As any social platform expands and reaches the online equivalent of middle age, there are often criticisms of what that growth requires and cries of “it was better when,” and Twitter is no exception to that rule. One of the most prominent complaints about the service — one that I have made myself in the past — is that as more and more people have joined the network, the signal-to-noise ratio has plummeted, and the stream has become increasingly filled with meaningless chatter about inanities like Justin Bieber’s latest PR stunt.
A recent piece in the New York Times, entitled “Valley of the Blahs: How Justin Bieber’s Troubles Exposed Twitter’s Achilles’ Heel,” is a good example of this genre. In it, writer Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe on Twitter) argues that the volume of users has changed the nature of Twitter, transforming it from a kind of real-time news feed into a noisy crowd of attention-seekers, all of whom want to be the first to opine on whatever the current topic of discussion is.
In her piece, Wortham argues that Twitter “isn’t really about the most important thing any more — it stopped being about relevancy a long time ago,” and that the mass of users on the network results in an environment in which “we’re all milling about, infinitely hovering, waiting for our chance to speak, to add something clever to conversation, even when we’re better off not saying much at all.”
“Twitter seems to have reached a turning point, a phase in which its contributors have stopped trying to make the service as useful as possible for the crowd, and are instead trying to distinguish themselves from one another. It feels as if we’re all trying to be a cheeky guest on a late-night show… delivering the performance of a lifetime, via a hot, rapid-fire string of commentary, GIFs or responses that help us stand out.”
Is the noise overwhelming the signal?
Wortham’s post triggered a host of different responses on Twitter, including agreement from many who also seem to feel that Twitter’s popularity hasn’t necessarily been a good thing, and that the network used to provide more value when it was smaller and less populated. Wortham, for example, said that she has found herself “retreating to smaller groups, where the stakes are lower and people are more honest and less determined to prove a point, freer to joke and experiment, more trusting in one another.”
I must admit that I felt a rush of sympathy for much of what Wortham was saying as I read her piece. As I tried to point out in a recent post of my own, I often feel somewhat overwhelmed by my Twitter stream, and I wish the service made it easier to filter content, rather than just giving you one undifferentiated river. A never-ending flow of real-time commentary can be a wonderful thing, but also a terrible one, depending on what you happen to be looking for.
There’s no question that the “crowded bar” aspect of Twitter can generate a lot more heat than light on some issues, especially when it’s combined with the tiny endorphin rush that one gets from being retweeted or having a tweet favorited. It’s like applause from the crowd — it tends to encourage us to go even farther, or to be even more controversial, and that rarely helps make a discussion more reasonable. As Wortham puts it, it is “a feedback loop that can’t be closed.”
It’s your stream to shape as you wish
At the same time, however, Wortham’s piece was criticized by Twitter fans in the same way mine was, and that criticism has some merit: many argued that her view of the service is distorted by the fact that she follows more than 4,000 people (as I do) — and also that since she is a member of the media, she is likely following some of the noisiest and/or most irritating of the Twitter “social media guru” crowd. Their solution? Follow fewer people, and/or less irritating people.
Even though I complained in my post about Twitter’s lack of tools, there is a lot of truth to this argument. In a way, there is no single, dominant view of Twitter and how it works (or doesn’t work) — instead, there are thousands, if not millions, of different lenses through which we can view Twitter. Some are terrible, as Charlie Warzel tried to demonstrate by giving us a view inside Justin Bieber’s timeline, and others are not. In a sense, it is up to each of us to tune the service to our liking.
For me at least, and I think for some others, the hardest part about streamlining or improving my Twitter experience is that I use it for different things at different times. Sometimes it’s about work, and following what people are saying about a topic — and in many cases, I actually like the multitude of responses, even the stupid or funny ones, because they amuse me. At other times, however, I am trying to follow something I think is important, and it becomes very difficult.
Is this phenomenon the “Achilles heel” of Twitter, as Wortham argues? Yes and no. Much of what she is complaining about likely does have to do with following too many people, or following the wrong ones — but I also believe that this does pose a long-term risk: to the extent that people become frustrated by the noise, they are more likely to depart for quieter environments such as SnapChat or Whisper or even Tumblr. And that is something Twitter should be concerned about.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Moodboard