New Frontiers of Connectedness: The Case for "Twitter Conversations"

This morning, a bunch of us on Twitter got into a spontaneous conversation over that instant micro-blogging communication network about its application for conversations. I started it with two tweets (what a post to Twitter is called, or at least what I call it):

People who knock conversations on twitter forget that there's not a good alternative for public micro-conversations.


The post/comment model is too brittle. It reflects the way CERTAIN conversations start. Twitter is clueing us into another mode.

In reality, I knew this would provoke Matt, to whom the tweets were directed because he had complained about this before. He feels Twitter conversations are cluttered, ego-fluffing abuses of the system and that blog-based comment threads are the right tool for the conversational job. He reiterates his charges in a blog post, where he has reproduced the relevant Twitter conversation amongst all the people involved. While I think he demonstrates that Twitter is not the appropriate platform for all conversations - clearly, somebody needed to take this to the blogosphere and expand the ideas beyond 140 character chunks - my concern is that (1) he misunderstands my original point, and (2) he underplays the significance of what's going on.

First of all, I can't help but observe that my tweet, while "directed" at Matt, started a conversation amongst several people. Obviously, others are interested in the point I was making: Twitter conversations reflect an authentic need, regardless of whether I expressed this need in the appropriate venue. Now, developers like Matt and I often complain that users make our lives difficult by not using the services we use and provide the way they are intended to be used (and believe me, I've bitched about how people use Twitter before). That's a relevant point, but it's not the one I was making, which is: people are using Twitter for conversations. However clumsy the tool is, it is fulfilling a need - that fact is demonstrable and difficult to refute, even if you have some sort of normative opinion about the tool's utility.

With that said, I agree that Twitter does not handle conversations terribly well. There's no tracking of "threads" of conversation, and it forces you to fit complex ideas in such a small space, hampering the expression of sublime or complicated ideas. In fact, the real point of my tweet - and maybe it was too complex a point for 140 characters - is that we need something better than Twitter - and better than blogs - to fulfill this need. It does no good for Matt to scoff at this use of the tool; our time is more profitably spent figuring out the most effective way to meet this need than to insist people use tools in ways they don't already find acceptable.

So when Matt says, "I believe that blogging is an acceptable platform for having public conversations (micro or not)," he is utterly missing the point: people do see value in micro-conversations, displaying them publicly and even pushing them to people's cell phones. Look, we don't participate on the internet to deal with a clean, impeccably organized network - nobody would call the internet that. What appeals to a lot of us, in spite of the noise and pettiness, is how the network allows people to find new avenues of communication, enriching our lives and providing previously non-existent avenues for expression and fulfillment. Twitter is opening our eyes to a new need people have. It's one thing to say they are using a bad tool to meet the need; it's another thing entirely to say that people somehow shouldn't have this need, or that they should meet the need via available tools when they're clearly not using them.

Now, let's be clear: nobody's making the argument that these conversations should not be occurring on blogs. In fact, I think we'd all agree that the majority of them actually do take place on forums and blogs. So what is it that micro-blogging is bringing to the table?

When I tweeted the original idea, here's the thing: I didn't expect for it to start a conversation. Honestly. It was, rather, a reflection of "what I was doing then", or rather, what I was thinking about then. In fact, it was more of a combination of "note to self" and a remark to my followers that this was something I was interested in thinking more about, possibly in a post. But note that I didn't write a post, and I'm not sure I ever would have had the conversation that sprouted up around it. I'm not even sure the points I'm now making would have occurred to me, so I can't be certain a blog post would ever have emerged out of this topic.

The point is, Twitter is not displacing the blogosphere - it is expanding it. We are not participating in a zero sum game. There is nothing to say I can't tweet about a topic and write a post about it. But I would argue that we're all better off if I do one of those than neither. In fact, Twitter conversations could serve as a "dry run" of what I will expand on in a post, helping me see different sides of the topic as well as preemptively gauge interest before I invest in a full-fledged article.

But the main point is that Twitter is promoting more communication, not less. We are having conversations with more people now that we never would have had before online, and that's a good thing. In the same way that writing a blog post is less intensive and more immediate than, say, writing a whole formal article or letter to the editor, tweeting has a similar advantage of increased immediacy and spontaneity. This is opening up new conversations as well as allowing a different quality of conversation than an article or blog post can handle.

So what's the take-away? We agree Twitter is not a panacea, but that something is happening in the online conversation that is important. Here's my thoughts:

Remember: my point is that Twitter conversations are an indicator of a new communicational need, not that Twitter fulfills this need perfectly - I admit it doesn't. It's up to developers like Matt and me to invent the right tools for this new need. Maybe that will be a modification to blog software, or a mashup of Twitter with another service, or a new service altogether. But it's most important that we acknowledge what is actually happening on the internet, and not reflexively dismiss it as "noise".

Read this article
Written on Monday, December 08, 2008