Seriously, what is the point of Twitter?

Here’s a claim from Matt Yglesias that I’m totally unable to make sense of:

Western alphabets were ideally suited to the age of traditional industrial age printing—they make it easier to learn literacy skills and they’re great for typesetting. But in the coming era where everything is a Tweet or a Facebook status update, our primitive alphabets are leaving us restricted to the shortest and crudest of thoughts, while Chinese orthography allows for a much deeper range of expression.

As far as I can tell, the claim about Facebook is comletely untrue. Facebook is relatively liberal about how long you can make your status updates, and if you end up going over even that limit, the trick is to post the first part of the comment as a status update and the rest as a comment on your own status update (as far as I can tell, there’s no maximum length for comments on status updates).

Twitter is different, but I’m still not sure the claim about Twitter makes any sense. I assume that when Twitter was created, its creator(s) didn’t think “no matter what language we’re talking about, 140 characters is the idea length for a tweet.” They probably just thought “140 characters is about right,” without even thinking about languages other than English, or thinking about the fact that they weren’t thinking about languages other than English. If Chinese tweets really are superior to English tweets, it seems like we should raise the maximum allowed length for English tweets, rather than all switch to Chinese.

More broadly, what is the point of Twitter? A lot of bloggers seem to like it. In fact, the main reason I got a Twitter account in the first place was that all the cool bloggeres seemed to be doing it. Yet I rarely use it these days. Part of the reason is that I have many more Facebook friends than Twitter followers, so that if I have a brief message that I want a lot of people to see, I post it on Facebook first and then don’t post it on Twitter, because posting it there would only slightly increase the number of people who’d see it.

I’ve heard things like “Twitter is where all the conversations are happening these days,” but I don’t see any evidence of it, nor how it could even possibly be true. 140 characters is rarely sufficient for an intelligent response to anything. It gets in the way of basic functions like providing justification for your position, or explaining the nuances of it.

Granted, there is a place for pithiness. In fact there are some brilliant Twitter feeds out there, whose owners seem to have really mastered that art. But for all the writers who have merely average competence at pithiness, I really don’t see the point. Even though all the cool bloggers are doing it. But maybe someone in the comments will convince me to take up tweeting regularly?

  • Hank Fox

    I would normally agree with you, but I’m busy getting those damned kids off my lawn. ;-)

    Seriously, I have my doubts about Twitter myself, but I’m interested in giving it a go. Real soon now.

  • mds

    As far as I can tell, Twitter’s appeal seems to be from it being a cross between a blogging platform and IRC with persistent logs and subscription based ‘channels’. Message length constraints make it harder to monologue, giving things a more conversational tone.

    The 140 character limit probably stems from the fact that SMS messages are limited to 140 bytes (160 7-bit characters).

  • aspidoscelis

    I assume that when Twitter was created, its creator(s) didn’t think “no matter what language we’re talking about, 140 characters is the idea length for a tweet.” They probably just thought “140 characters is about right,” without even thinking about languages other than English, or thinking about the fact that they weren’t thinking about languages other than English.

    Well, no… 140 characters is as long as they could figure out how to make the messages while having the system be compatible with the SMS protocol typically used for cell phone text messages.

  • James Sweet

    Sometime in the last several months, Facebook got rid of the character limit for status updates altogether. Well, there still might be a reaaalllly long one, but it used to be a few hundred characters or something, but now I can write a freakin’ book and it doesn’t complain.

    I don’t think Yglesias is entirely full of it when it comes to Twitter, but I share your handicap: I also don’t “get” what’s so good about Twitter. Perhaps it is my natural verbosity interfering with it, but I still don’t get it.

  • James M

    What we don’t actually know is how many characters were actaully used and whether or not the chinese tweet was as grammatically poignant as it’s translation into English would lead you to believe. It is pretty trivial these days to arbitrarily increase the maximum character count in a tweet to well over 140.

  • Neeroc

    My twitter experience is a never ending conversation. It’s like walking in a room full of people I’ve selected and being able to ‘overhear’ what they’re talking about and jump in when I chose. Sometimes they’re talking to people I already follow, and sometimes they’ll introduce me to a new person (which is the best feature imo) I’ve found more blogs, links and resources from Twitter than any previous SM. Looking for something interesting to do in your home town? Ask twitter. Had a great/horrible experience? Tell twitter. Want to get customer service pronto? Tweet the company. Add a hashtag and anyone interested at that time will catch the tweet.

    And keeping on the theme, if twitter is a cocktail party, facebook is my rec room. I don’t have a blog page, it’s only my personal account, and (mostly) my friends and family, many of whom I’ve known for most of my life.

    Now don’t even get me started on Pinterest *g*

  • sqlrob

    It’s most likely 140 BYTES, not 140 characters. Which means, at best, 70 Chinese characters can be in a message.

    • jamessweet

      I believe it is, in fact, 140 characters. Don’t quote me on that, but I am pretty sure that is the case. So Yglesias is not wrong on that point.

  • left0ver1under

    Andy Rooney was right when he said, “Anything worth saying can be said in five minutes.” Emails and blog posts are five minute messages.

    But nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters. Twitter is nothing more than a post-it, a memo note. What’s the big deal about it? For the most part, twitter is used by twits.

    The worst part about twitter and facebook is that to write to anyone on it, you have to join. What the hell happened to posting your email address, or a web form to send a comment? At least FTB lets people post and write with nothing more than a wordpress registration.

    • sqlrob

      But nothing meaningful can be said in 140 characters.

      To stick with the overarching subject of FtB: “There is no god” is a hell of a lot shorter than 140 characters.

    • sqlrob

      A question that came to mind, unfortunately after I hit submit. I assume you think that nothing meaningful can be said in 17 syllables either, right?

      • piero

        “There is no God” is no more pithy than “I like cheesecake”. I can make an infinite number of unsopported statement in 140 characters or less. True, “I think, therefore I am” is as pithy as it gets, but let’s be serious: how many twitters will come up with anything like that? And even if one did, 99,999% of other twitters won’t know what the hell s/he is talking about.

        I thoroughly dislike Facebook and Twitter, cluttered as they are with rubbish and self-promotion. I do like blogs, because I’ve learnt so much from the beter ones.

        I’m not, of course, suggesting that Twitters and Facebookers are idiots. I just find them quite useless.

        • sqlrob

          I am not arguing that they’re all bits of genius. Sturgeon’s law holds as strongly, if not more so, in Twitter and Facebook.

          I’m arguing against the claim that you can’t say anything meaningful when limited to 140 characters. I think any semantic limit is much lower than that. The interactions of what can be done on Twitter, or at least initiated there, are amazing. See the Ocean Marketing flameout or “stand by for a demonstration of relevance”

          • Chris Hallquist


            Really, the issue isn’t that it’s literally impossible to say anything meaningful in Twitter. The problem is that it’s difficult to do thie things one is normally expected to do in a meaningful (in the sense of significant) conversation.

            (But maybe if I knew more about those incidents, it would change my mind.)

          • piero

            Yes, I would like to have the links too. “Stand by for a demonstration of relevance” sounds interesting.

  • Geoff

    True. Twitter is a very rough medium for solid (for lack of a better word) communication. There is a lot of noise. But on a larger scale it does have impact in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and it really only has two advantages but they have impact: it’s fast and it’s immediate.

    In a sense that it’s the world’s message board, I think a lot of ideas and opinions that don’t get heard very often do get heard. The “no god” hash tag that trended worldwide for instance and any theist, creationist, anti-science buffoon who dare step into a hashtag that people follow are in for a surprise.

    On the whole, it’s very much everything you described. But it does have value in that the best ideas — and the best at communicating those ideas — float to the top.

    Re-tweeting is a very powerful tool.

    Secondly, twitter doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. Thanks to Google and other social media, once an idea is out there it’s well, out there.

    Like anything on the internet, there is no comparison to face-to-face communication (not without noise either) but it has its place.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Interesting. Does that mean I should be on Twitter?

      • Tony

        You may as well. Apparently all the cool kids are!
        (not me though; I’m only nifty; not cool)
        Seriously though, given your comments about Facebook, is there any aspect of Twitter than you find useful? Something that you can’t accomplish elsewhere or more efficiently? Is it redundant to have both? Or do they both serve such different purposes that they’re relatively unique?

    • jamessweet

      This recalled to mind the most vivid demonstration of Twitter’s speed and immediacy. Not that this example had any practical value, but yeah…

  • Neeroc

    It appears I can’t reply (or jump in on) your request for a link to the ‘demonstration of relevancy’ tweet stream, so I’ll add it here – the post that caused the hullabaloo (she updates inline often)

    The PR nightmare, caused by a PR company insulting a ‘lowly’ blogger and then not knowing how to recover, went on for days (there are 43 trackbacks to her post – I think this is a pretty concise recap –

    Here’s another zany thing she has done using twitter (with her blog) – #travelingreddress –

  • kagerato

    I don’t typically associate Yglesias with such moronic statements as “Chinese is better than English!”. This is utter foolishness no matter what perspective you look at it from.

    Mathematically? That’s much like saying base 10000 is better than base 10. Sure, you can encode far more information per digit, at the expense of needing far more unique digits. There is no net gain whatsoever. You’re merely exporting the complexity of your data into a pre-made table.

    In computer science & engineering? The most efficient computational base is binary (base 2), as it requires the fewest number of distinctions in the analog state of your computing machine. This leads directly to easier state recognition and lower error rates, and explains why it’s used in digital electronics.

    Linguistically? What advantage is there in linguistics to the use of ideograms? None of any note. On the contrary, ideograms and their older cousin hieroglyphics are an abstraction forced on top of the fundamental form of language: sequences of structured sound. It’s no coincidence that written language emerged after spoken language. All of the essential elements of language — a regular syllabary, grammar, semantics (concepts affixed to words), and so forth had already been established in spoken language. Ideograms merely complicate the process of transcribing these elements by confusing the relationship between words and their representation. Instead of a simple one-to-one mechanism, ideograms give you a dubious many-to-many system where the reader is forced to determine from context what pronunciation is meant, and what character is appropriate for the meaning in the reverse case.

    Historically? The Chinese system of ideograms was designed by the elite for the elite. It’s a system of controlling literacy by making it extraordinarily difficult to learn the use of written language so that mere peasants, with no free time due to their long hours laboring in the fields, could never join the ranks of the aristocracy or threaten their power structure. A class barrier, in other words. We shouldn’t forget this history merely because it modern times even most of the poor have enough free time and subsidized education to learn a ridiculously inefficient and overcomplicated system.

    One other small aspect about history. The Chinese language, to the extent that you can even call it a single language, is extremely old. Archaic or ‘old’ Chinese is over three thousand years old, and it most certainly was written using ideograms. We have the records to prove it. If there was any inherent advantage to ideograms as a system of communication, we would absolutely have seen it emerge by now. Instead, the ‘Chinese’ like most loosely bound ethnic groups stagnated and fought each other throughout much of their history. How much of that was caused by low literacy and lack of common understanding? Eventually, this issue was resolved through warfare and subjugation under common rule (again, like many other now modern societies).

    Socially, and from the perspective of the Internet as an communication network? I think it’s already been covered why this makes no sense.

    Yglesias’ post appears to be little more than giving into fatalism about economic changes that have nothing to do with language. “Deeper range of expression?” So what concept is it that can be expressed in Chinese and not any other language?

    Sigh. I should know better by now than to expect intelligence on the internet, right?

    • Christopher Smith

      I’d say “Cool story, bro” but that would just fuel your fire. You had some interesting points though.

  • Natalie Reed

    It’s not for proper conversation and networking and chatting with friends. That’s what Facebook’s for. And it’s not for posting big insightful essays and ideas and things you’ve been thinking about and stuff. That’s what blogs are for. But for telling people you’re latest hilarious search term in your site stats (“sloth giving the finger”)? Or talking about how much you want a cupcake? Or mentioning how some dude just called you a gay guy who’s frustrated that he can’t pass for female? Or talking about shooting your roommate with a laser? Or asserting once again the supremacy of Fluttershy? THAT’S what twitter is for.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Hmmm… okay, you have convinced me to try to tweet more.

  • nattaruk

    Here in the UK Twitter is being used to rally opposition to the government.
    Have a look at the #spartacusreport, #wrb, and #nhssavedmylife tags.
    Got the idea yet?

    • piero

      OK. I don’t hate Twitter anymore.

  • ashleybone

    Twitter has been extremely important in organizing opposition against forced vaginal ultrasounds in Virginia, rallying people to support birth control coverage, and attack Limbaugh for his Fluke comments. That’s just in the last couple of weeks. The combination of tweets being public by default and the ease of creating topics with a hashtag makes it very, very easy to build ad-hoc activist communities to address breaking topics. You can’t express every idea in a tweet, but it’s trivial to include links to more information.

    The (still ongoing) #atheistrollcall a couple of Sundays ago was a blast and is another example of something Twitter is perfect for.

    • Paul

      But what if I don’t want to complain about something I’m unhappy with? (I assume twitter could also be used to organize a protest rally at a Planned Parenthood clinic, a tell Sandra Fluke to pay for her own damned birth control event, or similar events as well). It’s a waste of time otherwise.

  • Victoria

    Your post made me laugh because I recently joined Twitter and boy am I ever lost. You really cannot follow what somebody is talking about on that thing. I keep hoping that one day I will figure out a magic trick, haha.

    Thanks for your post and the smile. :)

  • Mike

    James Sweet says:
    March 5, 2012 at 11:42 am

    Sometime in the last several months, Facebook got rid of the character limit for status updates altogether. Well, there still might be a reaaalllly long one, but it used to be a few hundred characters or something, but now I can write a freakin’ book and it doesn’t complain.
    haha FREAKING I think you mean frigging haha

    • Christopher Smith

      Umm, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. ‘Frigging’ originated from ‘freaking’. In other words, what the hell are you talking about? :D

  • Sue

    It seems that twitter is for people to show off to their so-called “followers”. From what I see, it is very superficial and shallow. People post things to show they have a voice and to feel important. It just shows how our society is becoming more and more narcissistic.

    • Talk2meGoose

      Now THAT is as good a summary of the purpose of Twitter that you’ll see. Couldnt have said it better.

  • Guest

    Sort of a low-end LinkedIn. Problem is that this San Francisco entity sensors the conservatives by suspending them regularly while the liberals often using profanity get away with murder. Comments from England are some of the worst for manners,

    Twitter feeds are copies of news links, so if you do not know how to use RSS, Twitter is for you.

    A time killer, Twitter is for kids !!!

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