A Look Back @ Twitter

Okay, so I joined Twitter on July 4 2007, only a year after the full-scale version of the service was launched. This was my first tweet:

01:52:40 Creating my twitter account – woohoo!

And there that tweet sat, all by its lonesome for nearly two years, when I tweeted the following:

11:34:17 Adding my second tweet after two years so I won’t be listed at http://www.slate.com/id/2219995

The headline of the piece was “Orphaned Tweets: When people sign up for Twitter, post once, then never return.” by John Swansburg and Jeremy Singer-Vine. While not specifically mentioned, the article did sting a little – after all, for most of Web 2.0 I’ve been an early adopter, as a Web 2.0 world fits in with my preconceptions of how the Internet and technology in general should work: nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

I was still interested in Twitter, just really had no Twitter-shaped hole in my life to fill, and so once again, my account languished. However, this time for only about two months. And then a strange thing happened – on a music site I frequently browsed for new, independent acts, I happened to notice a number of artists I really liked listed Twitter accounts. Namely the ever-enchanting @Meiko and the ever-entertaining @jonathancoulton. Started thinking, “Hmm, wonder if some of my favorite authors are on Twitter?” And so then started following two personal writing heroes of mine, William Gibson (@GreatDismal) and Bruce Sterling (@bruces). From there, it snowballed – I found TV shows hosts, comedians, political activists, more musicians, more authors, etc. I followed all of them that I could find and that looked to tweet often enough to be interesting.

Two things happened next that completely changed how I used Twitter. The first was that I found out that a number of the artists and creative folks that I liked knew each other. This led me to old favorites, as well as some new discoveries. The second was that I started discovering other folks out there who liked many of the same people/things/ideas that I did and I started following them.

The “ripple in the pond” metaphor is a hack cliché, but you know what . . . that’s because it works damn it! – and in this case, it’s very appropriate. Because not only was I out there throwing stones in the water, but so was evidently everyone else, and interesting patterns develop when those ripples interact. Sometimes they magnify, and sometimes they cancel each other out, but it is in the end all about interaction. That realization completely changed how I thought of Twitter.

And because of those interactions, I made the online acquaintance of some fascinating people. People I likely wouldn’t have found in “real” life, on Facebook, or in other ways. There’s @shamrockjulie, who reintroduced me to Lost, and who has an abiding love of midgets, monkeys, unicorns and drag queens. Oh, and she regularly beats me at Scrabble, which is, let’s face it, pretty damn impressive. And there’s @KyleeLane, who makes soap — but not just any soap, she makes Han Solo in Carbonite soap and “Abby Normal” Brain soap and Fight Club soap (Hint: buy her soap – how often can you say you got clean with art?). Oh, and she has a sweet tooth to rival even my own and is one of the most creative, down-to-earth people you could ever imagine.

There’s also @tomupton33 who finds the best quotes, there’s @iA who I think knows more about interface design than any other single person on the planet, @barryintokyo who is a book editor and writer in Tokyo who provided me book recommendations on all things Japanese, and @anjkan who gets regularly retweeted by William Gibson (which gives you some idea how fricking far in the cool future she lives)  and is also just about one of the nicest people in the world. There are literally dozens of others now that I interact with regularly to find out the latest in web design, politics, and all-things-geeky.

Following creative people (the folks I follow I refuse to call celebrities because of the lack of substance that implies) on Twitter is a lot of fun and stuff I’ve read there has increased my enjoyment of tv shows, movies, books, and music. And I’ve had great and surprising Twitter conversations or retweets with the likes of Kevin Smith, Rosanne Cash (very cool!), and the aforementioned William Gibson, but it’s the organic circle of like-minded Tweeters that have been why I stay on Twitter.

This came especially to mind during the Vancouver Olympics Open Ceremony some months ago as I was following along on Twitter while watching the coverage. During that I realized I was a member of a fluid, dynamic tribe all doing the same thing at the same time (and having very similar impressions) and I was okay with that. I mean, I’m the least likely to “join” anything – it’s just not my thing, but what Twitter allows is for you to identify yourself by what you tweet and who you follow, and a “tribe” of like-minded people organically grows out of that and it’s not at all static or limiting. There is no joining, there is just you being you, and then you start running into people with similar interests. It is, in essence, nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

Now, I was also an early adopter of Facebook, and that has its uses, but to my mind what it’s missing is that nonlinear experience that Twitter encourages. I have 220 “Friends” on Facebook and they are 99% people I’ve actually met in real life. Family, classmates, former and current colleagues, etc. And I can share my pictures of my kids and I already know them, and they already know me, and where do you go with that? Even outside of family, I’ve known some of them for 35 years – and no offense – but as nice as they are and as much as they may have in common with me, they’re not that likely to surprise me or introduce me to new things or ideas. Often times, I may only have shared an experience with them – same school, same job, etc.

Whereas on Twitter I currently have almost 200 followers and am following around 300 people and only about 5% of them are people I’ve actually met and generally I’ve got no shared common experiences. However, the people I interact with there have introduced me to new things, new viewpoints, and other people that I share things in common with.Part of that is that while we may not have shared common experiences, I’ve found that there are experiences we have in common, e.g. Star Wars being a pivotal film, eating bacon being a transcendental experience, being confused by the latest episode of Lost, etc. and when we talk about them, it becomes a shared experience in a way.

I’m not saying one approach is better than another, but what I can say is that as my tweeting has increased, my time on Facebook has greatly diminshed. When I go back to Facebook now, it seems somehow dated and AOL-ish (not exactly surprising considering how my mother is on it *waves* Hi Mom!) . We used to call AOL “the Internet with training wheels” and to me at least, Facebook is “Social Networking with training wheels.” Even after hiding Farmville and Mafia Wars and what ever other app is clogging my feed at the moment, it doesn’t feel quite real.

Twitter, in comparison, feels more sincere in some way. Perhaps its the distillation of people’s thoughts in 140 characters, perhaps it’s a different style of user – whatever the case, there’s an immediacy and authenticity to what I read on Twitter that seems to be lacking from many other online interactions.

Is Twitter perfect? Hardly. It’s got spam. It’s got wacky nutjobs. It’s got everything that makes the Internet annoying on occasion, but what it also has is a reason to keep coming back. I don’t know how long it will last (and let’s face it, it won’t last forever – your mom and my mom will be out there tweeting soon enough), but if the best of the web and technology is at heart a sort of iterative design, I do think that Twitter is progress in the right direction.

I’d be interested in hearing what everyone else’s thoughts are, so please feel free to add your comments!