-blogging platform. According to him, these changes mean that Twitter is turning its back on facilitating social interaction and is trying to become a hub for news, entertainment etc., in other words, a place where people passively consume information.
Earlier, in August, another well-known web persona Leo LaPorte shared his moment of reckoning, after being cut off from Google Buzz for almost a month and not noticing it. Neither did any of his 17 000+ followers notice. From his eye-opening story a question arises: would he have noticed that the communication channel was broken, if he had actually used it for communication rather than broadcasting?
Twitter, as well as many other social networks is, for a very large part non-social, or even anti-social. This was the case in Twitter even before the changes that Beckerman discussed. It is a platform where many people engage in self-promotion and compete in shouting their own stuff with such a high volume that not only is it impossible to have any kind of conversation with them, it is getting difficult to socialise with anyone with all that noise around you.
Twitter is simple: you send out messages, either to everyone who follows you or directly to one other user. Also, you can address another user publicly by mentioning their @username in the message. This is the way in which you can have public conversations, allowing others to join in and see what you are talking about. Some time ago, Twitter made a change to their system by hiding some of these posts from the public timeline, or the list of all messages posted by the people you follow. In the new system, any message that starts with @username will only be visible to the recipient and those people who follow both the conversants. These messages would still be readable by everyone, just by viewing the individual timeline of whoever sent the messages, but the timeline would be less cluttered for those not involved in the conversations.
This, I think, was the first step towards the direction Ray Beckermann now criticises in his post. This meant that it became more difficult to make new acquaintances by finding interesting people that people I already know had conversations with. You know, in the way that in a bar, you are talking with someone, and then someone they know comes by and you get introduced to each other and then you discover you have some common interests etc. I think at that time I used the term ‘foafing’, from FOAF, friend-of-a-friend, for this activity. I thought this was one of the best things in Twitter.
This need to filter the timeline by removing conversations was a result of the skewed idea that Twitter users should follow as many people as possible and get as many followers as possible, most of which they don’t want to engage in conversations with. This move, with the ones following it all drive Twitter to be less about conversations and more about shouting in the wind without giving a hoot if anyone listens or responds. Another symptom are the features in many Twitter clients that allow you to delay your posts, so that you can spend a while in the morning writing your tweets and then go offline for other things while the system sends out all those potential conversation openers for you, without you having to worry about any of them becoming an actual conversation.
Luckily there are alternatives for Twitter. Last month I tried Miio, a social network that wants to foster conversations rather than just the usual endless list of self-serving status updates. Miio looks a lot like what Orkut used to be in the beginning, based on groups about interests and making new acquaintances. Miio’s problem, shared with any upstart social network, is that there aren’t that many people in it, and not many I’d know beforehand. Making new friends is of course the thrill, but I felt as if walking to a new bar in a new town, not knowing anyone or what they are about. This is why having someone introduce you makes a difference, and a combination of old and new faces, like in Twitter, would be optimal. (I really don’t go to bars to meet people, ever, don’t know why I keep using it as an analogy…)
I’d like to conclude that the way these social networking tools are built influence the kinds of interactions they foster. We can overcome technical limitations to make our voice heard and we make even the least fertile platforms interactive (think of late night TV chats or even those newspaper sections where they publish their readers’ SMS messages), but our behaviours are modified by the features of the platform – like water, we find the path of least resistance and use tools for what they allow best. This is why I’m sad if Twitter becomes what it looks to become.
However, our behaviour can make a difference. It seems to me that Twitter is making these changes as a response to what their users are doing, not driven by a master plan. Or at least, the master plan could change as a result of what the users want. It’s time for a personal commitment: I’ll try to use the tools less for self-promotion and more for conversations. Making new friends, and not focusing on gathering a herd of followers. Twitter is full of interesting people, Miio has a bunch of early adopters experimenting with what could be done in there and its developers are keen to listen to user feedback and suggestions about how to develop it.
Engage, communicate, share.