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Twitter Bankruptcy and Twitterfail
mordaxus, Emergent Chaos 2009-05-13

If you're not familiar with the term email bankruptcy, it's admitting publicly that you can't handle your email, and people should just send it to you again.

A few weeks ago, I had to declare twitter bankruptcy. It just became too, too much. I've been meaning to blog about it since, but things have just been too, too much. Shortly after I did, The Guardian published their hilarious April Fools article about shifting to an all-twitter format. I found it especially funny because they made several digs at Stephen Fry, the very person who drove me to twitter bankruptcy.

In Mr. Fry's case, he's literate, funny, worth listening to, and prolific. These traits in a twitter user are horrible as his content dominates the page over all the other tweets. The problem was twofold: I couldn't keep up with Mr. Fry alone, and yet having removed him, a graph of the interestingness quotient of my twitter page resembled an economic report.

I discussed this with some other friends, one of whom is my favorite twitterer, because he has some magic scraper that puts his tweets into an RSS feed on his blog and I can read them at my leisure.

I opined that what I really need from twitter is streams separated into separate pages with metadata about how many unread tweets there are from each person I follow, and a way to look at them in a block. That way, I can look at Mr. Fry's tweets, note that there's a Mersenne prime number of them unread, and catch up.

In short, I want twitter to either an RSS feed or an email box. Either is fine.

One of my friends said that perhaps what Mr. Fry should do is put his tweets together into paragraphs, the paragraphs into essays, and then collect the essays in a book.

She also pointed out that twitter is perhaps the first Internet medium which does not level social hierarchies, but creates and reinforces them. The numbers of people following whom, who is attentively watching whose tweets and so on recreates a high-school-like social structure.

This brings us to #twitterfail, the current brou-ha-ha about a change in twitter rules in which direct messages only go to people who are following people who are following those who are following -- someone.

The #twitterfail channel is a bunch of people retweeting that they think this is a bad idea. There is apparently no channel for retweeting if you think it's a good idea.

Valleywag thinks it is a good idea in their article, "Finally, Twitter Learns When to Shut Up," pointing out a Nielsen report that 60% of new twitter users drop out after signing up. This might be a way to cut down the noise level for people who are newbies, according to Valleywag.

Others see it as a way to further reinforce the status hierarchies. The brash and ever entertaining Prokovy Neva says:

What [various twitterati, none of whom is Stephen Fry] all have in common is an overwhelming desire to have lots of "friends" who follow them, but they want them to be loyal, positive, and not talk back, except to warble about how they've read their books or gush about how wonderful they are.

What they definitely, definitely DO NOT like is when people they aren't following talk back to them using @. They hate it. It gets them into a frenzy.

I think they're both right. I think that the sheer noise level of twitter combined with a wretched UI makes it unusable for people who have a long multitasking quantum. My twitter page goes back a mere seven hours, and Beaker has only said one thing (I hope he's not sick). If I go to a long meeting or get on an airplane, I've lost context.

There are two behavioral feedback loops I see. Sometimes one twitters because one is twittering, which drives more twittering. The other is that one is not twittering because one is not twittering which drives not wanting to look at twitter.

Cutting down on the noise level would help people get into twittering, but not as much as Valleywag thinks. Twitter's systems and subsystems are power-law driven (which is the same thing as saying they're human status hierarchies). If you're a newbie, noise isn't really the problem, the problem is figuring out who you want to follow and wondering why you should bother tweeting into an empty room.

Prokovy Neva is right, too. The social circles that twitter creates are lopsided, and power-law in scale (which is why the whale is up so much). An even playing field for replies means that people who have lots of followers but follow few others not only don't see messages from people they don't know, but can have a nice civil public conversation with the few people they follow without having to know about the riff-raff. Right now, the downside of having lots of followers is that you can be on the receiving end of that power law. Over the long haul, that will lead to self-monitoring on the tweets, having tweets handled by assistants (which already goes on), or just giving up on it all.

I suspect that twitter will reverse this change (if they haven't already) at least in part because there's no channel of retweeting for people who like the change. Perhaps most of all, I think they realize that reinforcing the hierarchies to that degree would indeed make the twitter fad fade even faster than it would otherwise.

That seems to itself be inevitable, since it's now been reported what should surprise no one — spammers are gleaning email addresses from tweets in real time as well as using twitter trending to drive uptake. That tweeting opens one up to spam will tend to put the brakes on it.



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