I’ve been having conversations over the past 24 hours about the ‘value’ of social media. The social transparency and personal profile that this kind of medium affords is one of those things that crops up from time to time in articles such as this one in Techcrunch and this one in Music Think Tank – and I find myself ending up defending Twitter, which certainly doesn’t need my help.

There are several common complaints:

1) It’s inane. People just tweet about what they had for lunch;
2) It’s just celebrities and narcissists full of self-importance;
3) It’s a waste of my time;
4) It makes people I thought were interesting and exciting seem mundane and ordinary.

And I have very simple responses to those complaints.

1) No it isn’t. You clearly follow boring people with nothing to say. Don’t do that;
2) Again, no. You can follow celebrities if you want, of course – but it’s far from compulsory;
3) Really? Having conversations with other human beings is a waste of your time, but passively watching television shows you don’t actually like is a good investment of your attention? Writing a sentence about what you’re up to or thinking about a couple of times a day is a time-consuming activity that takes you away from all that important stuff you were doing?
4) If you want real people to be profound, entertaining or fascinating each time they open their mouth, you’re always going to be disappointed. If you want larger-than-life heroes, go to the movies. If you want to just be entertained and not engage, just turn on the TV. If you want mythology, read a book.

The trouble with Twitter
The problem for many people is that Twitter fails to be something they’d like it to be, when that’s not what it’s for. They want to be entertained with profound, funny and engaging content. In other words, they think it’s like broadcasting, when it’s conversation.

So that’s like turning up to somebody’s house for a cup of tea, and saying “right – entertain me”, leaning back, and waiting for a performance packed with one-liners, deep insights and useful tips.

Second, they think of the people they follow as an ‘information source’. There are some Twitter feeds that provide information of course, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s human beings living their lives, talking about the things that they specialise in or engage their attention. And if that’s boring, go back to your Eastenders.

If you follow me because you think I might be entertaining, or because I might be a good source of information about online music marketing strategies (or jazz, or Birmingham, or digital culture, or media studies, or whisky, or whatever), you’re probably going to be really disappointed. I do, of course, mention all of those things. But I do other things too. My twitter feed is about me, the things I’m interested in, and the people I engage with on a day to day basis – it’s not just packaged nuggets of information about my specialist subject.

But if you want to get to know me – it’s a brilliant way to engage. You’ll not only hear about the stuff I’m up to, thinking about, listening to or concerned with – you’ll also get to overhear the public conversations I have with other people I happen to think are really interesting.

My personal tribe
There’s this anthropological theory that we can deal with about 150 social relationships – and when things get bigger than that, we tend to split our tribes into smaller, more manageable groups. I’m not sure how effectively that carries over to Twitter, but all the same – at present, I follow around 140 people.

Some of those people are pictured above. They live in many different parts of the world, are a range of ages and social backgrounds, have different tastes, and do lots of different things. I consider most of them to be actual friends. They’re all people I work with, hang out with, or that I just happen to think are really interesting.

None of them are super-famous (I don’t follow Stephen Fry or Ashton Kutcher for instance), though some of them have what might be thought of as a modicum of ‘celebrity’ status.

For instance, I follow Gilles Peterson, a BBC radio DJ who plays music I happen to like – and I’m friends with his business partner; Alys Fowler, a gardening TV show presenter who I’ve met through mutual friends; Brian Travers, who’s the sax player in UB40; S-Endz, a rapper in an internationally well-known Desi-funk band called Swami; David Hendy, a media historian and author; Martin Atkins, a drummer from some famous 80s & 90s rock bands like Public Image, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Killing Joke; Krause, a contemporary Dutch electro-pop star on the rise; John Campbell, a New Zealand television news presenter and journalist; Rhodri Marsden, author and columnist for the Independent newspaper; and Mark de Clive-Lowe, a keyboard player & music producer.

These ones are all people who have some sort of public profile, but who I’ve also actually met and had conversations with. It’s not a rule for me – and from time to time, I’ll also follow people that I’ve only ever really seen on TV (like Mark Steel or Charlie Brooker) – and some Twitter-only fictional characters I happen to find amusing (like Diana In Heaven and Average Batman). I sort of drop in and out of those ones. I tend to stick with people I’ve at least had a drink with, for the most part.

And, of course, lots of the people I follow have no ambition whatsoever to be famous or become ‘public figures’ – and nor do they do anything that would tend to bring them that sort of attention.

Following people that I already know and like in real life on Twitter is like sitting down with them in a café. And we have the same sort of conversations. But we don’t have to be ‘always on’. It’s a conversation you can drop in and out of. Some of it’s just thinking out loud. Some of it is extended back-and-forth dialogue.

People I’ve only ever encountered on Twitter
All that said, you don’t have to ‘know’ people to find them interesting. There are lots of people who follow me on Twitter who, presumably find me interesting enough to not worry about the fact that I’ve never popped over to their house for a cup of tea.

Likewise, I follow Darren Hemmings (Digital Marketing Manager for the PIAS group), Nancy Baym (a social media academic and author), Joe Muggs (an arts and music journalist), Hannah Nicklin (playwright and academic) and Katy Bairstow (a freelance tech writer).

To my knowledge, I have never been in the same room with these people (forgive me if I have that wrong – I go in a lot of rooms), but through Twitter I’ve found out about them through others, listened to what they had to say – and not only find them to be interesting people, but I’ve now had conversations with them on multiple occasions over other things we both find interesting – and I’m sure if we found ourselves in a cafe or a pub together, we’d continue the conversation in person.

But what we find interesting need not necessarily be deep or serious, though sometimes it is. Occasionally it’s just “hey look – this is quite funny” and there’ll be a link. Other times it’s personal stuff that gives people a 3-dimensional quality. Like when people who you only know through their work talk about their family, or their record collection.

And it’s that shared interest – or at least overlap of interest that allows for a connection to take place. To me, that’s what Twitter – as the social media tool of the moment – has to offer. Not a marketing platform or an entertainment and information channel – but human beings talking to each other. Sharing ideas, swapping jokes, discussing issues and just being real people together.

And in fact, some people who I now consider to be my best friends are people who I’ve been introduced to on Twitter. And I’m a fan of their music too.

The best way to use Twitter
The way I use Twitter is not “the way” to use Twitter. I know people who claim to be able to cope with following thousands, and I know others who have private accounts, and only follow a handful of people that they know intimately.

The best way is to try it out and see what works for you. Follow people you think you’d like to get to know better, then unfollow them if they become dull. Check out who other people you think are interesting are talking to. Chances are they’ll be interesting too. Don’t feel you have to keep your finger on the pulse of “all that information”. Do whatever’s manageable, interesting and useful.

But complaining that Twitter is inane, pointless, time-wasting or just narcissistic bleating only means either a) the people you’ve chosen to follow are the wrong ones; or b) you’re expecting something from Twitter it’s not offering: passive entertainment.

28 thoughts on “Twitter’s not stupid – you just have boring friends

  1. Most excellent post, thank you.

    I’m always amused and annoyed both by people whinging about those of us who tweet about what we had for dinner. I’m a foodie. I like food. I like eating it, and cooking it and reading about it. For me, Twitter is a way to share that. There are other foodies who like these tweets.

    We use Twitter in a way that works for us. If people don’t like tweets about food, well… They don’t have to follow :)

    You’re right, it’s about choice – that of the right person / people to follow. And the right person for me may not be the right person for someone else.

  2. There’s this anthropological theory that we can deal with about 150 social relationships

    I’ve heard this too. A few months ago, I looked at the people I follow on Twitter and realised that while I follow over 150 people (253 at last count), there are about 150 people who I follow intently and who I consider to be more part of my online social circle than, say, the @stephenfry types.

  3. I’m fairly new to twitter – coupe of months I think – but I immediately found it to be far and away the most genuinely “social” of all the social media.

    I think it’s because there’s no profile construct to speak of. It’s just communication without any of the other guff that drove me away from Facespace years ago.

    Which makes it more like IRL interaction. When I go out to socialise in a bar I don’t take my photo album, ya know?

  4. Thanks for the shout :)

    For me what makes Twitter so great is the simplicity. I forget who the quote was attributed to (maybe someone can remind me), but it said “Facebook is a smart service for simple people. Twitter is a simple service for smart people” and that definitely matches up with my experiences of of the two.

    I mean…follow people that you find interesting. Don’t follow people that you find dull. If somebody who used to be interesting becomes dull, unfollow them. It’s not that hard. The people that don’t get it just simply don’t understand what it is and most of them have probably never even used it. The fact is – there’s always plenty of people on there that share your interests and that you can consistently have great conversations with. I don’t know why the naysayers don’t seem to get that.

  5. Incidentally – it’s worth mentioning that the people I know who like and ‘get’ Twitter all use a specialised piece of software – a Twitter client like Tweetie (I use that one), Echofon (which looks quite nice), or Tweetdeck (which seems to be the most popular) – or they use a dedicated web app like Seesmic.

    The people I know who tend not to like or use Twitter much are the people who have only been to the Twitter website.

  6. Great to have found this – which in itself shows how Twitter works…
    Your description is very much how I try to describe it to non users, and especially those who only use the web version, which even knowing how to use Twitter well still seems a mystery to me – and leads to the follow celebs behaviour rather than the interaction.

    The music side for me has been immense, so much I would not have found in any other way – it works if you make it work

  7. I think the quote mentioned by S-Endz exposes a crucial issue that creates a high threshold for entering into Twitter. (I think it was coined by Jonah Peretti, of BuzzFeed and Huffington Post). Twitter is a simple service but within that simplicity are multiple ways to use the service.

    This is why, I think, that the people who use Twitter clients get more out of it. Organising sub-streams of people you follow and following (intermittently) hashtags of keywords make the experience much richer for me. Twitter is extremely flexible and extensible. In me experience it rewards persistence and investigation.

  8. @rubken Yep. That said, organising sub-streams of people into different categories (eg: work people, family, musicians or whatever) is an advanced Twitter technique that I’ve stayed away from. I keep my following down (under 150 if possible) so I can deal with a simple, single stream in Tweetie. Tweetdeck’s better at that sort of multitasking, simultaneous view categorisation approach – but I don’t need it to be that complicated.

    If you have a reason to do that (say, you’re using it for research on a subject, or you’ve decided to follow hundreds of people) then that makes sense. Whatever makes it work for you. But since for me it’s just chatting with interesting people, I prefer to keep it to a single column.

    I only tend to follow hashtags if I’m at an event and want to keep up with what my fellow attendees are saying about it without committing to following them – but I can see how having hashtag columns in Tweetdeck would be useful to people who are collecting info about a topic.

    @Jake Thanks… :)

    @Robyn My friend Anthony, who I follow on Twitter, says it’s called Dunbar’s number. I don’t necessarily think it’s a strict maximum limit – but I do think it’s a good guide to manageability without having to develop coping mechanisms like those categorised sub-streams Rubken mentions.

  9. Good points on Twitter! I agree that the most important thing to to in order to enjoy Twitter is to choose the people you follow very carefully. I just unfollowed Guy Kawasaki, who I started following because of his reputation – turns out his Twitter account is full of spammy messages (some not even posted by him) that link to strange redirect url’s that in the end lead to something on alltop.com . I don’t need that shit on my Twitter timeline.

  10. Twitter is a great social media, A lot of business are in fact have been using social media since a cheaper form of advertising rather than using traditional form of advertising which can cost you a lot of money.

    True you should be wary on who you add in your social network or who you choose to follow but I always find it beneficial to add you favorite store as they sometimes offer discount which is always great.

    Also you should add tweeter account that tweet out coupon codes, this is also could help you in saving a couple bucks. I have found a compilation of those so called twitter accounts. I would like to share with you guys Best 40 Twitter Accounts to Follow to Get Great Deals on Everything
    Happy shopping to everyone and be safe.

  11. I find one of the problems with Twitter is the agressive use of the medium by marketers. I don’t need any coupons for printer cartridges and if I need to find a coupon code I’ll look for one.

    I have had good experiences communicating with companies via Twitter but those exchanges were in context. Just because Twitter or blog comment threads can be used to post marketing messages doesn’t mean they should be.

  12. Great article! It’s a question that gets asked really often at the moment. The longer I use twitter, the more I’m finding some really interesting people to follow (and quickly dropping the more irritating tweeters).

    You’ve given me a quick go to when people as “what’s the point”.


  13. number 3 is total nonsense where do you get the “if their not using twitter their doing something less constructive like watching TV” ? totally made up and made no sense.

  14. @earthlad It’s a bit of a reference to Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, which I’ve been reading this week.

    My point is that in comparison with other media, Twitter is both undemanding in terms of time, and more social in nature. I’m not saying that all people who don’t like Twitter watch too much TV – but in aggregate, we all spend a lot of time just sitting and consuming electronic media without engaging – and I say this as someone who doesn’t own a television.

    Nobody ever says “you watched a TV show last night? Oh my God! How on earth do you find the time?!”

  15. Andrew,

    I couldn’t agree more. You’ve simply stated what I have been telling as many people that will listen. I recently spend about 4 days at a big convention talking to people about social media. It turns out that the large majority doesn’t understand it… and as little as they understand things like Facebook, the really don’t get Twitter at all.

    There’s a few reasons for this, but it ends up being all about perception.

    If you’re interested, I just wrote about this a few days ago (http://spiritualcombustion.muddycreektech.com/?p=138).


  16. @Dubber thanks for the name ill check that out later, yea I agree twitter is very social and also agree on the point people dont use it because it’s boring or they feel their not being entertained, as far as consuming media and not engaging I agree but that’s maybe down to how things are present ed, look at the I tablet its all about consumption and not taking part or even giving people the chance to be creative, a new génération of people will grow up with new tools and hopefully take advantage of them.

  17. The post is solid Andrew but feels somewhat dated with its cc. 2007 flavour in terms of the Twitter criticisms you identify (not your fault). I thought all this stuff about inanity, what people have for breakfast, narcissism, etc. had been dealt to already. Do people still offer these as reasons not to use Twitter? If so, the myriad of examples illustrating Twitter’s value in 2010 are abundant and diverse (consistent with its diversity of usage) but then again maybe I’m a cynical long-term user who has been immersed in Twitter for what seems like forever (working on Twitter specific thesis right now). However, if you need just one counter-example (and YOU don’t but if ONE needs) then the Iran Election protests from June last year are a powerful story. In fact, conversations about what happened and what’s still happening continue in earnest.

    Incidentally, I think following about 1000 people is a good number. I have a little way to go to cull this number back on my account but everyday a few more drop off.

  18. People will only know part of me if they follow my Twitter posts. I intentionally post one type of info on Twitter (mostly related to professional interests) and another type of info on Facebook (non-professional stuff, mostly social). I’ve got different people on each. On Twitter, lots of professional contacts; on Facebook, family members, personal friends, professional friends (but not necessarily related to music), etc. And I also write longer posts in my blog and, if I choose to comment, on other blogs.

    That being sad, Twitter has turned out to be an excellent networking tool for me. I’ve been in contact with people I would not have had access to otherwise.

    On the other hand, the real time aspect of Twitter is what I like least about it. I’m always too busy to see posts as they happen. I haven’t bothered to use a Twitter application. I just use the Twitter website and have divided everyone I follow by category lists. Only one list do I see daily (my music marketing list). I was trying to check my lists on economics, design, sponsorship, marketing, crowdsourcing, and media at least once a week, but I’ve fallen behind on that. Everyone else I follow, I actually never see their posts because I’m too busy.

    I can understand why lots of people have no use for Twitter. If you have a busy life with a family and a job that doesn’t require you to keep tabs on what’s happening in the news or require you to stay in touch with the public, then it really doesn’t fulfill a need. If you want to stay in touch with friends, you’ll likely do it in person, by phone, via text-messaging, or Facebook.

  19. There are lots of different ways to use Twitter, that’s the power of the medium. It works to keep in touch with the 150 or so that our primate brains can actually care about or thousands (with a bit of filtering and organising). This flexibility is part of the problem when explaining Twitter to folks who are sceptical about its value. In my experience there are lots of them out there still. Many of them aren’t particularly heavy internet users but there is potential value in the service for them.

    The narcissistic inanity is still present. In fact it’s making a comeback with Kanye. The overt inanity is from celebrity users now. There is a more pernicious inanity though with the rise of the medium for marketing. I seem to be followed by lots of profiles pumping out keyword rich posts laden with affiliate links and perhaps some quotes from wise people (because they get RTs evidently). This is the new inanity and it is spreading through Twitter like Japanese Knotweed.

    Despite all this Twitter is still really useful because you can ignore the rubbish and focus on what interests you. @Suzanne you can set up searches of your lists and subscribe to them using a client like Seesmic or Tweetdeck (or even RSS). That might be useful if you check in intermittently. Just like the internet as a whole there are many great things to be found on Twitter and a lot of rubbish too. Getting away from the idea that there is a single right way to do it and finding what you enjoy makes the service a wonderful resource.

  20. I’ve used Twitter searches. However, rarely will I know what keywords to plug in. I’m more interested in the source than the particular topic. For example, I follow New York Times business. I don’t necessarily know what will be posted by the New York Times business section, so I wouldn’t know what to look for. Similarly, I follow a number of people who post on design topics. The whole point in following them is that they are curators of what is interesting. I don’t know in advance what they will post. Either I look at their Twitter streams or I don’t.

    In terms of searches, I use Google a lot and very well. So I find topics in far more depth than ever get posted on Twitter. Therefore in terms of topic-related searches, if I want to know something I don’t want to confine myself to Twitter.

    So I think I have broken Twitter down sufficiently. When I’ve fallen behind and want to catch up, I will go to an individual Twitter page and follow every Tweet the person has posted until I am caught up. My problem isn’t in the ability to find what I want. It’s merely lack of time to go through all of it. I’d rather follow some people in depth than to catch snippets of multiple people.

  21. “Twitter’s not stupid – you just have boring friends”…or friends who use Facebook instead.

  22. The biggest spin with Twitter is that we are more interested in the Medium (username) and not the Message (tweet). And also the vanity of follower stats. Both these nearly kill the message. Show me a Twitter app that is able to reverse this damage from the average 95% down to at least 80%. Of course, I am not expecting anything from Twitter itself because it is most user-centric in its thinking. People have many ways of interacting on the Net. So the onus of increasing signal noise ratio does not necessarily fall on Twitter’s shoulders. Still either Twitter or third parties should work on signal noise ratio full time because Twitter is insisting on hanging around for a while.

  23. I don’t expect Twitter to remain popular. Nothing remains popular on the Internet. I’ve been online continuously since 1993 and have participated in every form of online communication: BBSs, mailing lists, Usenet Groups, online forums, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

    Everything peaks and then gets replaced by something else. In fact, email continues to be the most consistent form year after year. Even as people say Gen X doesn’t use email, others point out that in order to sign up for many online tools, you often have to supply your email address.

    As I mentioned above, Twitter has turned out to be a great professional networking tool for me. But something else will come along and the people I want to communicate with will migrate to it. In time many of us will adopt it as well. Then the cycle will repeat yet again.

  24. This is by far the best post about twitter I’ve encountered so far. Thanks for rounding it up so clearly, I will be sharing this with people who think they understand twitter and think it’s boring and useless.

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