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.