Twitter: An Evaluation

Twitter: An Evaluation

Back in August 2007 I wrote the following article about Twitter:

When Twitter first appeared on the scene, I thought it sounded like a complete waste of time.

But as more and people I respect started singing its praises, I thought I ought to give it a whirl.

That was a couple of months ago, and here are my conclusions.

Am I alone in having doubts about Twitter?

I've already written about the management issues, as I see them, of using Twitter in a classroom or as part of a presentation or workshop, so this article will concern itself with Twitter from an individual's point of view.

What is Twitter?

In case you have forgotten, or didn't know, Twitter is a sort of cross between a rudimentary social networking environment and instant messaging. The idea is that you let people know what you are doing, and are limited to 140 characters per post. People can follow you, and you can follow other people. In this context, "follow" means the same as "friend"; in other social networking environments.

  • Several people have said that they have found it very useful to get helpful information. For example, I posted a "tweet" a few days ago in which I asked if anyone knew of some good Web 2.0 humour on the web, and within 5 minutes I had two or three good leads.
  • It's fun.
  • It's a good way of making a quick announcement. For example, some people, myself included, sometimes use it to draw attention to their latest blog post.
  • Being limited to just 140 characters really focuses the attention. It's not that no word can be wasted — no character can be wasted.
  • It provides the feeling (the illusion?) of being "connected". At least, it helps you keep in touch with people.
  • Although it's true that you can get answers and help pretty quickly, Twitter is actually severely limited in this regard. For a start, your message will only be picked up by the people in your network, ie the people who are following you. So if you've only got a handful of followers, your potential response rate is going to be fairly limited. In fact, it's actually worse than this, because the message will only be picked up by people who are online at the time. Well, in theory someone could trawl through all the posts since they last logged in, but that's a bit hit and miss. By the same token, someone may respond, but unless you're online at the time you may well miss their answer. But there's another point: people often think in absolutes, rather than in marginal terms. It's not a question of whether Twitter is good for helping you get assistance, but whether the same effort would be better applied elsewhere, such as in a forum. Depending on the nature of the issue at hand, you may well find that a forum (yes, very Web 1.0-ish I know) is actually far better. For example, I love using Excel, but every so often I come up against a problem I can’t work out. There are some excellent Excel newsgroups (yes, not even Web 1.0, I know!). I can post my problem there and know it will be visible to people even in a few hours' time. Also, because by definition these newsgroups are frequented by people who have an interest in Excel, some of whom are (often certificated) experts, it's unlikely that my request will go completely unanswered. In fact, I have often found that I get two or three brilliant suggestions within minutes or, in a worst case scenario, by the next morning.
  • It can be fun, and it can be addictive too. However, I can think of quite a few things that can be fun as well, but that doesn't mean they're good for you. I do find the sort of breathless enthusiasm for everything a little worrying if it appears to be unaccompanied by much critical thinking.One of the problems I find these days is that are so many of these sorts of networks that I can spend hours of an evening doing nothing except have conversations. And guess what? For the most part, they';re the same people in all of these networks at the same time! So I can be chatting to someone in Skype and notice that they have responded to a tweet I posted -- within Twitter. But they could have told me in Skype instead! So to some extent it's networking not to achieve something, but simply for the sake of networking. If you want to see the absurdity of all this, imagine that instead of being in Skype and Twitter talking to the same person, you are in the same room with them and also on the phone to them. Does that make any sense? Of course not! Getting back to the point about time-wasting, I think if you're going to waste time you should do so in a way that is not pointless. As Suzuki, the Zen master put it: "A Zen student must learn to waste time conscientiously."

The good points about Twitter are such that I would not say don't try it, or don't use it. But I do think that, as one's time is such a valuable resource, one should adopt certain measures, as follows:

  • Don't allow anyone to follow you (you can block people), and don't follow everyone who wants to follow you. Otherwise, you can end up wasting a lot of time reading tweets from people who are not really that interested in you.
  • Consider whether, in a particular instance, Twitter actually is the best place to post your comment or query.
  • Learn self-discipline. I now set aside time to have Twitter on, be available on Skype, check my emails, and so on. I have found that being connected continuously is too distracting.

And what am I going to do now? Announce this article in Twitter, of course!


So what do you think of that article, over three years later? I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I think now I would hardy change a word of it. I still think that everything I wrote above is true. However, what I would say is that, having used it for all this time, and built up a sizeable network, I'd find it very difficult to be without it. I discover a lot of information through it. True, I'd almost certainly find out about the important stuff anyway, sooner or later, but there are two issues embedded in that observation, aren't there?

Firstly, what about the unimportant stuff? You know: the jokes, lighthearted banter, links to cartoons, stunning photographs? Because actually, they're important too, but in a different sort of way.

Secondly, there's that word "later". Sometimes "later" is too late.

Twitter certainly can suck up a lot of time, of course, and I think self-discipline is necessary.

But Twitter's advantages outweigh its disadvantages. If you need proof of that statement, download the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, if you haven't done so already. This free collection of projects has been downloaded 29,446 times, and many of the activities involve the use of Twitter -- even in the primary/elementary classroom.

In fact, even apart from such evidence, probably Twitter has increased in value because of all the third party applications now available.

Still, I do think it's interesting to occasionally reflect not only on the past year, but beyond.

(Incidentally, if you'd like to find out more about the Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, and have several download and online reading options, check out this page -- but ignore the stats: they've been surpassed now!)

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