The Trouble With Twitter

April 22, 2010

From Star Trek's 'Trouble with Tribbles' episode, courtesy Paramount'Time is one of the most talked about subjects in anybody's life. It seems to drag on so slowly in the days of our youth, like me sitting in Mrs. White's 5th grade math class, and yet the speed with which it disappears in the latter years of life is truly astonishing. It's also a bit scary. I'll be able to test the old Beatles' tune "When I'm 64" in July, and time has become something very dear to me.

I don't know whether it's that or the reality that, as J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey puts it, "Time is the new currency," but I'm having issues with fully embracing the Twittersphere, because I just don't have the time. This, to me, is the biggest problem for Twitter — and the entire world that's growing up around it — because in the name of abbreviating communications, it actually makes it more time-consuming to pass along an idea or meme. I know that sounds absurd, but bear with me.

The 140 character world is many things to its denizens. I agree with Dave Winer that Twitter is an efficient notification system, and I believe, as he does, that this is its ultimate strength. Notification of what? Just about anything, including commercial messages. Twitter is unbundled media in the wild, and the money will go to those who figure out how to sort, filter, curate, aggregate and present all of those bits and pieces to help users get maximum use out of it all.

I recall an awful personal situation six years ago when I was a struggling writer, blogger and consultant. I had no health insurance and had a lump in my left breast that needed to be removed. I honestly didn't know what to do, and Jeff Jarvis convinced me to put a tip jar on my blog to let my friends take care of me. Sure enough, I got nearly $4,000 from hundreds of contributions in just a matter of days and was reminded of the angel's note to George Bailey in "It's a wonderful life:"

No man is a failure who has friends.

In today's hyperconnected world — with Twitter and Facebook — such an appeal would likely net even more. Back then, it was our blogs and our RSS feeds that connected us. Today's world has advanced so far beyond — and in such a short time — that it's truly astonishing. We have "friends" that we don't even know, thanks to the followers of the followers of the followers of those who follow us.

Twitter mimics broadcasting in some ways, which is why it has found such favor with mass media companies, celebrities, politicos and whatever. It's a fast and efficient way to (potentially) reach a lot of people, if those people are predisposed to follow its messages. Where the messages become unwanted, it's tricky, because those being courted can, with the simple push of a button, say "bye-bye."

And so we have a whole industry burgeoning that is attempting to lasso the beast of participatory media and bring it to its knees, and I'm fascinated by its potential. Prior to attending a conference in Naples, Florida last fall, I sent a tweet to my small group of followers to advise them of where I was going. Within a few hours, I'd received a tweet from a restaurant in Naples inviting me to stop by for a meal, with a 20% discount for mentioning the tweet. Smart, and an harbinger of things to come. A few weeks ago, I had a very bad pizza at the airport in Des Moines and tweeted about it, only to hear back from the maker with an apology and an offer for restitution later.

This is the real world of Twitter and its ultimate value, because Twitter is also a medium of conversation. It's why I've been recommending people participate since the beginning. As a tool for personal branding, it's very close to Facebook in value.

The trouble with Twitter for me arises when people whose work I follow closely use it instead of some longer form of communications to advance bigger ideas. Twitter is a very good discussion forum, although it's a crappy way to eavesdrop on a discussion, which is what I would love to be able to do. The 140-character limit, however, leads to a dependence on links, and this is why I say I don't have the time for it.

Rather than say what needs to be said, people have no choice but to reduce their view to a sentence and toss in a link. The inference is if I want to make sense of the thought, I have to go read or watch the link. This is nice for the spread of link love and for those involved in the discussion, but it's an incredible and time-consuming nuisance for those who wish only to follow a thought stream.

Jay RosenJay Rosen is one of the most prolific users of Twitter that I know. I've been a fan of his for many years and am proud to say that I actually know the guy. Jay has taught me so much, and we've had some great give and take over the years. Today, however, I find that it takes more of my time and more of my concentration to keep up with some of the best of his thinking, because Jay has shifted his attention to places where he can find and interact with a different generation of people, places like Twitter, Tumblr, Posterous and YouTube. A few years ago, all I needed in order to follow his brilliant mind was to subscribe to his RSS feed. His blog, PressThink, was and is one of the most important in all of the blogosphere. The ideas expressed there have always been at the cutting edge of new journalism.

But I cannot keep up with Jay anymore, and that troubles me. I have three feeds of his in my RSS reader now. It's too much. I realize fully that it's my own fault, but Twitter does not make it easy. His Twitter feed is tied to his Facebook page, where I also encounter his thoughts in 140 characters. I can't keep up, because, first of all, it's a full time job. Secondly, where something he tweets does happen to capture my attention, I'm forced to follow a link in order to obtain context. Far more often than not, I find myself regretting such action, for it's Jay's opinion and thinking I seek, not that of some source material. The problem is I can't understand what he's talking about unless I follow the link.

In heady discussions, Twitter provides disjointed and disconnected thoughts to those not participating. The world of journalism needs Jay Rosen (and others, of course) to connect dots for us, because it is Jay's mind that is absorbing all of the various twists and turns that develop into a thoughtful examination of an issue. To be on the same page, I would not only have to stay with Jay for every tweet, but I'd have to follow those he's following and read everything he reads in order to fully comprehend what is presented in a single, 140-character message.

Perhaps there's a future market for that, but I just don't have time to do it. So I lose, and I wonder if it's just me. It's different when reading a thoughtful essay, where I can absorb everything and let that knowledge percolate in my own mind, where it will likely trigger other thought streams. Jay hasn't abandoned the long-form method of communicating, but he has certainly made a shift in how he advances ideas.

I do what seems to be working at the time and what feels fun and interesting. I also like to do things other people aren't doing, or don't see the importance of yet. Part of what's driving me now is a generational analysis. I don't think people of my generation or your generation are going to be the ones to solve the puzzle that the news trades are lost within. So I'm concentrating on reaching people in their 20s who have a much better shot at it. "Rebooting the News" has a tiny audience, but some of them are wicked smart young people who never bought newsroom culture in the first place, so they don't have to free themselves from it. That's why I have been putting so much into Studio 20 at NYU.

But there's another matter that I've come across that concerns me even more. In a recent PressThink essay (How the Backchannel Has Changed the Game for Conference Panelists), Jay dropped in two links that require following rather than summarizing or quoting from the links themselves. This meant I had to follow the links in order to understand the piece more fully, and I believe this is a shift in prose that's directly attributable to Twitter. As I pointed out to Jay, I don't think he would have written the piece as such before Twitter.

So is Twitter influencing the longer form writing of those who use it day-in-and-day-out? Is the link to source material replacing the lifting of quotes from those articles to establish context? If so, this is a major shift in writing that I think we need to stop and think about, especially for those wishing to influence beyond a given circle of followers.

Of course, I could be completely wrong in all of this, but it doesn't change the fundamental thesis of this essay: that I simply do not have time — in my current life — to keep up with all the wonderful conversation of those I follow via Twitter. It is a major concern to me, because keeping up with the thought leadership in my world has been one of the most important aspects of my day-to-day existence. That is my trouble with Twitter.

Who will curate Jay Rosen (and others) for me?