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(Jason Logan)
(Jason Logan)

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Why so many love to hate Twitter Add to ...

For a service with 100 million users, an awful lot of people seem to really dislike Twitter.

The site has had limited uptake among the general public, but it seems to have succeeded at raising mass ire. People who use Twitter say it's a useful, sometimes amazing way to meet people and stay in touch. But people who don't use it think it's full of self-promoting navel-gazers who embody the worst excesses of the "Me" generation.

Harbouring a grumble against Twitter is fashionable. I hear it on the radio, I get it at the dinner table. I've learned to read the subtle hints: the glassy stare, the derisive snort, the guy waving his hands over his head and yelling: "Oh God, not Twitter again!"

I sense a disconnect here.

What has Twitter done to generate so much animus? Is it getting what it deserves as a media-hyped implement of narcissism? Or is it just attracting a backlash from stick-in-the-muds who don't get the proverbial it?

The answer is neither. Rather, Twitter is a remarkable service that's given the general public some good reasons to think poorly of it. You may not dislike the service. But if you do, I'm going to venture four reasons why you hate Twitter - whether you know it or not.

1. It drives off newcomers

For the newcomer, Twitter is a terrible, disconsolate place. Its landscape is strewn with the dead accounts of people who signed up, made one utterance into the void - "Trying this Twitter thing out" - and never went back. Unless you already have friends using the service, there's not much to see except celebrities and spambots. Twitter will encourage you to follow big-name celebrities, which is a lousy idea. For one thing, many of them write on about the same level as the spambots. For another thing, you are not going to have a productive networking experience with LeBron James. The experience gets better as you add real contacts, but the start can be dispiriting.

2. It looks dull from the outside

It's true: People do say inane things on Twitter. They say lots of neat, trenchant things too, but never mind that. I, for one, reject the notion that someone else's lunch is never interesting.

What keeps the inane stuff interesting is Twitter's way of mixing all these little updates from different people into one stream. But users and non-users access the site in different ways. Non-users can only see one user's feed at a time.

"I'm always amused by Web cartoonists with Twitter accounts," a comic-loving friend told me when I asked about her reticence to join. "Most of them are collections of the most mundane things. 'Finished writing script. Going to walk the dog, then it's DRAWING TIME.' "

A long list of updates like this from a single person is iffy reading. But in practice, Twitter users seldom look at just one user's updates. Instead, they choose an assortment of people to follow, and have their updates delivered in real time, all mixed in together. A blow-by-blow of a single person's average day, read days after the fact, isn't much to see. But a live cross-section of hundreds of people's days all at once is a fascinating thing. A pity you wouldn't know it from the outside.

3. Twitter people can be insufferable

The fact that Twitter builds tight communities is a double-edged sword. Twitter people will talk at friends and family about the jokes they read on Twitter, the people they talked to on Twitter, the C-list public figure they prodded some terse response out of. You may, in those circumstances, yell: "Not Twitter again!" It's warranted.

Worse, Twitter has flourished in certain professional spheres, especially technology, public relations, arts, politics and media (which won't shut up about it). But it's been slow to make inroads into other fields. Twitter reinforces social bubbles, so it's attractive to people who live in bubbles. Bubbles, in turn, are attractive to people who hold pins.

4. It's all a performance

If the idea of online friendship still threatens a lot of people, the idea of online performance troubles even more. If it seems odd to think that anyone would go online to read about other people's mundane details, it must seem like the height of arrogance to go online and write out your own.

Of course it's a performance. But people create personas for themselves all the time. They buy clothes and paint cars and sculpt topiaries and write books and mortify people at local open mikes. All the world's a stage: How much sense does it make to cordon off the corner with Twitter and say: "Sorry, that's crass"?

Ultimately, Twitter scares people because its concept plays to contemporary fears. The idea of millions of people writing very short notes about things that may or may not be profound sparks worries about such things as the dumbing-down of media, the fragmentation of attention spans and the loss of authentic offline interactions (whatever those were).

It's mostly nonsense. Twitter doesn't actually behave like that. It can pay off with real conversation, real learning, and real-life socialization - but this is almost impossible to see without joining, and plowing through the initial slog. And as long as its upsides stay hidden while its downsides hang out, Twitter is likely to remain adored by its devotees and derided by the rest.

 

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