Twitter and the Control of Conversation Space

I’m sure that tons of people have commented on the idea of Twitter, what makes it unique, why it has been embraced where other forms of social media have failed. I, however, have not read any of those comments, and so everything I say is my own thought, even if it overlaps immensely with common knowledge.

When Twitter first started getting popular, many others including myself questioned the usefulness of it. We already had IMs, chatrooms, blogs, messageboards, maybe Usenet, and dozens of other ways to communicate with others and do that “online social networking” thing if need be. And when I first got my Twitter account, I did so because I was tired of not being able to read interesting conversations that were happening on it. Inevitably however, I started to participate as well. Not greatly, mind you. I still don’t tweet nearly as much as some of my contemporaries, but it’s more than I expected I would, kind of like how I didn’t expect myself to still be blogging after all this time. There’s a niche Twitter fulfills, and I think I know what it is.

Twitter’s most defining characteristic is likely its 140-character limit, which depending on your language can mean a lot of space (Japanese) or very little (English). This makes it a perfect match for cell phone texting and its usual 160-character limit and is part of why it is used by those who are a little less tech-savvy, but I think the 140-character limit is only a piece of why Twitter has caught on. The real appeal of Twitter in my opinion is that it is easy to control the space of conversation while leaving it open for others to jump in.

With Twitter, you follow who you want to by saying that you will follow them. It is an active choice to see the remarks of others. However, it is not in your control for other people to see your comments unless you purposely make your account private. However, not being the default choice means a lot here. Twitter can be both public and private at the same time, and it is up to the user to determine the boundaries of each. And by doing so, you have a situation where a conversation can begin one-on-one, but then another person can interject and deliver his or her point, and then another, and then another. But to those first two people engaging in that dialogue, it can still exist as a one-on-one conversation. What is being said and the scope of the discussion changes depending on who is reading and who is participating and who wishes to see the participation of others.

This is where the 140-character limit really comes in. It makes everything you say on Twitter bite-sized and easier to digest. While discussions can go on for a while, the point at which a person chooses to step in is in reply to one of those 140-word tweets, as opposed to say, a five-paragraph-long comment. Your words are already broken down into specific chunks, and so another person on Twitter can zero in on that, and while their reply can be in response to everything you’ve said so far, they have chosen to reply to that specific tweet and bring emphasis to it.

So basically, Twitter conversations can exist at multiple sizes simultaneously due to the brevity in encourages and the way the users can determine in their own space the number of participants. It is both a closed discussion and an open one, and yet your choices also do not impact the choices of others for the most part. There is near-total control, but that powerlessness over others is also what allows it to expand. And unlike chatrooms or forums you do not have to opt to ignore the words of another, as it is the default. Twitter is as comfortable as you make it.

10 thoughts on “Twitter and the Control of Conversation Space

  1. I actually think the length doesn’t matter so much, but you pointed out the end result I think that is relevant, and that’s brevity. 140 characters is a legacy of a technical limitation–most SMS are limited at 160 characters per message, so after you take away 20 characters for control characters, the twitter “protocol” is operable via text messaging.

    Today a lot less people uses it via SMS (you still could, and it’s quite workable), but the same applies.

    My own theory (as repeated elsewhere I’m sure) is that it combines what makes persistent IRC chatting work on a larger, modular scale without as much creep and the sort of technical issues (chan takeover lol) that IRC has.


  2. oops forgot to add this sentence to first paragraph: There’s a very good argument to increase length of twitter max length per message to something more optimal for English conversations. Japan loves twitter and 140 characters are way too many to limit brevity, relatively speaking…


  3. In addition, I found the feature that lets you search for topics of interest and hashtags very useful. It definitely facilitates in creating some interesting conversations with people you don’t normally talk to.


  4. I didn’t think i would like it myself but i gave it a chance and i can see why people like it so much. its all the whining of irc except its totally public. So when one (or a bunch) guy/gal says something it spreads like wildfire. its very good for disseminating information and other items of interest to your followers.

    My only complaint is that the web client is fairly bare-bones and most of the third party (PC) clients I’ve tried are kind of crummy. so far i’ve been using Echophon (firefox plugin) and tween (external app. messy but it works.). The nice thing about them is that it makes everything more IM likes. It makes firing off rapid fire comments all the more easier.

    I wonder how this will change the nature of information on a larger scale if it really ends up becoming something thats commonly used.


  5. The haiku-like beauty that can come from a good tweet is important, yes. Also nice: everyone you know potentially reads everything you write publicly. This cuts down on so much negativism and general douchebaggery as we saw in chat rooms and YouTube comments, it’s the salvation of the Internet as far as I’m concerned.


  6. I have two views on Twitter, as a brand and as a concept. I am not particularly a fan of the brand, because it is just another closed network (it is not inter-operable with other services, such as what we have with email, IM, blogs+comments, feeds, etc… and that limiting of choice is a serious turnoff for me… I advocate, PuSH, rssCloud, Buzz, and others forms of communication which are similar but not locked to brand).

    As a concept (from this point ‘Twitter’ doesn’t matter and here is only what matters), it is an intermediary form of communication (persistent IM, hard-chat, status-update, microblogging) we (The Internet community) have found to be quite useful, but I don’t agree that the character limit is the defining factor. In my opinion, there should not be a character limit on the input, but configurable on output, but this is beside the point. The truly defining factors of this form of conversation is the [near] real-time, persistent broadcast. It is micro-mass messaging in a truly simple form, and it’s fast (although I would argue the OStatus platform is faster as backed by a true XMPP/Jabber framework, and the rssCloud protocol is just as fast but considerably more open).

    The level of conversation occurring with anibloggers on Twitter is somewhat an exception, I still think most Twitter users are pushing potential news items to listeners, where the actual conversation is the topics floating around, rather than the content inside twitter. RssCloud’s proponent has called this a ‘River of News’ and I still believe that is the main take on the service.

    I personally don’t have my twitter accnt anymore as I’d rather not lock up my micro content in a corporate channel and limit myself to a 10 day search, but one of the biggest gripes with subscribing to anitweeters is that the native conversation organizing capabilities of twitter are so completely fail. Anyhow, I began rendering my own overlay which will likely support rssCloud and PuSH, (literally started this a couple days ago) :



  7. Twitter is immensely useless. It is like yelling in a dark room hoping someone out there is listening. I’ve used it on occasion and just started getting back into it. I follow a few people and a few people follow me, I guess, but I have never experienced any of these conversations that go on.


  8. I think I have a totally contrary view, but I’ve been chewing on this for some time as an upcoming blog post. I’m still trying to understand all that’s going on in my head, opinion-wise.

    short form? I think Twitter is harmful, as it actually creates more isolation. Also promotes time wasting ‘linkbombing’.

    I think it has useful potential but I think it just instantly became abused.

    again, I’m still chewing on this. :)


  9. I love twitter. When you use IM, you have to say ‘let’s have a conversation.’ On twitter, you say ‘who wants to have a conversation?’ That question is a lot more worthwhile to me.

    I’ve had more meaningful conversations on twitter with more people than I have in any forum or chat.


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