The way of the tweet


[notes in search of an essay]

The lifecycle of the twitterer:

1. Skepticism

2. Enchantment

3. Disenchantment

4. Servitude

(This may also be the lifecycle of Twitter itself.)

Every communication medium has formal qualities and social qualities. The uniqueness of each medium lies in the tension between the formal qualities and the social qualities.

The initial skepticism of the twitterer stems from the formal restrictiveness of the medium, which makes its social possibilities appear meager. Limiting messages to 140 characters would seem to prevent both rich expression and rich conversation. Hence the early rap on Twitter: who wants to hear what some narcissist had for breakfast? (Many users and would-be users never get beyond this stage.)

The enchantment begins with the realization that formal restrictiveness can be a spur to creative expression. A limit of 140 characters, it turns out, leaves plenty of room for wit. It also leaves plenty of room for conversation. The sense of enchantment grows as people come up with ingenious formal innovations that further expand the flexibility of the medium (hashtags, abbreviations, denotative punctuation marks, etc.), greatly enhancing its social qualities, without destroying the overarching formal constraint that distinguishes the service.

(Side note: When a link appears in a tweet, the link can serve as either context or text.)

Disenchantment begins with the realization that, even with all the formal innovations, Twitter remains a restrictive medium. The twitterer begins to sense that she has explored all the exciting or intriguing formal and social qualities of the medium, and now the limitations begin to grate. Tweeting begins to feel at best routine and at worst like an exercise in recycling. A contempt for the medium begins to grow silently within the twitterer.

(Side note: Unlike the charming formal innovations that come from the users, the formal innovations introduced by Twitter itself, such as the rote attachment of images or snippets to tweets, often feel forced, clumsy, manipulative. They’re disenchanting.)

To the extent that the disenchanted have been socially successful with Twitter (lots of followers, lots of interlocutors, achievement of status), they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to abandon the medium. Servitude begins.

(Side note: The formal restrictiveness of Twitter makes it a more interesting medium, a more enchanting medium, than, say, Facebook. Servitude is Facebook’s business model, as its founder and early investors understood long ago.)

3 thoughts on “The way of the tweet

  1. Tom Slee

    I vacillate between enchantment and disenchantment.

    The thing I like most is the dry wit of several people I follow and the useful links of others, together with the occasional short conversation.

    The think I like least is the equation of social success with follower count, which seems built into the medium (both formally and informally). The equation conflates conversation with self-promotion in a way that leaves me feeling slightly contaminated.

  2. Nick Post author

    What would happen, I wonder, if the follower count was suddenly eliminated? Would it make a big difference? A little difference? No difference? Would the quantity or quality of tweets change? Would Twitter become more of a conversational medium – or less of one? Would the whole thing collapse? Would people lose interest? Or would they feel unburdened? I’m curious.

  3. Andrew Francis

    I’m still on the enchantment side of things since I have delegated the servitude component to a software application. My software application prototype automatically tweets the due dates of borrowed library books. I added Twitter to test the framework. The 140 character constraint is great since stuff like my Pebble has limited screen real estate. A part of the joy is figuring out title shortening algorithms (the one I currently use rather suck). There are a few other things I want to do (i.e., have the agent confirm whether it ought to tweet, add hashtags). Outside of a Twitter employee, nobody really follows the library agent’s feed.

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