Has Twitter Become Too Big for High-Quality Conversation?

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Twitter may scale up better as a vehicle of information than as one of conversation.

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Among the social media, Twitter, I think, is the most likely to be wrongly criticized. (Facebook I can't say enough bad things about.) The litany is familiar: I don't care what people had for breakfast, genuine thinking can't fit into 140 characters, etc. But Twitter is the one form of social media that I enjoy pretty much without reservation -- which makes me a bit concerned that, in my stream anyway, it's losing some of its zip.

I like Twitter for several reasons. I primarily use it from day to day as a guide to what's worth reading on the internet: it has largely come to be a more personal supplement to (increasingly a replacement for) my RSS feeds, with articles and posts and books not "fed" to me automatically but recommended by people I already know to be thoughtful and interesting. I also like the challenge of fitting a thought into an aphoristic frame.

And when, recently, my wife's long illness has led me to tweet a lament or two, I have gotten many warm words of encouragement from my tweeps: it's comforting to know that someone was praying for us in New Zealand, sending warm wishes from India, and lighting a candle for us in churches from Paris, France to Lake Whitney, Texas. Of course, it doesn't cost much to send a brief message of support, but when you're struggling it can mean a lot. It certainly meant a lot to me, and was a reminder of the strength of weak ties.

But in general my favorite thing about Twitter has been the unexpected and unpredictable conversations, especially but not only the funny ones. And these are happening for me far less often than they once were. I don't know why, and I wish I did.

In general, it seems to me that the people I once conversed with the most are on Twitter far less often than they used to be, but it's possible that they are just not there at the same time that I am. (Even though Twitter conversations need not be completely synchronous, they always move with more energy when people are available simultaneously.) And I even wonder whether there's not a technical problem that leads more followers to result in fewer conversations: as more people want to participate in dialogue you end up running out of room in your tweets, because the usernames count against the 140-character limit. (If you all follow one another than you can just reply to one person and everyone else will see it, but that's not always the case.)

Moreover, while in the greater scheme of things I don't have all that many followers, I have more than I can regularly exchange thoughts with: I can see how people with a good many more followers might conclude that they just can't deal with their @-replies. And as I think about this I realize that the people with whom I once conversed regularly but now rarely chat with tend to have 10,000 followers or more. Maybe those folks are warier of entering into Tweet-talk than they once were.

All of this makes me wonder whether Twitter as a vehicle of conversation doesn't scale very well. As a vehicle of information it scales marvelously, but those unexpectedly delightful interchanges I'm missing could have been enabled by the small-town character that Twitter once had for me. 

Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams seem to have had similar concerns and hopes, which led them to create Branch, a service which can be used in conjunction with Twitter in order to promote the kinds of conversations and debates that are harder to find on Twitter these days. Similar goals have gone into the design of Google Plus, with its fine-grained control over the openness of online discussions. (And some internet old-timers have never found adequate replacements for mailing lists and IRC. Why mess with a good thing?) 

Even pure Twitter alternatives like App.net might succeed at least for some people not because they can replace Twitter but because they can't. App.net, or Branch, or Google Plus might be perfect for people who have had enough of big-city life and want to retire to the slower pace of an Internet village -- or who at least want to take some vacations there from the traffic-dense metropolis of Twitter.

Lying behind each of these innovations is an unspoken, perhaps not even fully conceptualized, dream of a socal paradise: a magical land in which the most exciting and productive conversations are consistently encouraged while the forces that disrupt true dialogue are gently, silently pushed to the margins. Talk about an impossible dream! -- but it's hard to imagine one more worthy of serious pursuit, by technological means and by any others that come to hand. 

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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