Ten Things Twitter is Not

posted 05 May 2009, updated 05 May 2009

It's no secret to anybody that I'm a huge fan of Twitter. As a man with an insatiable desire to know everything in the universe as fast as possible, Twitter is like having ESP: I know what everyone around me is thinking, and if I want to, I can hit Twitter search trending topics and find out what everyone is thinking about. I think it's a service that's already hugely useful and has tremendous potential.

So I get a little annoyed, now that Twitter is going crazily mainstream, being used by everyone from Oprah to the CDC, when people misunderstand what Twitter is, and what it's for. Some of them are aggravatingly stupid ideas, and yet are blithely echoed around the mediasphere. So here's my top ten things that Twitter is not.

1. The new email / the new telegram

Only a total idiot would think that Twitter was an attempt to replace email, and you'd have to be an idiot from the early 20th century to think it was an attempt to replace the telegram. The combination of these two idiots is Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, who interviewed the Twitter founders in the most astonishingly belittling and hostile way while entirely missing the point. Pleasingly, she has already been excellently parodied, so at least some good has come of it.

2. A tool for self-absorbed hipsters (well, maybe it is)

Another quote from Dowd's inane article described Twitter as "a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls". The excellent Twouble with Twitters parody also touched on this idea: that it's the place for vapid navel-gazers. Now, I'm not going to deny there are a bunch of idiots using Twitter this way, especially people who follow Twitter's own instructions for using the service (see later). But if having annoying people using your service makes it a service exclusively for annoying people, then that's a problem shared by every website in the world. Twitter is what you make of it.

3. Worth $1 billion

The hilariously unreliable TechCrunch sparked off a massive hubbub the other day when it claimed Google was in late-stage acquisition talks with Twitter. After being slapped down by everybody with any actual knowledge of the situation, they shamelessly followed up by claiming that Twitter's founder Evan Williams wouldn't sell Twitter for a billion dollars. Not that anybody had offered a billion dollars, and not even that Evan said so. Their source was just some guy who knew Evan and said "dude, he wouldn't sell Twitter for, like, a billion dollars".

4. Private or even secure

There have been multiple stories about Twitter accounts being hacked. Even the admin accounts of the people who run Twitter have been broken into more than once. The solution here is not oAuth: the solution here is recognize that Twitter is a web service with laudable flexibility and openness, and with openness comes vulnerability. Accept this, move on, and for the love of god don't attempt to use it for anything important like sending money.

Oh, and sure, you can set your account to "private", but then almost none of the fun mashups work. Turn that off, and remember to treat it like your blog: don't say anything you wouldn't like spread around and archived forever. This is the web, and Twitter is no different in this respect.

5. The new Google

I confess I am partially guilty here, having said on Flickr that Twitter is the new search, and indeed I think Twitter has a huge opportunity in real-time search, as evidenced by how incredibly useful the Twitter/Google search mashup plugin is proving to be. But real-time search is supplementary to web search, not competitive with it, so those who claim that Twitter is a Google alternative should try searching Twitter for the name of the Brazilian prime minister in 1926. Twitter will not replace Google, it will be used by Google (and Yahoo!) -- and maybe incorporated into them, if anybody gets around to actually offering Ev a billion dollars.

6. The new Facebook

This one seems like it might have more legs on the face of it: they're both social networks, right? They both are primarily built around the idea of a "stream" of updates from your friends, too? Surely Twitter is the new Facebook?

Sure it is, as long as nothing you ever want to say to your friends is more than 140 characters long. To me, Facebook is an identity repository. You link up to everyone you know on there, and whenever you want to contact them, you can get their phone number and their current email address straight from there. It's a great way to share party photos and find old school friends. I'm not abandoning Facebook for Twitter, but they're not the same animal.

Of course, a lot of people disagree with me, including Facebook themselves, who are furiously remodeling themselves after Twitter over the loud protests of users who liked it the way it was. Facebook was genuinely innovative with its "news feed", aka. a stream of updates just like Twitter, but as soon as you've added everybody you know, the news feed gets unmanageably noisy. They tried to address this with filters and whatnot, but in the end it's just too complicated and way, way too closed off. Twitter's strength is its openness, and Facebook is not -- and should not be -- willing to give up its strong privacy model. Unlike Twitter, Facebook *is* relatively private.

7. The new blogs

This is another one where you can sort of see where people are coming from. A lot of people who used to blog now tweet instead (and a bunch of them tumble instead, too). Twitter is instant, broadcast, and short. That suits some people's writing style perfectly, and that's a good thing. But Twitter is no more going to kill blogs than television is going to kill movies -- sure, it will mean there are less blogs around, but the blogs that disappear are the ones that shouldn't have been blogs to start with.

8. A competition

Sites like Tweetrank (briefly), Twitter grader and Twitterholic all take the only two visible metrics on twitter -- number of followers and number of tweets -- and turn them into a game. Sure, that's diverting and everything, but some people have got the idea that getting more followers is the "goal" of Twitter. By far the most famous example is the Ashton Kutcher vs. CNN race to 1,000,000 followers, enthusiastically promoted on all sides and a big part of the blaze of publicity that sent Twitter completely mainstream at the beginning of this year (for web services and political candidates alike, you know you've arrived in middle America when Oprah gets involved). Having followers is nice, but it's not the goal. And while we're talking about Oprah...

9. A celebrity communication device

This is the weirdest misunderstanding of Twitter I've heard, and the post that inspired me to write this one is this thoroughly bizarre ramble by Dave Winer about how some random media company will get a celebrity to promote their own "Twitter-like" network and promote it on billboards and somehow this will mean there will be many Twitters. Let's be clear: celebrities started turning up on Twitter once they heard it was getting popular. They didn't make it popular in the first place. It got popular because it was useful.

10. A service the answers the question "what are you doing?"

And the final culprit in not understanding what Twitter is for are Twitter themselves, who still ask "What are you doing?" at the top of every page. Have you ever read the tweets of somebody who genuinely answers this question? "Just woke up", "going to work", "having lunch", "really tired". Dull, dull, dull, and a lot of the parodies of Twitter harp on this aspect. So let's be clear: this is a terrible way to use Twitter. Twitter is not what you're doing, Twitter is what you're thinking.

What Twitter is for

Twitter is like friend ESP, a portable zeitgeist. It lets you know "what's going on" by telling you not what people are physically doing, but what they're thinking about, planning, reading, watching, paying attention to. You can tap into what your own social circle are thinking about, and if you use Twitter search, you can find out what the twitterverse as a whole is talking about, or filter it down with some keywords to what they think about a particular topic, be it a presidential debate or an ongoing sporting event. Because Twitter is so short, so quick, so instant, and so easily disseminated to mobile devices, it's the closest thing we have to direct brain monitoring. And that's incredibly useful. No service has ever before been convenient enough and widespread enough to capture this data, and it does it in real time. We are just beginning to see the potential of this entirely new data source.

Don't get confused

This "Twitter is the new..." concept is central to a lot of misunderstandings of Twitter, and probably underlies all of the ones I listed above. Twitter is not the new anything. Twitter is nothing but the new Twitter: that very rare thing, an entirely new genre of service, like blogs, social networks, and way back in the day, portals all were. It's its own thing, and trying to analogize it to some other service is as useful as calling airplanes flying buses: sure, they sort of look like buses with wings, but that doesn't mean you use them the same way.