Why Twitter is Good and Instant Message is Evil

Picture by Brian Solis

What is good? What is evil?
The first question you should be asking is "What hodge-podge morality scale are you working on?" It's a good question. It's the type of question that philosophers often ponder during their prolonged morning showers (which, coincidentally enough, is where I conjured up this article). There are a lot of different directions I could go - looking at how the company runs, evaluating privacy policies, considering whether company programmers drink Fair Trade coffee, etc.

I'm basing my thoughts on one question: Does the technology serve our lives, or do our lives serve the technology? Another way of phrasing this is "does the technology lead to more opportunities in the 'real world', or does it increase our dependencies on the technology?" That is my barometer.

Why Instant Message is Evil
It's pretty simple, really. Just consider the instant messaging scenarios that cause people to shake their heads in disgust. The longer a conversation that takes place on IM, the more you start to realize that it could be had elsewhere - in a place with more context. Conversation without context leads to misunderstandings. Or even worse, intentional misrepresentations. The times when instant message has been beneficial to me have been the times when I've used it more as a "leave me a message" service, or a "let's meet-up at x time" service. Let me know when we're having lunch. Let me know if you got home safely. Those uses are good. Unfortunately, it often isn't used that way.

Good Example:

ilikeSawx: We need to talk. Can you meet at Denny's at 11am?
ThisIsNotMe: Sure.
ilikeSawx: Great. I'll see you then.

Bad Example:

ilikeSawx: We need to talk.
ThisIsNotMe:Okay, what do you want to talk about?
ilikeSawx: I have been holding back pent up feelings for you for years. I know you don't want a relationship with a Red Sox fan, but .... blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

IM lacks context. No voice inflection. No body language. Even in a good conversation, you're probably only getting part of the picture. And if you're having too many "good conversations", there is the danger that it is becoming a crutch - something that hinders your ability to communicate face-to-face instead of acting as a catalyst to encourage it. We end up serving the technology.

Why Twitter is Good
Twitter does not give us voice inflection. Twitter does not give us body language. So why is it better? What prevents it from falling into the same pit as instant message?

Twitter's character limit keeps us from inappropriate communication
Twitter only gives you 140 characters. If you think you can forge intimate relationships, or hold intense, well-thought political debates in 140 characters then you live a much simpler life than I do. Sure, you could leave 15 consecutive messages, but no one will listen to you. They will pass you off as annoying at best. More than likely, they will defriend you.

There have been times where Twitter gives us emotional glimpses into someone's life. Sure. But it's never a full explanation. Twitter doesn't allow it. In fact, those glimpses makes me want to pick up the phone and call the person. They make me want to learn more. But I can't through Twitter (thankfully). If I wan't to learn more, I need to take my communication to a different arena.

Twitter is largely a public forum. People don't like being naked.
I can follow whoever I want on Twitter. I also must realize that anyone who wants to follow me, can. If I want to get into a bloody brawl with an ex-girlfriend, everyone who will know. Everyone. Once again, this prevents us from having those sort of conversations through Twitter. Last week, at SocialMediaCamp Boston, the following analogy was made (courtesty of Erica O'Grady):

Twitter brings us back to the 1930s in smalltown America. Then, if you wanted to find out who was the best butcher in town, you'd just ask around. People would tell you Tom has great cuts of meat, while Steve pumps his with steroids.

Twitter allows the us to make public statements like "hey, check this out" or "let's meet here" or "watch out for . . ."
While Twitter is a community, it is a community whose foundation isn't on Twitter. The foundation is where its messages point to.

So all in all . . .
To be fair, IM can be used appropriately. Many people do. Twitter can be horribly abused. Many people do. People will use and abuse any technology that comes out. There are no exceptions. But that doesn't prevent us from trying to design technology that encourages real interactions - that gets a group of people together over a cup of coffee. Twitter does it well. IM does it terribly. So please, socialize with care.

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