Twitter's role in the public sphere is a contradictory one. It is at once ubiquious – adorning all manner of billboards and signs, not to mention the lower fifth of the screen of cable news broadcasts – and yet almost entirely foreign to those who do not use it. That last clause verges on the tautological, but the emphasis is on foreign; I submit that Twitter is bizarre and outright strange to its non-users to a much greater extent than is true in the case of Facebook or just about any of the other prominent social web services.
Although Twitter's ubiquity ensures that just about everyone has heard of it, and may even be aware that it has developed into a substantial forum for worldwide discourse, I get the sense that most people have never been shown a single, compelling reason why they might personally trouble to open an account.
As a devoted, adoring user of the service1, this strikes me as a mild tragedy. It is understandable why many people might feel this way; bootstrapping an account from naught to useful is not an especially easy task, and is fraught with several meaningful obstacles:
- The Bootstrapping Problem: Twitter gets more interesting with each additional account you discover and follow2. However, at the dawn of an account – with zero follows – Twitter's 'interestingness' is at a minimum, as low as it will ever be. This is not encouraging to a newcomer.
- Utility: As a consequence, it is not at all clear to a newcomer what possible utility they might receive from this new account. Moreover, newcomers seem to believe that the primary purpose of Twitter is in tweeting3, when in actual fact, reading the timeline is the main reason it's worth having an account. To be sure, it's fun to participate in conversations once in a while, but one can receive an enormous amount of value from Twitter simply by following a set of interesting accounts, reading their updates, and perhaps never once sending a tweet.
- Esotericism: Twitter pioneered, or at least greatly popularized, several new dynamics such as the asymmetric follower/following relationship and
@-mentioning. It also has its own conventions which are opaque from the outset4. Although all of this is well understood by regular users, I get the impression it is intimidating to start with.
Twitter has visibly attempted to address these issues5, though not satisfactorially I would argue. The onboarding process addresses the bootstrapping problem to a degree, but that's only useful once a newcomer has been convinced to sign up. Prior to that point, Twitter has done a poor job communicating the message that, if you like reading stuff on the web, and most people do, after all; then you would almost certainly enjoy having a Twitter account.
That is exactly my position. I posit that the intersection of people who (a) currently like reading the internet and (b) would enjoy Twitter with a sufficiently-well-constructed following-list is one and the same.
If you're reading this, and don't have a Twitter account, I implore you to give it a try.
- Open an account. Using your real name or having the account be associated in any way with your real identity is strictly optional.
- Pick some people to follow. See the end of this page for some suggestions.
- Have a look at the timeline several times a day. It's not a corporate email inbox – to be doggedly read to completion, but rather, a river of interesting things for perusal and sampling at any time.
With a judiciously selected follow-list, Twitter has the potential to become a fascinating window onto the world, tailored to your own interests. It is truly fantastic, and you should give it a try if you haven't already.
Addendum: Some Follow Suggestions
Here's a few suggestions of worthwhile accounts to follow6 based on my own interests (the categories are overly-simplistic, of course):
- Canadian-focus @acoyne, @MikePMoffatt, @stephenfgordon
- News @guardian, @BreakingNews, @CBCNews, @BBCNews, @TheTyee
- Economics @TheEconomist, @TimHarford, @Pricenomics, @planetmoney
- Finance @felixsalmon, @dealbook, @CdnCouchPotato
- Tech @pmarca, @BenedictEvans, @monkbent, @fmanjoo, @gruber, @troyhunt
- Urbanism @StrongTowns, @neil21, @modacitylife, @copenhagenize
- Miscellaneous @mathbabedotorg, @TheOnion, @StatFact, @RealTimeWWII
Twitter is quite possibly my favourite thing about our modern, connected, mobile world - and I include my iPhone in that list. ↩
Unlike Facebook, which I contend gets less interesting with each additional friend (beyond a minimal set of close contacts). ↩
What a tweet even is seems to cause some degree of consternation initially, with many newcomers believing that the act of tweeting is predominantly a way to share breakfast photographs, express inane self-indulgences, or bolster your public persona if you happen to be Ashton Kutcher – all things that no right-thinking individual should engage in. ↩
As I write this, in August 2014, there has been word of Twitter monkeying with what shows up in timelines; heretofore this was strictly determined by one's followed accounts. This is not the way to solve the utility problem, and I hope they see sense. ↩
Following does not imply endorsement, but it does imply interest. ↩