19 Mar 2009, 12:19pm
social networks twitter
by jordan

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From anonymity to exhibitionism: whither Twitter?

It’s funny how, once upon a time, people both valued and mocked anonymity on the internet — most users picked a “handle” or an online moniker, and avoided sharing their real names or identifying details, while it was joked that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (or an adult man pretending to be a teenage girl, as was often imagined). Facebook has gone some way towards undermining that convention, encouraging users to use their full names, and making it easy for people you once knew (say, in high school) to find you. And though not required, plenty of people put their real names on Twitter — including numerous well-known people and celebrities, from actors and musicians to social media authors (I tend to assume that anyone famous with thousands of followers is probably who they say they are — but who knows?).

Microblogging as superficial exhibitionism

Twitter, in its increasing popularity and visibility, is generating some anxiety as well. A teaser for new animated series “Supernews” describes Twitter users as exhibitionists who have only superficial online friendships, and who confuse microblogging with real social connections (“if they were _really_ your friends, wouldn’t they call you personally to see how you’re doing?”). It’s entertainingly short-sighted to imply that a phone call is more intimate than an online interaction, when not so long ago, people were anxious about the social consequences of telephones replacing in-person communication.

The future of Twitter

At the other end of the spectrum, Nova Spivack voices concerns about the widespread adoption of Twitter, a service which as yet doesn’t offer much in the way of filtering. Twitter, in its relative simplicity, can be used in many different ways by its participants — and whom you follow determines the kind of conversation you’ll experience (Howard Rheingold, for example, advocates “sampling” from the Twitter stream, not trying to stay constantly up-to-date). Spivack describes the various ways in which Twitter is subject to possible overload — users who post too often, but have little to say, spammers who hijack hashtags (twitter content tags marked with a # sign) and @replies, and an excess of notifications, from news updates to your own desktop apps. Twitter for now remains a relatively even space for communication, in which the biggest distinction between famous or popular accounts is their number of followers. The downside of this lies in the equal access Twitter provides for spammers, advertisers, and other potentially unwanted content providers. Spivack concludes that some form of filtering will be necessary to preserve Twitter’s usefulness, ideally through some kind of metadata to allow ranking by popularity, credibility, content type, provider type, and so forth (assuming these are straightforward to implement, that is!).

'The Theory of Twitter Overload' by raster on flickr, some rights reserved For my part, I’m always most fascinated by the unintended uses of sites like Twitter, and the creative ways users appropriate online services and technologies. While Twitter may be risking its longterm viability, as Spivack suggests, its very simplicity permits users to innovate and generate new applications its creators never envisioned.

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