My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Tweet Tweet (some thoughts on Twitter)

SXSW has come and gone and my phone might never recover. Y’see, last year i received over 500 Dodgeballs. To the best that i can tell, i received something like 3000 Tweets during the few days i was in Austin. My phone was constantly hitting its 100 message cap and i spent more time trying to delete messages than reading them. Still, i think that Twitter and Dodgeball are interesting and i want to take a moment to consider their strengths and weaknesses as applications.

While you can use Dodgeball for a variety of things, it’s primarily a way of announcing presence in a social venue where you’d be willing to interact with other people. Given that i’m a hermit, i primarily use Dodgeball to announce my presence at conference outtings and to sigh in jealousy as people romp around Los Angeles. Dodgeball is culturally linked to place. I’m still pretty peeved with Google over the lack of development of Dodgeball because i still think it would be a brilliant campus-based application where people actually do party-hop on every weekend and want to know if their friends are at the neighboring frat party instead of this one. When it comes to usage at SXSW, Dodgeball is great. I know when 7 of my friends are in one venue and 11 are in another; it helps me decide where to go.

Twitter has taken a different path. It is primarily micro-blogging or group IMing or push away messaging. You write whatever you damn well please and it spams all of the people who agreed to be your friends. The biggest strength AND weakness of Twitter is that it works through your IM client (or Twitterrific) as well as your phone. This means that all of the tech people who spend far too much time bored on their laptops are spamming people at a constant rate. Ah, procrastination devices. If you follow all of your friends on your mobile, you’re in for a hellish (and every expensive) experience. Folks quickly learn to stop following people on their mobile (or, if they don’t, they turn Twitter off altogether). This, unfortunately, kills the mobile value of it, making it far more of a web tool than a mobile tool. Considering how much of a bitch it is to follow/unfollow people, users quickly choose and rarely turn back. Thus, once they stop following someone on their phone, they don’t return just because they are going out with that person that night (unless they run into them and choose to switch it on).

At SXSW, Twitter is fantastic for mobile. Everyone is running around the same town commenting on talks, remarking on venues, bitching about the rain. But dear god did i feel bad for the people who weren’t at SXSW who were getting spammed with that crap. One value of Twitter is that it’s really lightweight and easy. One problem is that this is terrible if your social world is not one giant cluster. While my tech friends who normally attend SXSW moped about how jealous they were upon receiving all of the SXSW messages, my non-tech friends were more of the WTF camp. Without segmentation, i had to choose one audience over the other because there was no way to move seamlessly between the audiences. Of course, groups are much heavier to manage. Still, i think it’s possible and i gave Ev some notes.

I think it’s funny to watch my tech geek friends adopt a social tech. They can’t imagine life without their fingers attached to a keyboard or where they didn’t have all-you-can-eat phone plans. More importantly, the vast majority of their friends are tech geeks too. And their social world is relatively structurally continuous. For most 20/30-somethings, this isn’t so. Work and social are generally separated and there are different friend groups that must be balanced in different ways.

Of course, the population whose social world is most like the tech geeks is the teens. This is why they have no problems with MySpace bulletins (which are quite similar to Twitter in many ways). The biggest challenge with teens is that they do not have all-you-can-eat phone plans. Over and over, the topic of number of text messages in one’s plan comes up. And my favorite pissed off bullying act that teens do involves ganging up to collectively spam someone so that they’ll go over their limit and get into trouble with their parents (phone companies don’t seem to let you block texts from particular numbers and of course you have to pay 10c per text you receive). This is particularly common when a nasty breakup occurs and i was surprised when i found out that switching phone numbers is the only real solution to this. Because most teens are not permanently attached to a computer and because they typically share their computers with other members of the family, Twitterific-like apps wouldn’t really work so well. And Twitter is not a strong enough app to replace IM time.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all teens would actually like Twitter. There are numerous complaints about the lameness of bulletins. People forward surveys just as something to do and others complain that this is a waste of their time. (Of course, then they go on to do it themselves.) Still, bulletin space is like Twitter space. You need to keep posting so that your friends don’t forget you. Or you don’t post at all. Such is the way of Twitter. Certain people i see flowing 5-15 times a day. Others i never hear from (or like once a week).

There’s another issue at play… Like with bulletins, it’s pretty ostentatious to think that your notes are worth pushing to others en masse. It takes a certain kind of personality to think that this kind of spamming is socially appropriate and desirable. Sure, we all love to have a sense of what’s going on, but this is push technology at its most extreme. You’re pushing your views into the attention of others (until they turn it or you off).

The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes who enjoy people responding to them and may wander around to others soap boxes looking for interesting bits of data. By and large, people Twitter to share their experience; only rarely do they expect to receive anything in return. What is returned is typically a kudos or a personal thought or an organizing question. I’d be curious what percentage of Tweets start a genuine back-and-forth dialogue where the parties are on equal ground. It still amazes me that when i respond to someone’s Tweet personally, they often ignore me or respond curtly with an answer to my question. It’s as though the Tweeter wants to be recognized en masse, but doesn’t want to actually start a dialogue with their pronouncements. Of course, this is just my own observation. Maybe there are genuine conversations happening beyond my purview.

Unfortunately, i don’t know how sustainable Twitter is for most people. It’s very easy to burn out on it and once someone does, will they return? It’s also really hard for friend-management. If you add someone, even if you “leave” them, you’ll get Twitteriffic posts from them. This creates a huge disincentive for adding people, even if you welcome them to read your Tweets. Post-SXSW, i’ve seen two things: the most active in Austin are still ridiculously active. The rest have turned it off for all intents and purposes. Personally, i’m trying to see how long i’ll last before i can’t stand the invasion any longer. Given that my non-tech friends can’t really join effectively (for the same reasons as teens – text messaging plan and lack of always-on computerness and hatred of IM interruptions), i don’t think that i can get a good sense of how this would play out beyond the geek crowd. But it sure is entertaining to watch.

PS: I should note that my *favorite* part of Twitter is that when i wander to a non-functioning page, i get this image:

How can that not make you happy?

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21 comments to Tweet Tweet (some thoughts on Twitter)

  • Sustainable, no. I already turned off the mobile phone inbound. For the moment, it’s attention Doritos for multitasking on bill-paying and waiting on line.

  • A good post. I would dearly love better Twitter management, and pick who I want to receive smses from. e.g. close friends, just follow hardcore geeks via the web. Or perhaps I’m attending a conference, I would like to turn on updates from those people also attending that conference. Twitter badly needs grouping. Otherwise its in danger of dying from information overload, and possible privacy concerns. Some of this ties in with your earlier post on your thoughts around Web 3.0, and wanting to control information from people in your own locality.

    One thing, the analysis of potential teen usage of Twitter and being put off because of sms receipt, is based on the assumption that they live in the States. In the UK you do not have to pay to receive smses, only the sender pays. It would be much cheaper to send one sms to Twitter, and get all your friends to receive this than it would be to send 10 individual smses to each of your friends. Thus the usage of Twitter and teens could develop differently in respective countries, dependent on variables.

  • Two thoughts come to mind:

    a) having the PAY to receive text messages is just… inhuman! I mean, the person who came up with that bright idea somewhere within the US carrier world deserves some exotic and cruel punishment. It takes away most of the fun of this type of communication. I wouldn’t send a quarter of the text messages I send if I knew the poor person at the other end would have to pay for them. Is this a purely US thing, or are there other parts of the world where this is current? (nowhere in Europe, to my knowledge, and not in India, either)

    b) I don’t follow people on my phone for the moment because it does mean too many messages (it’s not a price issue, it’s a no-delete-all-on-blasted-phone one). I think segmentation (buddy-group like stuff) for Twitter is a must, and I’m certain you and I are not the only people who have been talking with the Twitter people about this. Until I can choose to get phone twitters of only a select number of people I’m following, I’ll stick to just getting direct messages on my cell.

  • Adina is right. I like “attention Doritos”: junk food, and unhealthy. This SXSW Twitter beat Dodgeball, among my scattered superpublics, because of wanting to know what was going on outside of time/location-sensitivity — not just presence re: Dodgeball, but attention. My bud Jason Toney said “what I love about twitter [is] you are across the room and I know what you’re thinking.” I twittered back that he only knew what I was typing, not what I was thinking. But he was right.

  • i have the phone component of twitter turned off – and twitteriffic can barely keep up with the flow, i have to use the web interface mostly. i typically never have dodgeball on unless i actively switch it on. too many messages. also, too much information.

    while everyone was (drunkenly) twittering nonstop at SXSW, i realize how much people must have hated being my dodgeball friend back when i started out and was using it everywhere, ranking #1 my first month and probably in the top 10 for my first year of use. i barely use it now so as to not turn people off. same with twitter. not every thought that pops into one’s head needs to be shared.

  • This is a good post.

    1. In the communities I deal with, for the youth, SMS is very important and many kids have Sidekicks with a bundle deal on all data access including SMS, or they simply have unlimited SMS. Interestingly, at least in the NYC area, for most people in the ‘hood, the cell phone, be it SMS or phone is the most important communication tool. It ranks above computers and land lines. It’s less expensive than both for most families.

    2. With that said, within these publics that I aforementioned, I could see twitter being a great group communication tool. I don’t necessarily see youth opting out of IM or MySpace bulleting boards for it though. It’s not as reliable, as you’ve said already. But I do see a lot of Friday and Saturday night conversations happening about which movie to go see or going to the mall, or a party. It’s a location tool.

    3. Though I haven’t used Dodgeball much, I can say that a lot of my SXSW experience with Twitter centered around keeping up with people’s activity, and them with mine, as well as ongoing conversation between certain groups of people related to what they saw or heard.

    4. I can clearly see burning out on Twitter. I do have unlimited SMS, but Twitter fills up my box so fast, I can’t even see standard SMS messages from my non-geek friends and family. If I don’t burn out, I will definitely, at some point soon, opt out of the text messages and only interact with Twitter on the Web (which probably means I would end up forgetting about it, because unlike Flickr or Last.fm, I really have to think about a reason to go there), and then Twitterific and IM are often unreliable so I’d probably turn them off as well.

    5. As a person who is already overwhelmed by the amount of email, IM, Voice Mails, and the like from my personal life and public life, I can see Twitter just pushing me over the edge. I am sure that’s why there are those that won’t even engage in it.

  • If you have a Sidekick, the IM route works well for Twitter (when its up), and I’m with Stephanie on the EU SMS receiving – my London trip in December was enlivened by getting Twitters from friends on my mum’s borrowed phone.

    What Twitter gives is the fascination of semi-overlapping conversations, as you don’t always hear both sides of the chat. For those of you who were on Friendster in spring 2003, this will be familiar, when they had the 4 degrees chat, where you would hear partial conversations from just over your friend horizon. Twitter keeps this to one degree, btu makes the degree shortening relatively easy.

  • As Stephanie says, in other parts of the world you don’t pay for incoming SMS, you pay to send, though there are ways to do even that for free (e.g., I can send SMS from my Vodafone online space to other Vodafone users for free).

    A bunch of people I know were at SXSW and some are now in San Jose. I was just thinking this morning that it’s kind of nice, in a weird way, to see all their chatter about going to retaurants etc. that I know from my own past lives in those places. I guess I was a little jealous of them for being a SXSW when I wasn’t, but what the hell… I lived in Austin before SXSW was ever dreamed of!

  • Great post…

    I was thinking some of these issues yesterday as well. You would think that Google has to be up to something…

    Thanks,
    Tom

  • Bjorn

    Regarding paying to receive texts in the US, you have to understand the history behind it all. In the US, local phone calls are (atleast were) free. They have never been free in Europe. When the mobile phones were introduced in Europe (as in NMT 450) they got their own area-code (010 in the Nordic), so you would know that it would cost more to call to this specific number then to a local number. To make a phone call from a mobile phone would of course cost way more. But you never payed to receive a phone call, just as you don’t for a normal phone.

    When the US started with the cell phones, (from my understanding) they didn’t allocated a “cell phone area code”, but rather mixed them up with normal phone numbers. Since there is no way to know if a number leads to a land line (free) or a cell phone (expensive), the phone company just moved the extra cost of terminating the call on the receiving end, hence you pay for both making and receiving calls on a cell phone. When texts came along, the public was already used to the idea of paying to receive, even though its (next to) impossible to send texts to a land line. And tada!, you end up paying to receive texts in the US.

  • john

    Any time I read “Of course . . .” starting a paragraph, I get worried. Because what usually follows is some tendentious generalization that can hardly be supported. The lack of evidence is usually why people write “of course.”

    In this case, you might at least try some more felicitous rhetoric and replace the 2nd “of course” with a “to be sure . . .”

    I call for a moratorium on the phrase “of course . . .,” particularly from people who write on an area of social interaction that no one really understands, and is still in the making.

  • Apologies for not clearly marking the youth bit as American here. Yes, when i’m talking youth and SMS, i’m talking 100% American. All of my data collection on youth these days is American. I just feel like i’m on auto-repeat every time i say that.

    Sidekicks are definitely good for cluster effects with youth. Free SMS (and mobile IM) makes a huge difference. I’m consistently fascinated by how the Sidekick is still ghettoized in youth culture. It seems like such a brilliantly reasonable device – cheap all-you-can-eat data plan.

    I totally agree with the point that it’s a bitch to delete texts on many phones. The nice thing about my Sidekick is that deleting texts is cake. But i detest deleting texts on my Slvr. (And IM *should* work on my Sidekick but i haven’t gotten that going right yet.)

  • This took me here: my take on the intersection (written yesterday, but) is: it’s not narcissism so much. That’s always been with us. I think it’s a new thing, a thing that’s been growing for decades, now, and is reaching its apotheosis with the technologies available — it’s existence as public performance.

    Or so I reckon this week, at least.

  • “The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes…”

    This immediately made me think of the “parallel play” that very young children (or older children with autistic disorders) engage in. You’ve made similar points before, of course.

    To be charitable, the way bloggers reply to each other by posting on their own blogs seems like more of a workaround for lame technology — the dismal state of commenting, and especially tracking comments. (LiveJournal is the exception that proves the rule, here.) Twitter is even worse at supporting conversation since its broadcast model wasn’t designed for that at all.

    Humans will definitely attempt to bend any communications medium toward having conversations. It’s a shame many of them are so poorly designed for it…

  • Viil

    Although twitter didn’t initially appeal to me I was mesmerized for at least 10 minutes by twittervision

  • Thanks for the link to Twittervision there went 30 minutes of my life. Twitter like all the social networking sites better work hard to understand how people are using the platform they provided. Maybe Google is not investing more in dodgeball because they don’t see the potential? They have a track record of abandoning products that don’t have the potential to deliver.

  • You say that twitter is kind of like MySpace bulletins – by the description it also reminds me of facebook notes, or writing on peoples walls.

  • Just don’t have mobile phone up-dates, just get them on your home page. Having Twitter up-dates from all the people in my Twitter circle would drive me crazy!!

  • I do not like IM or skype-flow, much to Stowe Boyd’s exasperation at LIFT07, but twitter/jaiku seems a better fit for me.

    I get a better signal to noise ratio from twitter than from IM/skype chat.

    I may be able to persuade my closest associates to move from email/sms to twitter, where I failed to persuade them onto IM/skype-chat.

  • I discovered Twitter a few months ago thanks to a friend. I even downloaded Tweetr so I could Tweet from my desktop and also have the Twitter plug-in for my blog. I’ve caught myself posting Tweets instead of blogging lately, though. That bothers me.

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