May 30, 2009

Twitter: Cons and… pros?

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg, de.licio.us, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.