difficult to see why. Having a
conversation 140 characters at a
time is like trying to swim laps
in one of those tiny hotel swimming pools. As soon as you get
started, you hit a wall.
South Carolina Representative
Joe Wilson infamously screamed
“YOU LIE!” at Barack Obama
during his healthcare speech
to Congress in September 2009.
Whatever else you might think
about this remark, it seemed to
me a sign of the times, representing the new low our public
discourse has reached. And yet
Wilson’s outburst is exactly
the type of “dialogue” one
typically encounters on Twitter,
particularly when one person is
responding to another.
Consider Twitter’s ubiquitous
interjection, “FAIL.” These days
it seems that every one of life’s
letdowns gets the #fail treatment. Here’s an example from
@iprash on the Conan O’Brien
“Tonight Show” debacle: “Not
sure what Leno’s angle is—my
feeling is he is being pushed
around too. I think this is NBC
FAIL pure and simple.” There’s
just as little intellectual content
in saying that something “is
fail” as there is in screaming at
the president “YOU LIE!” And
how is one supposed to respond
to such one-dimensional criticisms? Is this even a conversation worth having?
Perhaps this is simply the
byproduct of what Clay Shirky
recently pointed out on edge.
org, that the “shock of inclusion,
where professional media gives
way to participation by two bil-
lion amateurs, means that aver-
age quality of public thought has
collapsed.” Beyond simply giving
the thoughtless a bullhorn, there
is certainly also a structural
reason behind Twitter’s remedial
discourse. Even when you have
otherwise intelligent people
participating, they often end
up sounding one-dimensional.
There’s only so much you can
say in 140 characters.
are more than just details. The
structure of a network has a profound impact on user behavior.
Understanding how these structures drive behavior can help us
understand and design systems
more effectively. You only need
to look at the growing outrage
over Facebook’s default settings
to understand what’s at stake
with something as seemingly
mundane as network structure.
The structure of Twitter
makes it a great platform for discovering content, finding people
who share your interests, and
getting connected with people to
whom you wouldn’t otherwise
have access. It isn’t, however, a
great place to have a conversation. But the more we use social
networks and develop a shared
vocabulary of how structural
considerations affect behavior,
the better we’ll be able to design
products, services, and networks
that create whatever kind of
conversation space we desire.
Christopher Alexander gave us
a pattern language of physical,
architectural patterns. Now it’s
time to create the digital version.
In the meantime, I’ll be clearing the spam out of my inbox,
waiting for tomorrow’s mass
emails, and hoping they have
something more to say.
None of this is intended as a
criticism of Twitter. I am a frequent (though not influential)
user of Twitter and find the service to be consistently delightful, if a bit distracting. Twitter’s
virtues are several, and foremost
among them is a refrain commonly repeated in the world
of social media: It makes relationships possible that never
would have occurred otherwise.
Nonetheless, its virtues don’t
make it a business panacea,
even though you might get that
impression from its champions.
Companies and people who
decide to give Twitter a try are
often baffled by what they find.
I’ve had several colleagues tell
me over the past year, “I gave
Twitter a try, but I just didn’t get
it.” Sure enough, Twitter’s usage
numbers tell a similar story.
(According to a recent study
by Barracuda Labs cited in The
Wall Street Journal, over a third
of registered users have never
even Tweeted [ 1].) I can’t help
but wonder if those silent users
of Twitter were disappointed
because they were expecting to
find a conversation but found
something entirely different.
As products become more
complex, designers will need to
act more like policy makers or
economists, who are concerned
with the effects of rules on
complex systems. In the world
of social networks, default settings and network structure
[ 1] Kafka, P. “Twitter’s
Wallflowers Get a
Little Less Timid. But
It’s Still a Service for
Watchers, Not Talkers.”
AbOut the AuthOr
Ben McAllister is a senior
strategist at frog design.
He works in frog’s Austin
studio, where he specializ-
es in design research and
social media. McAllister is also a musician
and songwriter with the Austin band The
Cold Hard Facts of Life. He and his wife,
Eliza, write about food and other things that
interest them at their blog, Chicken Fried
Everything. You can find him on Twitter at
September + October 2010
© 2010 ACM 1072-5220/10/0900 $10.00