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mark howe
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By Mark Howe
creativity and ownership in a digital age
Mark Howe is co-author of Creativity and Ownership in a Digital Age
More hubris here
I get Twitter, but it won't get me
July 2009

My name is Mark, and I am a Twitter virgin.

I made this discovery while browsing the Twitter wall at the Churches' Media Council's recent conference about Christianity in the digital space. I had just mentioned – through an obsolete medium called "speaking to those in the room" – that I could finally see how it worked. After the meeting, a woman told me in a whisper how pleased she was to learn that she was not alone. We may never know how many others were hiding this shameful secret.

When I say that I saw how Twitter works, I mean on a social level. The underlying technology was never a mystery. It's XML-based chatroom broadcasting with tag-based filtering. It's the 2009 version of Internet Relay Chat, circa 1988. It's the sort of project any number of undergraduates tackle every year. As the folks from Twitter say themselves, it's not rocket science. The Q&A on that blog entry pretty much kills the media myth of technological geniuses who build teleportation units in their coffee breaks. In this case, until about a year ago, Twitter was running off a single main server, and required a 24/7 team to switch in new secondary servers as each previous one crashed. In terms of technology, we are talking sealing wax and string.

The conference's use of Twitter, like Twitter technology itself, was disarmingly simple. Those interested in the conference agreed to tweet using a specific tag. A laptop in the room projected the Twitter feed onto a large screen. Conference participants contributed, along with those watching the conference via a video feed, and the speakers interacted with the comments as they appeared.

Before the conference, I struggled to see why providing 20 year-old functionality in a rather unreliable way was remotely exciting. However, as is often the case with networked technology, the experience of being in physical proximity to a group of avid tweeters is more than the sum of the parts. There were many points at which the telegraphic conversation on the Twitter wall was more informative than the presentations in the hall, and tweeting seemed to empower some people to express an opinion where they might never have chosen to speak to the room. The occasional intervention from tele-participants also made the conference feel like it was genuinely a world event.

I now "get" Twitter. But I'm going to keep my virginity for the following reasons.

Illusory urgency

Let's get the most hackneyed reason out of the way first. It seems to me that, as a communication tool for everyday use, Twitter abolishes the distinction between the urgent and the important. Each and every tweet arrives with telegraphic urgency. Many tweets carry multiple tags that invite me to sign up for even more urgent tweets. It's like email on amphetamines. It's like a tartrazine-mainlining toddler with a cattle prod. The speed at which the tweets arrive seems designed to me to destroy concentration and perspective, leaving only an eternal, busy but superficial present. It's all foreplay and no cigarette.

Now if I was still working 12-hour shifts in a cybercafé, I'm sure I'd be all over Twitter. Running a cybercafé means being physically present and enduring continual low-grade interruptions. Twitter would have filled many a dull hour, and might have enabled me to "do" something while moving between the coffee machine and the cash register. But it won't help me write theology better, or write non-trivial code at all. Writing and programming mean getting a whole chunk of problems in perspective at once, and the last thing I need is another way to achieve soft focus.

Broadcasting disguised as democracy

The myth says that Twitter brings democracy to communication, but a recent study by Harvard Business School shows that most Twitter users never make a second tweet, and that "just 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of the content".

Enforcing a 140-character format hasn't made Twitter more democratic – "On a typical online social network... the top 10% of users accounted for 30% of all production." And, on reflection, why is anyone surprised? There's a reason why advertising companies charge more for one slogan than for a page full of copy. Stephen Fry has 50,000 followers because he brings wit to Twitter. But few of us have Stephen Fry's wit (or Stephen Fry's travel schedule for that matter), resulting in what Hugh Laurie describes as "banality on all sides".

Elitism is never far from speech. That's a postmodernistic lesson that Christian fans of postmodernism ignore at their peril. And Twitter is as vulnerable to elitism as any other medium. Using it to influence requires a combination of availability and rhetorical skills that, as usual, puts those with tertiary education at a huge advantage. This is not social revolution. It's another playground for Guardian crossword experts.

The day after our conference, one of the main conference tweeters had her account suspended. Much speculation about why this happened, but I'd say it's almost certainly because the traffic we generated didn't look like normal Twitter traffic and triggered an automatic security feature. The traffic looked wrong because we actually had a discussion, rather than following a feed from Stephen Fry. In other words, even Twitter is amazed when people do what Twitter PR says Twitter is all about.

Fictional universality

But my biggest reservation about Twitter is that it just doesn't seem very important. That sounds absurd given the amount of airtime given to Twitter in recent months. But, from the Harvard study mentioned above, the total Twitter user base is currently running at around 10 million. On a conservative estimate of total Internet users, that means 99 per cent of Internet users are still Twitter virgins. Yes, Twitter has grown exponentially in the last year, but from a very small base.

Facebook has 200 million active users according to the Harvard study, i.e. 20 times more than Twitter. I'm certain that email usage dwarfs Facebook, and, although it's hard to get the figures, I suspect that the total usage of standalone forums does too. In other words, I'm not out of touch with "the Internet" through not using Twitter. I'm actually in the company of the overwhelming majority of Internet users. Assuming that Twitter is the norm sets us up for all sorts of mistaken conclusions about the future of a medium that, in reality, is in many ways extremely conservative.

The conference I attended provided a demonstration of how small Twitter is when, at one point, we found ourselves "trending". This means that our little tagged conversation became one of the 10 busiest conversations on Twitter. This created huge excitement, because it showed how important we are. In reality, it just showed how small Twitter actually is, if maybe 50 people discussing a niche topic counts as world-class traffic. In any given week you can find that volume of traffic on one thread of Ship of Fools!

But what about the influence of Twitter, for example, in the recent Iran unrest where, according to one over-excited report, "the simple microblogging service has become Iran's lifeline to the outside, a way for Iranians to tell the world what's happening on the streets of Tehran in real time – and a vital means of communication among themselves"? Well, it doesn't seem to have delivered revolution just yet. And, in any case, similar things happened during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt and Desert Storm using the neolithic IRC technology I mentioned at the start. So nothing new under the sun there, at least from a sociological perspective.

Reading Twitter's tea leaves

I have a particular dislike for the kind of futurology that predicts we'll all be wearing televisions next autumn. But, in the case of Twitter, some things are pretty much certain. Twitter will grow some more. In doing so it will hit more scalability issues. It will also be targetted increasingly by all the nefarious behaviour that makes email so much less fun than it used to be, and attempts to deal with this will, like broken spam filters, make Twitter much less fun to use than it used to be.

Most certainly of all, the media will find some new proprietary bandwagon for 2010. We'll be told that this is the New Internet (about Web 7.3 by my reckoning.) Meanwhile, almost everyone will continue to use web pages and email to do most of what matters.

I don't think Twitter is evil. I have no axe to grind with those for whom it serves a purpose or meets a need. But I don't intend to jump on every bandwagon going because, ultimately, the result is akin to being torn apart by wild horses. And I hope that, eventually, those who see their role as guiding society in general and the church in particular through the Internet Age will get beyond the latest corporate hype. The reality of what real people do with the Internet is less hyperbolic, but is no less interesting or important for that.
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