Last week I gave a brief presentation about Twitter to a Bay Area business group, many of whose members weren't using Twitter because they found it perplexing, silly, or pointless. In preparing, I read a lot of articles about using Twitter for business, and I thought back to my own mystified antipathy when I first learned about Twitter two years ago (one year after it launched). And I asked myself: What makes Twitter so hard to understand and to explain to others?
I came up with my own primary reason, which I'll get to later. But two days after my presentation I chanced upon the best explanation of all. In The Other Blog with No Name, English blogger Tim J asks "Why is Twitter so confusing?" and concludes: because the way Twitter describes itself is misleading.
In short, Twitter has a language problem.
Here's the evidence.
When you first visit Twitter.com, you're greeted by a screen that should tell you, simply and directly, what Twitter is and why you should sign up. Instead, you see this:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
Most of that statement is flat-out untrue, and that's where the confusion begins. Yes, Twitter can connect "friends, family, and co-workers," but its most valuable function—the one that most Twitter users single out—is its ability to connect you with people you don't know. In that it's completely unlike other social-media platforms such as LinkedIn or Facebook, which require permission to connect and which even (in the case of LinkedIn) warn you not to connect with anyone you don't know. Twitter sets no such barriers. If I'm amused by Paula Poundstone or eager to learn from Robert Scoble or curious about the Library of Congress, I can follow their tweets. They can then choose to follow mine, or not.
Some people do send "quick, frequent" messages, known as tweets; but others tweet only occasionally, crafting their tweets with great care, distilling them to pack maximum meaning into the 140-character limit. (For example, Twitter turns out to be ideally suited to haiku.) Some people don't send any messages at all. They just read others' tweets. That's OK, too (but not nearly as rewarding as full participation).
As for answers to "What are you doing?" it didn't take long for the Twitter community to discover a much broader and vastly more interesting range of possibilities: sharing links and tips, spreading news, telling jokes, publicizing events, replying to or forwarding ("retweeting") other people's tweets. Twitter has even been used to locate missing children and raise money for charity.
On a more mundane level, and by way of illustration, here are some of the tweets I sent during a recent 24-hour period:
Use www.googlefight.com to stage a showdown between spellings--e.g., "alot" vs. "a lot." Ding!
It's a bad time for biotech companies whose names begin with A and include a V. http://is.gd/r5Mr
Sighted in Peet's, Piedmont Ave.: Seventy-ish guy in NRA Life Member cap reading "Kali: The Feminine Life Force."
How long before a high school sports team names itself the Fighting LOLcats?
As you see, none of these little reports is about "what I'm doing." Rather, they're about what I'm reading, observing, or thinking. And I haven't even included all the replies I've sent, or the private tweets ("direct messages," in opaque Twitter lingo), seen only by their recipients.
Other misleading or meaningless Twitter language includes:
- Update. On Twitter.com, this is the word that appears below the "What are you doing?" text window. The first time I saw it, I assumed it meant "refresh the screen." But in fact it means "send your tweet." Oops.
- Status. What are you updating when you press Update? Your "status," even though (says Tim J) "you’re normally not updating anything or talking about your 'status'—which ought anwyay to mean your standing in the community, not a piece of text." That's not how Twitter explains it in the company-origin story on its About Us page: "Jack Dorsey had grown interested in the simple idea of being able to know what his friends were doing. Specifically, Jack wondered if there might be an opportunity to build something compelling around this simple status concept." That's three misleading concepts right there: friends, what they're doing, status.
- Timeline. This is the dumb Twitter term for any collection of tweets—your own, or those of you and the people you follow, or those of the entire Twitterverse (aka "public timeline"). A more logical metaphor would be "stream," because the input is constantly changing and time is only one of its dimensions.
- Profile. On most sites, a profile is a biography or set of preferences, but not on Twitter. Here it's your personal feed: the tweets you have sent. For the usual profile information—your time zone, your location, your one-line bio—you must go to Settings. And there, confusingly, you'll read this tip: "Filling in your profile information will help people find you on Twitter." So a profile is this thing, and also that other completely different thing. Gah!
- Replies. You can address a tweet to another user by placing the @ symbol before that user's Twitter handle (for example, @Fritinancy). But this action isn't always a "reply." I can, for instance, write, "Do yourself a favor and follow @wisekaren." In that tweet, @wisekaren will be a link to Karen's Twitter page, but I'm not "replying" to anything. Twitter finally caught up with this one and changed "@replies" to "@mentions."
- Connections. This is a tab on the Settings page that has nothing to do with the people you're connected with or the devices on which you connect to Twitter. Instead, it's about "the applications you've allowed to access your account." My Connections page shows that I've allowed access to something called WeFollow. I had no idea it would appear there. In any event, the page should be titled Access.
- Nudge. No one I asked knew what this command was for. It seems to be an analogue of the ultra-annoying "poke" on Facebook: a reminder that "I haven't heard from you in a while." Twitter says a nudge is "a friendly note sent to a friend's phone" (suppose your service doesn't include a text plan?) "reminding him or her to update your Twitter profile." Actually, that should be "update his or her Twitter profile," not yours, and remember: a profile isn't a profile.
There's other Twitter lingo that just irks me, such as the "Hey there!" greeting that appears when you click through to the page of a new follower. I'm sure Twitter thinks this salutation is friendly and informal, but to me it's like an elbow in the ribs.
Usually when a brand gets so much of its vocabulary wrong the business either fails or undergoes a dramatic overhaul. Yet Twitter has succeeded. Why? Because Twitter is much more than the Twitter.com web site. In fact, there is almost no reason to ever use the Twitter web site. Instead, most users, myself included, choose from a panoply of third-party applications—all free, like Twitter itself—that are built on the Twitter API and display the same content (or timeline, or stream) in very different forms. Once you've registered with Twitter, I recommend you flee the site for the much better designed TweetDeck or iTweet or any of the applications for mobile phone. I used to recommend Twhirl, but its developer, San Francisco-based Seesmic, just last night launched Seesmic Desktop, which is far more sophisticated and legible, and which may become my preferred Twitter "client." Seesmic and the others have taken healthy liberties with the official lingo: Seesmic says users can "listen, reply, share, and organize," which is a lot more accurate than "update your status on a timeline." The Twitter alternatives also incorporate many conveniences lacking in Twitter.com: instant URL-shortening—of no consequence when you're "updating your status" but vital when you want to direct people to, say, your latest blog post—easy retweeting, auto-refreshing, and no-brainer uploading of photos.
Before I read Tim J's post (and I encourage you to read it yourself; it covers far more than I've been able to here, and is very well written), I had identified another cause of Twitter confusion. It's what I call the geographic fallacy. In the 15 or so years since the launch of the first web browser, we've internalized place-based metaphors for our Internet activity: We talk of web sites, we go online, we search. But Twitter isn't a fixed place on the web like Facebook (which is restricted to Facebook.com) or LinkedIn (which is restricted to LinkedIn.com). It's more like a moving sidewalk, or a cocktail party with multiple interesting conversations that can be joined from multiple vantage points such as TweetDeck or iTweet or your cellphone.
Changing the geographic metaphor to a social/conversational metaphor proves to be harder than you might think. And Twitter isn't helping. It hasn't crafted a useful narrative about itself ("What are you doing?" ain't it) or come up with accurate, meaningful language to tell the story. In the meantime, its users have shown immense creativity and flexibility in devising their own definitions.
Image: the Twitter Fail Whale, displayed whenever Twitter experiences an outage or is overloaded.