Life's Little Mysteries - Solved

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Reading through my Twitter feed the other day, I found a link from the Post Team linking to a Post article about Twitter. It somewhat ironically wondered whether anyone actually read the Post Team's tweets, and whether anyone read the articles as a result. You can tick 'yes' by both those boxes now.

However, the article also contained a number of wrong assumptions and misconceptions about Twitter, and as a regular user of that site I'd like to correct those errors. I have no interest in converting anyone to becoming a regular Twitter user, but I'd like to think that at the end of this article you'll have a clearer idea of the nature of the site.

I'm always puzzled by h2g2 researchers who claim to be 'puzzled' by the idea of a 'social networking site', because h2g2 is a social networking site. The prime shared common interest is, of course, the Edited Guide and writing in general, and we write user profiles ('Personal Spaces'), create networks of friends ('Friends Lists'), write blogs ('Journals'), join common interest groups within the site (the various clubs and societies) and chat and interact with one another. Replace writing with photography and you have Flickr, which has essentially the same frameworks for interaction. MySpace was, originally, a site for musicians to share their work, review other people's music and meet like-minded people, and again all this is only one step removed from h2g2. The concept should be familiar to us all.

The complaint about adverts is also a null one. Every site has to pay for itself somehow: some run ads, some charge a subscription, The Times is planning to do both. Some ads are more intrusive than others, but it seems a little churlish to hold this against sites that aren't funded by the UK taxpayer.

So on to Twitter itself.

It's barely worth an argument over whether Twitter has any 'point' or not. People who devote their every waking hour to worthy causes are usually canonised or at least knighted; the rest of us often do things purely for enjoyment. If people want to follow celebrities, it's up to them – and let's not forget that the culture whereby people want to know about celebrities' every move was created by the tabloid press and monthly magazines, not Twitter.

Let's assume for now, though, that Twitter has to serve some kind of purpose for it to be a worthwhile website. For every 'Big Ben' account1, there's someone fighting to change the hopelessly unfair British libel laws or finding ways to tweet around China's oppressive firewalls. Twitter played a significant role in both the Trafigura affair and Simon Singh's libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association; it helped co-ordinate responses to the Mumbai attacks, WikiLeaks fearlessly allows a platform for whistleblowers, and Janis Krums even won an award for his Twitpic of the Hudson River plane crash.

Twitter has a lot of users, I think around 100 million at the last estimate, who use the site for a number of different purposes. If you have a band to promote, a product to sell or a website to publicise, or if you're an egomaniac, then having lots of followers is obviously important. But it's just plain wrong to say that Twitter is all about the number of followers you have. For most of us who use the site recreationally, it isn't important to have loads of followers and we use the site primarily to follow interesting people. My list is fairly eclectic but includes a few friends in different parts of the country and some h2g2 researchers (@colm_ryan and @Mr603 are both well worth following); bloggers such as Bad Science's Ben Goldacre, libel lawyer Jack of Kent and my favourite cartoonist Oatmeal; a few comedians who regularly post wit and interesting links (Dara O'Briain, Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry); and a few news feeds, cricketers and, of course, cricket news feeds. (For the record, I don't think any of them have ever tweeted that they'd just had a lukewarm drink.) Between them all, my Twitter page acts as a news feed for just about everything I'm interested in. Forget the 140 character 'limit': it takes far fewer characters than that to post a link to a blog, news article or image if you need to expand.

When Bel writes 'I was mystified by the concept of it: why would I want to know any movement of some 'celebrity' or politician?', she has missed the concept entirely.

To understand Twitter, you have to think of it in a different way. It isn't really a 'social' network, where you write a message and expect to get a response from peers. If you're expecting that from Twitter, you'll be disappointed. Twitter is just an alternative method of communication, and more of a means to an end than an end in itself.

Instead of thinking of people, envisage every user as a source of information. Each of them sends anything they think is of interest out into Twitter in the form of a tweet. This can be anything from the content of today's lunchtime sandwich to an international declaration of world peace. If that piece of information is useful, interesting or amusing, the information will be repeated by other users; if it isn't, it won't. Information that is repeated regularly becomes much easier to find, and tweets on a theme - linked together by #hashtags, for example #sandwichfilling or #worldpeace – 'trend' and start to have a wider relevance. Users who consistently tweet or retweet useful information will naturally attract more followers than those who don't. It's a very democratic way of spreading news and other information. The only factor that influences the visibility of any given piece of information is popularity – there are no editors deciding what makes the front page or setting the agenda themselves.

Still unconvinced that Twitter is a valuable or interesting site? Take a look at NASA's twittering. @Astro_Mike sent tweets to Mission Control from Atlantis in May 2009, which were then posted on Twitter, and in January of this year @Astro_TJ tweeted directly from the International Space Station. The organisation also posted a fascinating series of tweets purporting to be from the Mars Phoenix lander, @MarsPhoenix. @NASA itself regularly tweets some wonderful images, including recent satellite images of the Iceland volcano and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. I defy anyone who has the slightest interest in space exploration to take a look at those accounts and not be completely enthralled.

Twitter obviously isn't for everyone, but there are a lot of misconceptions in the previous article ('it's not about following somebody but about being followed' ... 'nobody expects you to say anything coherent in [140] characters' ... 'Twitter isn't there to be read') that most regular users would be baffled by. It gives a rather Daily Mail-esque view of Twitter: that it has no substance, is full of egotistical celebrities and inconsequential idiots, that it is unfathomable why any intelligent person would be interested in the site. It's taken me rather more than 140 characters, but hopefully you'll understand Twitter a little bit more as a result.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I have to go and find out what Lady Gaga has had for dinner and tweet about running out of teabags.

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31.05.10 Front Page

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1From what I understand, the Big Ben account was set up to demonstrate a clever bit of code rather than to serve a purpose, useful or otherwise. The account is still active and has over 50,000 followers.

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