Twitter has changed everything for me. I say this after last year’s unsuccessful initial plunge. Back then, I did not understand Twitter and dismissed it, as Tito Perez suggested in the comments, with the reactionary zeal of an old fogey waving a scolding finger at blogging. Perhaps part of the problem was that Twitter hadn’t quite found its sea legs. Much like the early days of blogging, Twitter was then an unruly expanse of stray text messages. It was a bit like attempting to sail in a murky lake littered with barnacles and driftwood. You’d hear sharp cracks against the hull when all you really wanted to do was sail forward.
But now that I’ve warmed up to it considerably, I’ve found Twitter to be an essential medium that can be used to collect interesting bits of information and communicate with others. It’s something of a conceptual lab, where everyone can throw around crazy ideas. It’s also a handy way of checking in on friends. Much like Wikipedia, it provides invaluable (and possibly untrue) leads that you can independently corroborate. And when you verify something, you begin to think about it. And when you think about it, you begin to write in some relatively cogent form. Twitter may very well be one of the reasons why my already overactive brain is capable of churning out a livelier conceptual stew. (In cases like this, where concepts often threaten to dislodge the noggin, I find it wise to heed ZeFrank’s helpful advice about “brain crack.” Assuming people are using Twitter the way that I am, perhaps Twitter is, in its own way, assisting people in departing from their brain crack.)
Because the medium is communal, and because there are so many tweets that fly across your screen, the power laws controversy that riled up bloggers back in 2003 may not necessarily apply here. I understand that there have been efforts to log the most popular Twitter users, but such exercises miss the point of tweeting. Yes, you’ll find John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Warren Ellis, and Shaquille O’Neal. But since you determine who you follow, you likewise determine how Twitter works for you. You can avoid the charlatans who want to sell you things, the newspapers and websites who spam you with thirty links in three minutes, or the narcissists who want to drag you into the morass. And when someone tweets you out of the blue, you then find another interesting soul to follow or tweet with. Somehow, it all works out. It never becomes too overwhelming. As someone who was around during the early days of blogging, which some have framed as a golden age of possibilities, I find myself having similar thoughts about Twitter. Yes, it will likely become monetized. These mediums always do. But for now, enjoy it while it lasts. It’s a tool that can work for you.
It is possible to spend too much time on Twitter and get on a mad roll of prolific tweets. With the exception of important political events or live coverage, I try to avoid such exercises out of deference to my followers, who I know are following other people. (I remain quite surprised that apparently some people are interested in what I have to say within 140 characters. You will not find much pith within this barrier.) To negotiate Twitter, one must practice some restraint. Just as one must practice some restraint in relation to the Internet. Because I’ve seen good people go mad. Twitter, like anything, can overrun your brain. And it is vital to think.
But Twitter has also had a positive effect on this blog and my writing in general. I find myself writing slower here and faster on Twitter. Suddenly, the roundups that I’ve generated sometimes seem like extraneous exercises. I’ve become more inclined to go on mad tangents. After all, I’ve already thrown the link around on my Twitter feed. I find myself more enthralled with the long form. More willing to be some kind of half-assed chronicler. Maybe Twitter is just what the blogosphere needed to mature. It’s not so much about who links where. It’s now about the voice, which is what attracted many of us to this medium in the first place.
The folks who run Twitter have found a way of making feeds work for us. Just about any self-respecting geek has long hoped that RSS feeds would catch on. But they haven’t. At least not in the way that the feed founders intended. Mechanisms such as Google Reader, Twitter, and podcasting permit us to visualize and use the feed in a way that makes it work for us.
Having said all this, I don’t see how Twitter can make any money. So many people use it. And there are often regrettable Twitter outages. But there is no Con Ed representative to shout at. If these outages come at times when you need to sift through information, it can feel something close to withdrawal from a drug. Yes, one can plant some of the information into a blog entry. But it doesn’t feel the same. The Twitter interface is very particular.
For now, the great circus carries on, sans advertisements or sponsored links. The truth of the matter is that we’re all waiting for Google to buy it. But in the meantime, many of us can use it and feel that we’re now in the midst of something exciting. Until Paul Boutin writes his premature elegy for Twitter sometime in 2010.
My experience with Twitter has caused me to attempt a shift in direction for this blog. Something akin to what I tried with the Filthy Habits incarnation of this site before I returned back to the quasi-Reluctant voice. I’m going more long-form. I’ll be putting up posts that are around 600 to 1,000 words. Strange essays. Prose exercises. I’ll even review a few things here. Books and movies. Etcetera. I think this website is probably going to be more like a newspaper column than a blog. And I’ll still happily edit anything that people want to send me. But I have no conscious plan other than long-form musings. I’m going to see how this all plays out while I do it. If you’ve liked the short form, well, you can always follow my Twitter feed.
I have Twitter to thank for this wholly unintentional development.