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Summary:

Twitter’s ongoing evolution from open platform to global media company has all kinds of ramifications for the social-media industry and for businesses, but it also has implications for users. This is my attempt to look at why I have a love-hate relationship with the service.

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We’ve been writing a lot at GigaOM lately about different aspects of Twitter’s ongoing evolution — including the way the company is trying to control more and more of its network and the content that flows through it (so that it can monetize all that attention more easily), as well as the tension between that desire for control and the company’s commitment to the principle of free speech. But we haven’t written a lot about how those changes are affecting us as users of Twitter, or what we think of where the company’s evolution is taking it, so I decided to try and put some of those thoughts into a post. And what I realized is that after more than five years on the network, I have a classic love-hate relationship with it.

It’s hard to believe sometimes that Twitter has only been around for a few years as a mainstream media phenomenon, since it has become such a central part of how many of us live our lives — and in my case, at least, how we do our jobs as well. I have a second screen with Tweetdeck open all day long so that I can follow the stream (I follow about 2,700 people), and I have spent years curating lists of important or interesting users in technology and media that I use to track those topics. Both in a personal sense and a work sense, there are hundreds of people I would never have met if it wasn’t for Twitter. It has literally changed my life.

All of that said, however, there are things I don’t like about the service — including my apparent inability to stop using it (which of course is largely my fault, not Twitter’s). And I have to confess that I am concerned about where the network is going based on some of the company’s recent behavior. So here are five things I love and five things I hate about Twitter:

What do I love about Twitter? Real-time news:

  • I love the fact that Twitter gives me real-time information about an incredible variety of things, whether it’s an earthquake or the fact that someone just died (assuming it isn’t another Twitter celebrity-death hoax) and it does so far more quickly than the television news or anything since the old days of news radio. Twitter is like a police-band radio for the entire world.
  • I love that I get a broad variety of viewpoints, both from traditional sources like news outlets and from alternative sources, including people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong time, depending on your viewpoint). I like the fact that taking the pulse of the news is as easy as picking up my phone or hearing the “bing” of an incoming tweet.
  • I love that I can get into discussions (and occasionally arguments) at a moment’s notice with someone I respect because of their output but may never have actually met, and that others can join in. And those discussions can happen organically, rather than having to invite someone to a specific location or convince them to sign up with a new service.
  • I love that the brevity of a tweet forces me to be concise and forces me to consider what I am really trying to say and how to say it. This does sometimes turn into a “bumper-sticker” level debate, but it also introduces a lot of discipline, and as a writer I enjoy that.
  • I love that Twitter provides anyone with the ability to publish their thoughts or their feelings or opinions with very little effort, because I think the value that comes from opinions other than our own is worth putting up with a little noise for. I like that Twitter lowers the barriers to real-time information distribution, as co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams has said.

What do I hate? Addiction and control issues

  • As I mentioned above, I don’t like the fact that I am more or less addicted to Twitter now, to the point where I’m not sure what I would do without it. Someone asked me what I would do if the network disappeared, and I said that I figured I could go back to just blogging and comments — but it wouldn’t be the same. It would be like losing a friend, or missing a great dinner party.
  • I also hate that Twitter has become so big now, and has turned into much more of a broadcast network than somewhere you can really talk to people (I think this is part of the appeal of new networks like Google+ and App.net). Most people never post anything to the network, they just follow celebrities or sports teams, and those kinds of accounts rarely interact with “normal” people. The idea of Twitter as a conversational tool seems to be dying.
  • I hate that Twitter seems to be trying very hard to become a broadcast network, and to be best friends with TV networks. I know the company has to make money if it is to continue to grow, but I don’t need new ways to find out what is on television. It might be selfish, but I liked it when Twitter seemed to care more about helping people spread the news about revolutions in Egypt than helping drive eyeballs to prime-time TV shows.
  • I hate that Twitter is cutting off the third-party services I like to use — including Instagram and Tumblr and potentially plenty of others. I hate the fact that I am now nervous about devoting time to Flipboard or Storify because I am afraid they will suddenly disappear or no longer be able to function the way they used to. I don’t think this kind of war on outsiders is necessary, and I hate the way it makes Twitter look cheap and desperate.
  • Lastly, I hate that Twitter’s metamorphosis seems to reinforce the idea that being an open network — one that allows the easy distribution of content across different platforms, the way that blogging and email networks do –isn’t possible, or at least can’t become a worthwhile business. And I hate the fact that trying to justify a private-market valuation cooked up by venture capitalists seems to be driving the company, rather than what is good for users.

Obviously, I am not going to stop using Twitter anytime soon, regardless of what I don’t like about it. There just isn’t any other network that is going to give me what I get from Twitter, without me spending hundreds of hours of time and energy spent trying to duplicate what I have built on top of the service. But at the same time, I am not happy with a lot of what is going on — or what the company’s actions seem to suggest the future might look like — and so I am watching new networks like Google+ and App.net with interest.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users bryan and See-ming Lee

  1. Reblogged this on #Hashtag – Thoughts on Law, Technology, the Internet, and Social Media and commented:
    Why I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter…
    Twitter’s ongoing evolution from open platform to global media company has all kinds of ramifications for the social-media industry and for businesses, but it also has implications for users. This is my attempt to look at why I have a love-hate relationship with the service.

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  2. Great points, Mathew! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it — thanks for reading.

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  3. I believe you can get all the benefits of Twitter and none of your listed downsides with a federated social network like StatusNet, Friendica or Diaspora*. With that model, you don’t get the single-point-of-censor that Twitter has, combined with the ability to choose (or become!) your service provider.

    Fortunately, all of the above mentioned softwares are open source and speak OStatus, so you can install it yourself (or have a friend do it) and still communicate with other instances/nodes/pods (as well as let you subscribe to any PuSH stream out there).

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  4. Hi Matthew! What a fantastic read! Thanks much for putting it together and for sharing your thoughts on what I think is probably the most descriptive relationship we all have with Twitter. Some times we love it, some times we hate it. What I find really fascinating from the whole dissertation is how we don’t seem to be able to find the grey matter in our Twitter experiences. I mean, the right in the middle, balanced approach to it.

    Personally, Twitter was, more than anything else, one of the most powerful conversation tools out there in small bursts, because we *did* make the effort and invested heavily our time in developing those conversations, but once those “convos” moved out of Twitter elsewhere, and it became just another broadcasting tool, I think we all realise about how appalling the overall experience is in managing information / knowledge flows, followers, following, silly Twitter API limits, crippled search and everything else, to the point of deteriorating the experience quite a bit and opening up the door to new places to host those conversations.

    I don’t think that people are going to stop using Twitter any time soon. Me neither, specially, after that blog post you linked to above that I wrote a little while ago, because one thing that I learned about it while interacting with everyone on the comments is that Twitter is what you make out of it. So if you stop investing in it there is a great chance you won’t enjoy it much. However, if you do, it’d still be the killer social networking tool for some of the very same reasons you mentioned above!

    We now just have to wait to see how it plans to kill its own ecosystem. The one that made it successful in the first place!

    Fantastic read, indeed, and thanks much for the link love! :)

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    1. Thanks, Luis. And thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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      1. You are most welcome! Thanks for tapping into it and adding the link to yours over here. It made me go back, re-read it again and think whether the experience has changed since I wrote it and the answer is that yes! It’s changed a lot, but not necessarily the tools, nor my networks, but myself… It’s been a bit of a cathartic moment that blog post, because it helped me clear plenty of my ideas and pre-conceptions and once those are now moving on, so I am … Sticking around with Twitter, for now, for sure, but for how long, only time will tell ;) hehe

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  5. I totally agree I am pretty impressed with App.net so far from what I have read. And Google+ keeps pluggin’ away I haven’t gotten around to test the audio quality of studio mode but I look forward to it, I have totally given up on Facebook, and recently deleted mine.

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  6. Great point about the addiction. I ended up spending 90 minutes a day on Twitter reading everything. I went on holiday a couple of weeks ago for 1 week and didn’t touch it. Haven’t touched it since and I am much happier. I am back to RSS and I am better informed and the experience is much more focused and enjoyable.

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  7. Mathew, May be small correction needed. “I follow about 2,700 people” I think you’re trying to link your following. Need to link this one: https://twitter.com/mathewi/following

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    1. Ah, thanks Aakar — I will change the link.

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      1. You are most welcome! And, btw it’s a fantastic read. I couldn’t agree more with you.

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  8. Awesome. I can totally relate to the love reasons you mentioned here. Some of my friends just post links from other articles and it’s boring. I don’t think they’re using Twitter to the full.

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  9. James Bryce Clark Tuesday, September 4, 2012

    The technical (and evolutionary) challenge in your notes was this one:
    “… being an open network … isn’t possible, or at least can’t become a worthwhile business.”
    Are we so sure? It’s early days. E-mail and the Web are open, and support lots of businesses. Look at the distributed DNS cloud: in 2012 we do not require that any service emanate from a sole source.
    Why is it impossible that eventually, there will be, not “a” single Twitter (or App.Net or Sina, StatusNet, Diaspora, or etc.), but rather, a replication protocol that causes the distribution of microblogging messages around from multiple points? Today we have e-mail and web hosting providers (plural), all of who support an ecosystem of interchanged content. Might that not happen with microblogging?
    Cheers @JamieXML

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    1. That’s a good point, James — perhaps there will emerge a more open network of platforms than we have right now. I certainly hope so. Thanks for the comment.

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  10. Good post. Too early to make a judgement on Twitter. Who knows where it will be in five years and what will be their biggest competition. Maybe Twitter should take the service down for a week and see what effect it has on people and business.

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  11. “I love the fact that Twitter gives me real-time information”

    You call that information? It’s the textual equivalent of an ADHD camcorder or phone user jerkily shaking the camera at an stressful event, attempting to capture what passes for video journalism nowadays. The garbage to useful ratio, even for those “worth” following is way too high.

    And that is after deciphering the hieroglyphic-like compression of 140 characters or less. Is there any software out there that helps users filter the content of Twitter feeds by learning what they like? Similar to an email spam filter?

    “…we came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information…’ And that’s exactly what the product was.” – Jack Dorsey

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    1. My sentiments exactly.

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  12. Love this article.

    I feel exactly the way you do. I cannot imagine living without it. But those people who just follow celebrities or sports teams are gone pretty quickly from my feed. The ones who chat with each other can find each other. Hope Twitter takes your points to heart. They would be well-served.
    –Michelle

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  13. I am a twitter addict. My eyes hurt scrolling through twitter I am on it so much. My worst twitter hate however is the fact you have to censor your tweets, I don\’t mean that I am not authentic but I have to hold myself back most of the time with what I actually want to say as so many people I know are now on it. Do you think you should have two accounts ? One for professional and one for personal relationships? I don\’t think I have the time or the energy to do both..

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  14. I’ve seen this happen with many other sites and online service I loved. They start out being, of by and for the people, but end up being of, by and for the corporations.

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  15. Great points Mathew. My concern is also the growing gap between heavy app users and the rest of us. We have a growing “app-ocracy” assuming a leading role. But will many follow? Patrick Pexton the ombuds at the WashPost criticized his own IT department at the paper for developing so many online features that it was leaving the thoughtful readers behind. He was denounced by the digiraty everywhere. But he has a point: how can twitter et al be more useful in a democracy? The fragmentation of mass media is also apparent in digital media.

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    1. I agree — that fragmentation has (or could have) very real consequences for society. Thanks for the comment.

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  16. After only two weeks in Twitter band-vagon and close to 2000 followers, I’m starting to feel some of your uneasiness, addiction and contradictory pulses.
    The forced concision reminds me Prof. Melvin Mencher’s reporting and writing classes at Columbia in the mid 70s, his Mark Twain’s perfect answers to any problem -don’t say what you’re going to say, just say it- and his nuclear bomb against protests: “If Genesis, the world creation, was told in 3000 words, you can be shorter, no matter how important your story”.
    Twitter’s dimension, as you put it, is, for me, like having increased thousands of times the blood bombing in my head and it’s not easy to get used to it without going blufffff.
    ¿Dying as a conversational tool? Not so sure, but I am a novice in this.
    Absolutely agree on the tool’s ABUSE without pudor by many just to promote their gadgets.

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  17. you guys ever tried indoona.com?

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  18. michael hershfield Tuesday, September 4, 2012

    I too have become addicted to twitter for a variety of reasons. not the ;east of which include the bit.ly type of information distribution. Used within the twitter context, the display & access to stories is really brillant. At this point, a loss of this feature would have a dramatic impact on my information equation.

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  19. Good thoughts here… I think many feel the same. And as for addiction, I think that’s just the side effect of something that works. I’d consider myself thoroughly addicted to email, Google, the Internet as a whole…in that I don’t think I could survive without it! I don’t look at this as a negative effect, but more as progress maybe.

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  20. Mathew, I’m curious to learn more about your thoughts regarding the future of online/social conversations- maybe a post of its own :) ?

    On one hand you indirectly toss Branch, and in another point you believe we lost hope in Twitter’s ability to nurture conversations. 

    I believe Twitter can in one stroke improve its conversational backbone, if they wanted to. Branch should have been a Twitter feature, really. It’s ironic it is supported by 2 of its founders. Are they experimenting then folding it inside Twitter, or frustrated they couldn’t do it inside? 

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  21. But all the “love” features of Twitter are available to me now via my e-mail and news flashes on my I-Phone. I get better-all-around news coverage than anything Twitter can provide and I avoid the inanity of the Twitterati.

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  22. IMHO, twitter is small talk for small minds. Many of us prefer not to reduce our lives to snippets.

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  23. I’d love to join. It’s really enriching to follow GIGAOM, but it’s past midnight here in Madrid, I’ve been too many hours today in twitter and I still have a few exams to read before going to sleep. If you make an effort to please every follower asking for information, advise…, twitter becomes a 24 hours.7 days a week, Master or PhD seminar. Nobody could pay for it and, I am afraid, very few bodies would take it without going blufffff.

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