In my review I will include some discussion of Twitter’s practical usefulness and usability, but I will not dwell on it because I think the conversation has moved beyond whether or not Twitter is useful. In its first few years of activity, we might have called Twitter a “tool.” Now, we might say that Twitter is how we process cultural moments. Whether or not I think its interface is “intuitive” feels kind of irrelevant.

Launched: July 2006
Cost: Free
Requirements: Any computing device
Rival Tool: Facebook
Pros: Fast-paced, powerful networking and information tool
Cons: Cluttered and potentially overwhelming
Other Reviews: This is a good example of the binary conversation (Waste of time or best thing ever?!) that has been presented in conversations about Twitter for years. This piece on “The Twitter Explosion” is aging but potentially useful.
Reviewed by: Alex Pieschel
Review Date: 27 February 2013

In “Stuff Digital Humanists Like,” Tom Scheinfeldt argues that Twitter is “more open” than Facebook, and it “allows for the collaboration and non-hierarchy that the Internet and digital humanities values.” I agree with this statement to an extent, but I also think we should be skeptical of Scheinfeldt’s use of the term “non-hierarchy.”

Twitter’s About page states, “You don’t have to build a web page to surf the web, and you don’t have to tweet to enjoy Twitter.” I agree and think this an apt comparison. That said, Twitter, like any other kind of social media, has its own embedded hierarchy. Though one can “follow” most anyone on Twitter, one cannot expect prominent political figures, artists, and academics to “follow back” and engage with one’s ideas. For some, Twitter can feel less like collaboration and conversation and more like anonymity and irrelevance.

One might call Twitter a minimalist networking tool. It lets you do a lot with what at first appears to be severely limited agency. Twitter allows users to employ eight basic functions:

Tweet: is Twitter’s word for hurling truncated thoughts into the digital void. We might consider Twitter’s 140-character limit its most distinguishing feature. Even if we remove replies, retweets, and hashtags from the equation, the character limit in itself asks for a very specific kind of writing. This limited form of micro-blogging encourages an author of tweets to be concise, nonsensical, or perhaps even poetic.

It’s worth noting that some people prefer to get around the character limit by numbering tweets (1/3, 2/3, 3/3), by tweeting a link and then offering commentary in the following tweet, or by expressing a complete thought one broken piece at a time.

Favorite: is interesting because a tension has developed between its practical use and its social connotations. You might favorite a series of tweets because they contain links you don’t have time to read now but want to read later. Or you might favorite a series of tweets because you want to retweet them periodically throughout the next week. (I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve done this before with @fanfiction_txt). Or you might favorite a tweet simply because you want to inform the user of your approval. On Valentine’s Day, I remember someone tweeting something to the effect of, “Favoriting is the ‘I like you, but I just want to be friends’ of Twitter.” This multiplicity sometimes makes it difficult to discern the motivations of one who frequently favorites. The tweet below seems to play with the ambiguity between social intent and practicality.

Retweet: is more powerful than Favorite because it repeats the circulation of an idea, increasing its longevity. A retweet allows you to reaffirm and act in solidarity with another. A tweet that is tweeted once is fleeting, but a tweet that is tweeted a thousand times has potential staying power. TweetDeck makes retweeting more powerful because it enables editing, which allows you to not only share an idea, but to explain what you think about it and leave a more personal digital imprint. Adding your critical, curatorial voice to someone else’s ideas gives people a reason to follow you. In the example below, I give my own summary of a blog post in one word: “Poetic.” I then include the quote I found most powerful in said blog post, and the original tweet follows my own framing.

Reply: initiates a conversation that involves performance because followers can observe your “replies,” which appear stacked on top of each other in a conversation ladder.

Hashtag: is an interactive metadata tag denoted by the symbol “#.” The hashtag is not an official function of Twitter, but Twitter is where the hashtag is most popular (but that could change). The first Twitter hashtag was used in 2007 by Chris Messina, who wanted to keep track of conversations at a tech conference.

Twitter doesn’t own the hashtag, which is why it can function outside of Twitter in Instagram or television advertisements. Employing an appropriately specific hashtag is a useful way to control and catalog a conversation, as illustrated in the tweet below, or to document a specific event (like a natural disaster or presidential election) in which information is changing quickly.

If you’re looking for something specific, hashtags can bring up a lot of tedious junk. They’re better for taking in snapshots than conducting directed research because a feed’s usefulness is unpredictable.

It’s worth noting that some people now consider the hashtag a tacky, overeager form of self-promotion. In addition, hashtags are sometimes used facetiously and self-referentially, “a metajoke about metadata — a bit like setting up an entire hanging file just to store a single Post-it,” as Julia Turner puts it. Most of the people in my feed don’t use hashtags, even though most of them probably know how they work: another useful reminder that most actions on Twitter carry social connotations that can either reinforce or contradict their practical function, depending on how they’re used.

The hashtag is less ambiguous than favoriting, but its mechanisms are more complex. Turner waxes philosophical on this point, illustrating how the hashtag has evolved beyond straight metadata:

But the hashtag, for the dexterous user, is a versatile tool — one that can be deployed in a host of linguistically complex ways. In addition to serving as metadata (#whatthetweetisabout), the hashtag gives the writer the opportunity to comment on his own emotional state, to sarcastically undercut his own tweet, to construct an extra layer of irony, to offer a flash of evocative imagery or to deliver metaphors with striking economy. It’s a device that allows the best writers to operate in multiple registers at once, in a compressed space. It’s the Tuvan throat singing of the Internet.

Follow: allows you to regularly monitor a specific user’s tweets.

List: lets you organize the people you’re following into manageable, logical groups. With this function, you can fashion imagined communities in which users express themselves alongside one another as if they were conversing.

Search: is most useful for pursuing conversations that arise from linked articles or specific events like The Oscars or the season premiere of Madmen. An appropriately specific, directed search term can be just as useful as a hashtag. With the right search, you can figure out who has circulated a specific link and what they’re saying about it. The search function, like the hashtag, potentially offers as much clutter as it does useful information.

I think Scheinfeldt is on point when he argues that Twitter is “mostly about sharing ideas whereas Facebook is about sharing relationships.” Twitter, because of its lack of visual emphasis, is more conducive to fashioning a digital identity that is entirely based on ideas. Furthermore, Twitter feels more fast-paced and immediate than Facebook. One might not expect or even aspire to keep up with everything in one’s feed, and I would venture to say that many people don’t.

It’s difficult to construct a digital identity in 140 characters or less. For this reason, I believe Twitter, when considered in the context of meaningful ideas, is most effective when attached to an outlet that features a longer form of writing. The different kinds of voice compliment one another, and embedding tweets in a blog post can prove especially useful, since every interactive element of the tweet is preserved. In this fashion, you can lend longevity to ideas that might be otherwise ephemeral.

Twitter seems to operate on a continuum between social networking tool and information feed; each user must carve out a space on that continuum. Perhaps this is why some find it confusing or overwhelming. One might be compelled to ask, “Why isn’t Twitter more than one thing?” I think it’s possible that Twitter is popular because its tensions and ambiguities produce interesting, unexpected results.

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