Twitter Tool Review

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.

3 thoughts on “Twitter Tool Review

  1. Joseph Santoli

    How you framed your review is intriguing, and especially useful considering Twitter is a “tool” that nearly everyone has heard about. The functionality/ability of the tool is much less meaningful than its communicative abilities. It is hard to critique this kind of review immediately because it is thorough in its explanations of what the functions do, but also what they mean. Twitter isn’t a citation tool like Zotero, and deserves this kind of discussion (one that felt really developed in your presentation to the class).

    Feel free to discard my suggestions, as it looks like you’ve established a certain tone and would not want to deviate from it. A useful addition to this review may be some more of your personal experience. As of now, you speak a bit generally about what a tweet can mean, or how Twitter sort of forms a cultural phenomenon, but I’m wondering about its real-to-life usefulness to you and to people in other fields. Have you enjoyed using it? Do you think its a fun pastime, but not particularly useful for your own intellectual or creative development? Its a place to share all kinds of ideas, but do these ideas mix together or do the engineers stay strictly engineers and do the english majors stay strictly english majors? I’m thinking about interdisciplinary cross-talk. Does it/can it happen with Twitter, and if it can, would it be useful at all? So perhaps consider showing the business side of Twitter, if there is one.

    You might consider some of the rhetorical factors involved with Twitter’s interface too. For example, the “compose tweet” is a picture of quill. Do people who use Twitter even know what a quill is? And I suppose the bird sort of represents how we’d send mail via pidgeon, but what does any of this mean? It could mean absolutely nothing, or maybe, it’s a crucial part to the success of Twitter. Perhaps it even shapes how we tweet. I mean, if a Tweet was called a Message, would Twitter look the same in terms of how ideas are shared? Rhetoric, language, rah rah.

    I also liked your idea about lists in your presentation; how you can create a “conversation” between people who have never met. I’m wondering what this means for research in a field, or how ideas develop or how they are arranged. Or what can happen when we somehow get everyone on a specific list to actually meet one another. It could be nothing, but I found it to be an interesting point. I mean, compare it to our current “non-digital” setup in terms of exchanging ideas; people write in academic journals to one another and respond to ideas that way. But they know each other. And that’s kind of how a field is developed, right? So maybe this kind of specified list can be useful in developing specific fields, or maybe even just teams of people.

    I enjoyed reading your review and I think all of what you’ve written here is very useful for the kinds of conversations we should be having about Twitter. My only suggestion is to consider adding different perspectives, or implications for professional fields, if you think there are any.

  2. Cassandra Nelson

    First of all, I think your review is great. I especially enjoyed your framing of the review within the ongoing conversation about Twitter’s communicative abilities in regards to its role in the digital humanities. This helps highlight the fact that Twitter is not a “tool” in the usual sense of word, but rather a communication device that has the potential to be used in collaboration. In fact, your focus on the communicative abilities of/possibilities for Twitter reminds me a bit of Clay Shirky’s TED Talk “How Social Media Can Make History.” If you haven’t watched it, you should.

    As Joseph has already pointed out, yours is not an easy review to critique. For one, your style of presentation and overall tone come across as carefully, intentionally crafted, a quality which really makes your review a pleasure to read. Along with the framing technique already mention, I also like your incorporation of images of the various functions. As with a lot of today’s social media, it is sometimes easier to show someone how Twitter works than to try explaining it to them. Your pictures serve as excellent examples of the points you discuss and also help those unfamiliar with Twitter, such as myself, get a better understanding of how the site is setup and how the interface works. Likewise, I very much like your overall organization of describing each function one-by-one in detail and talking about the possibilities and problems that are unique to each function.

    As far as suggestions go, I really only have three, and they’re minor ones at that. Again, as Joe has already stated, you seem to have developed your own carefully-crafted style that I really enjoyed reading, so feel free to ignore these suggestions if they don’t fit with what you are trying to do. The first is a grammatical question more than a suggestion: do you need the colons after each function in your list? Since the function name both starts the paragraph and serves as the section title, I think you should get rid of the colons (e.g. “Tweet is” vs. “Tweet: is”). However, I am no grammar expert, so the way you currently have it may actually be correct; I just know it caused me a moments hesitation. I think the fact that the words are bolded will still tip people off to them starting a new section in the list, but you could always number the list if you are worried about it. Secondly, you might consider starting off with the weaker functions that you currently end with and building up to your stronger topics. It’s just an idea to make sure you hold the reader’s interest all the way through, but is by no means necessary. Finally, I wish you had tied this into DH or your personal experiences a little more. As it is, your review is currently well-written and comprehensive, but it’s a little general or vague. I wish you would have gone into more detail about how it presents certain collaboration possibilities, about how the anonymity and/or hierarchical structures of certain functions affect its use in DH, or about how you have used it in your own studies. Otherwise, good work.

  3. David Ainsworth

    What’s missing here, and I don’t mean in terms of “lack” so much as “expansion opportunity,” is the tool’s utility within very specific contexts. I don’t think you need to modify this entry to provide that information, but I’d be very interested to read your thoughts about specific uses of this tool which are either especially apt for it, or inappropriate in some way.

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