Why Twitter Is Amazing
“I’ve got better things to do than broadcast a message to the world about my lunch.”
An uncountable number of people have said this or something similar to me about Twitter. I’ve stopped responding. It’s the same kind of faux snobbery that causes people to look down on Facebook, YouTube, Angry Birds, smartphones and the whole of digital life generally.
Of course, these days, hardly anyone puts down the Internet in total, but this was common 10 years ago. Today, it is more common to put down popular applications of one sort or another, always with the message that my time is too valuable, I’m too serious for this kids’ stuff, I don’t go for the superficial fripperies that have enchanted Generation Mindless.
I’ve already discussed Facebook, LinkedIn and Pandora, and why their popularity is not only justified, but they have also made gigantic contributions to human well-being. They all use the power of individual volition and the self-organizing dynamic of free association to offer services, methods of learning and means of connecting with others that break through barriers that have existed since the beginning of time.
Let’s take on Twitter, the service that people love to hate the most. Among the nonusers, the word alone is almost always said with a sneer. It is the most transparently easy of all the popular social applications, but also the hardest one to integrate into your life if you are not already part of a set people using it.
Adults sign up to it and then sit and stare at it. Having no followers and following no one, the thing looks and feels as dead as Marley’s ghost. Of course, you could always send out news of the sandwich you ate for lunch, but what’s the point? In this sense, Facebook provides that much-more-immediate satisfaction that adults (ironically) demand from websites. Twitter is an application that has to be built by you.
But consider… when the unemployment numbers come out, I usually get an email from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This most recent time, even before that email arrived, I knew the numbers before. I knew the grim truth behind the numbers. I had a sense of how several major newspapers were spinning the numbers. I had access to charts that were being posted, showing how labor trends interact with other trends. And I was able to react to the news myself by reposting what I appreciated and then adding my own thoughts. Then, finally, the email arrived from the Bureau.
This is an example of an everyday use of Twitter. But it is only one of an infinite number of possible uses. And once you start and get the hang of it, downloading the app and following things you care about, you begin to realize something absolutely astonishing about this seemingly superficial thing. Twitter has radically individuated, democratized and universalized the consumption and production of all forms of information, turning the whole world into a customizable communications bazaar like no generation in history has ever seen.
This customizability is what gives rise to the caricatures of the tweeter as a superficial twit, wasting time blabbing on about nothing to other similar types. But when you see people in revolutionary political situations organizing themselves, using tweets and evading the boot of the dictator by using Twitter to communicate, strategize and outmaneuver the most-powerful armies, it should make you stop and think.
As a means of producing of information, every user has potentially the same influence as every other user. The only possible difference concerns the number of followers you have (I have 700, while Lady Gaga has 20 million), but even that is not really a final determinant, since every message can be re-tweeted and a message sent to one person can turn into a message sent to 140 million people in a split second.
What this means that is The New York Times and White House have exactly the same technical power to influence as the person who just took my order for beer at the pizza shop. The difference in the reach of messages is entirely determined by other users of Twitter, thus resulting in a crazy meritocracy of distribution.
As a means of consuming information, you have access to the instant thoughts of every star, mogul, institution, official or whomever and to the exact same extent as the big-time reporters or other institutions. And it turns out that people like Lady Gaga really like this. Every public figure does, except perhaps the dictators threatened most by this powerful means of instantaneous truth telling.
Currently, Twitter is handling 1.6 billion search queries per day and being used to send some 340 million tweets in the same period. It’s consistently in the top 10 most-popular websites. The service is offered to every person on the planet at no charge. The revenue model is to charge companies for promoted tweets in search results, as well as to charge large Internet companies for the use of applications that display Twitter feeds on their websites.
There’s a rude awakening, however, for anyone who thinks he or she can jump onto Twitter and make a splash. You cannot invite others to follow you. People have to reach out to you, and therefore, in this sense, Twitter can be a more-difficult nut to crack than Facebook.
Your first step should be to follow institutions or people you care about. They will be notified that you have followed them. One hopes, then, that they will respond by following you, but there is no way to make them do so. If you seek followers, your best approach is to find someone who is already deeply embedded in this world to recommend you to their followers. But even then, it is a long haul to get to the point that you have a substantial number of people caring about what you are saying.
Why should you bother at all? There might be someone who has no interest in what anyone has to say and also has nothing to say himself, and plans to maintain this attitude from now until death. That person has no use for Twitter. For everyone else, it is great source for acquiring and relaying information on anything and everything, and therefore, there are few people on the planet who would not benefit.
For career builders, a war chest of Twitter followers is part of the personal capital that you accumulate and carry with you wherever you happen to live or work. In this sense, this can be an essential part of your freedom and personal empowerment. It reduces your reliance on institutions and helps you gain control of your life.
For public personalities, it is obviously rather indispensable. But the same is true for any business. If you assemble followers (I love to follow businesses!), you can immediately reach them with special deals and announcements and do so at zero cost. What could be better than that?
For any individual, there are always times when you need others and it becomes important to get information to them. You might be in danger. You might have amazing news. You might need to send for help. In those times, you will be glad that you have prepared by assembling a valuable network of people who care whether you live or die. Certainly, the state doesn’t much care, so it is up to us to form associations that do.
This is why I’m most interested in Twitter, in its uses of building a global movement for human liberty against the despotism of the state in every nation. Twitter disregards borders. It disregards states and their pretensions. It follows no one’s plan. It obeys no authority. It proves the capacity of free people to be self-ordering.
It enables individuals to be self-governing units with an important element of empowerment in their hands: the ability for one person to reach the globe in any instant in time with the most-valuable commodity in existence — namely, information.
That’s why Twitter is amazing.