I think Twitter is fantastic. And having been a member since early 2007 I say that without any of the giddy excitement one often has over new things. If you're not a fan then I can perhaps best respond by quoting Flo Heiss:
"I really don’t understand how people can think Twitter is crap. It’s just like saying the telephone is crap. It’s what you do with it that matters."
It's a communication channel – a real-time one much like the telephone. No doubt there are millions of mundane telephone calls made each day, but over the years lots of very important messages have been passed over the phone. It's changed the course of history.
Now when it comes to technology and all things geeky I most definitely fall into the early adopter category, and that's to be expected because it's what I do for a living. And – to be fair – it's more likely that the people who don't use Twitter don't actually think "it's crap", and instead think something along the lines of "Why would I bother?"
I remember feeling the same about the Internet itself before I got that first 33.6kbps modem: "What's it for?" And to be honest, once I got online my eyes didn't immediately light up because the web was a pretty barren place back then. But over time... well, it's taken off a bit hasn't it?
But my point here isn't to defend Twitter. You can take it or leave it. You don't need it, it's just one of many great things about the internet. I happen to work in an industry where 8/10 people have a Twitter account. If you don't have friends on Twitter I can understand how it might seem less appealing to you. And for the record, I don't deny the common accusation that there are some incredibly uninteresting comments on there – I'm as guilty as anyone. And let's not even mention those Tweets posted after a few drinks.
To make sense of Twitter, you need to take a step back and look at a large number of Tweets in context. And that context is always 'now'. For example, what is happening right now in Manchester ? At the time of writing this, I discovered (in creating that link) that there was a protest going on in Piccadilly Gardens. I found several photos, and comments from people on both sides of the dispute. It only appeared on the news a couple of hours later. You can usually get a good roundup of what the population thinks about any popular subject or event while it is still ongoing.
The role of the blog
I used to blog more often, and when Twitter came along it dropped off sharply. Perhaps there's some innate desire to have a public published voice which blogging fulfils, yet which Twitter fulfils so much more easily. One thought at a time. From my phone. On the bus.
So rather than hold in all my frustrations about my iPhone / O2 / 3G woes then write a big ranting blog post about it, I complain about it on Twitter instead. A few people reply, I get some advice, job done.
A few weeks ago I was thinking to myself that this might be the beginning of the end for blogging. There are certainly fewer blog posts for me to read when I check in on Google Reader every few days than there were a year ago. And I'd wager that that's related to those bloggers also having a Twitter account.
But maybe that's a good thing. There may be fewer blog posts overall*, but if that means fewer mundane blog posts (those thoughts offloaded onto Twitter) then by definition there'll be a higher proportion of more interesting blogs among those that remain.
And bigger than that – it's since occurred to me that Twitter is lacking in one crucial way that means that blogging still has a crucial role: archive.
Twitter is all about realtime, what's happening now. Any given user's Tweets used to be available through pagination on their Twitter profile page. But even then they lost their context as time passed. Because a large proportion of Tweets are part of a real-time conversation, once they're consigned to the history pages they become isolated comments again. True, you can still see who replied to whom, but there's no easy way of returning to and replaying that moment in time. At least not as far as I know. As a user I'd like (among other things) to be easily able to rewind time and return the same conversation thread I had a year ago.
And the recent changes to the Twitter site, that present it more as a realtime search engine (which was a very smart move in terms of exposing its usefulness) included the removal of that pagination feature. So it's now even harder to look back in time. This was more than just a change of interface design.
Of course the preferred method of accessing Twitter is through its API and the plethora of apps that utilise it. But the API is all about searching the most recent results for any given user, term, location or a combination of them. While they're still accessible in one respect I'd argue that the immense database which is all of Twitter's history is mostly useless at the moment.
Blog posts on the other hand, usually being longer than 140 characters (this one could definitely do with some trimming) remain meaningful as standalone units. You can go back and read a three-year-old blog post and still make sense of it straight away.
So keep blogging! Twitter has its place, and will doubtless become more powerful as its API improves over time. Indeed I think Twitter – as an idea – is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ways human beings will be able communicate in the future. But while we all get excited about the realtime web let's not forget to write things up properly too where it's apt.
*Incidentally, I know that there's no overall decrease in blogging, and this is no doubt due to the large number of people still coming online for the first time each week globally. But from a given set of bloggers that I've been following for a few years (around 80) there is a marked decrease in the amount of posts made.