In Your Words: The Value of Twitter and Facebook

My ladyfriend and I are Facebook users. Last night, we discussed the latest kerfuffle regarding Facebook's recent changes to its privacy policy. While we disagreed on a few items -- I suggested that Facebook should be a protective custodian of users' privacy; my lady was less concerned, as she rightly knows that anything posted on the web isn't truly "private" at all -- we did agree that Facebook is the telephone of the Internet ... the increasingly-ubiquitous platform through which most online folk communicate.

I haven't changed my Facebook privacy settings (and wouldn't know where to look if I wanted to), but the conversation got me thinking about what online users are willing to exchange for communication. In the instance of Facebook, they're willing to funnel tons of keyword-packed personal information into their profile, and onto the Walls of their friends, to efficiently share their lives online. In exchange, they're bombarded by targeted advertising ... and their profile data (and the data of their friends) may be slurped up by Facebook application developers.

Is that exchange an equitable one? 400 million monthly users seem to think so. These days, I'm uncertain. Does the enjoyment and value I receive from my Facebook experience outweigh the expense (measured in my time on the site, and the "personality" data points Facebook and others may be collecting about me)? I'm on the fence, mostly because I like online conversations as much as the next social media nerd.

This spun my mind toward Twitter. While Twitter doesn't yet have a robust ad-targeting engine in place, it most certainly will. Combine that with the disconnect I've felt on that social network for years now -- namely, that most of the news and tweets I read these days don't deliver a proportionate amount of value when compared to the time I spend there -- and I've found myself eking toward a fence-sitting position about Twitter, as well.

I've considered killing both accounts and moving on -- not to the Next Big Social Media WhatTheHellEver, but completely out of the online sharing space. Do people really care what I think, or what I'm eating? They shouldn't. There's nothing remarkable about my life, other than the fact that I share it -- which leads to remarks from others. Any Facebooker or Twitterer can tell you: when you stop posting on these networks -- when you stop contributing to the Conversation Engine -- people don't make an effort to engage you. Out of sight, out of mind ... and that's just fine.

I liken it to being at a groovy house party. You bumble in, partake of the festivities, and split. Are people going to gush about you after you left? Unlikely.

Anyways. That's the intellectual climate my brain's been in lately regarding social media super-sharing sites. The core question I'm asking myself is: Does this stuff add value to my life?

Only I can answer that question for myself ... and to be clear, my Facebook and Twitter experience is probably very different from yours. (For instance: I've been on both networks for years, used them as promotional platforms, and have thousands of followers/friends in both. This makes things fairly noisy.) But this morning, I was interested to see what you had to say. And so I posed this question on both networks:

Can you describe the true value that Twitter and Facebook add to your lives? I'm curious to know what you think.

Here's what you said. I provide these without judgment (or editing). My personal thoughts follow.

What You Said On Twitter

  • Absolutely zero.
  • It allows me to share the small nuggests of wit and wisdom I have with others, along with what I'm having for lunch.
  • FB has led to keeping in better contact with my family in the UK.
  • Facebook provides connections to time-lost friends; Twitter provides me realtime contact and sense of community.
  • Facebook is a way for me to keep track of what's going on with friends and family in a big picture way.
  • Twitter is more of an extended chat room and news/information source.
  • Facebook adds zero value. Twitter helps keep me informed, instantly, like a well-balanced news ticker.
  • With Twitter, I get to know when others are taking a dump, or stuck in traffic, or bored, or have a 1/2 price sale on.
  • Until my bros and I got FB we'd talk maybe every other month. Now we're up to date on each other daily.
  • Being able to be connected much more often to people I'd otherwise surely have fallen out of touch with by now.
  • Community. Real friendships even in virtual space. My social networking is more social, and less networking but tangible.
  • FB and TW intro'd people that I would have never come across and built friendships while seeing what work they were doing.
  • FB also reminds me of what high school was like and why I don't miss it...
  • I'd have to say community and conversation with real friends I wouldn't have the chance to know any other way.
  • When I worked a day job, there was a water cooler. Now that I work at home, Twitter is my water cooler.
  • T: points things out that I would probably have missed (e.g., 7th son podcast). F: Allows me to keep in touch without snail mail
  • I've learned so much just by reading ppl's blogs & news feeds, & I'm more entertained than ever before.
  • Twitter is useful & entertaining. Facebook is difficult to use & seriously un-fun.
  • FB/Twitter allow me to delude myself that I have some friends
  • I use Facebook to share pictures (mostly of my 2 year old) w/ all my friends, and stay connected w/ ones I don't see often
  • Twitter allows me to communicate without the draining quagmire of a blog which demands more than I'm willing to give.
  • Twitter has been great for getting to know and interact w/ all the podcast authors I've come to know and respect, and find more.
  • Twitter is the way I communicate with ppl & learn 'bout cool stuff. I only have Facebook because of friends & family.
  • It makes talking with my friends easier. It's very passive. Very easy to check when convenient.
  • I'd be heartbroken if all my Twitter folk moved to Facebook. I'd be overjoyed if all my Facebook ppl moved to Twitter.
  • Twitter helps me keep up with important people whom I can't see every day. It's easy and fast so we actually use it!
  • Facebook adds pointless frustration when I feel like I don't have enough od that. Twitter lets me keep up with cool people who are interested in the same stuff I am. I've never seen value in networking, but friendships are awesome.
  • No Value what so ever. Just purily for my amusment or at time aggrevation
  • Facebook is a fucking shit pickle! Twitter is great for news & such.
  • twitter keeps me in touch with you and other favorite writer/podcasters
  • keeps me updated on very direct information and news from people

What You Said On Facebook

  • twitter became too commercial so I quit it. Face book and Pogo.com give me lots of friends and games to play while I listen to your podiobooks.com
  • Twitter allows me to stay in contact with friends around the globe. That is the biggest win for me. Facebook....well that one is still being figured out from the personal side, but doing plenty of work for clients here.
  • Facebook allows me to keep in touch with some friends I don't get to see often, and a couple times I have used it to get groups of people together for a cause or coordinate something. Other than that, I believe I could be perfectly happy without it.
  • I don't NEED either of them really, My twitter account is so overloaded, I'm sorting through it trying to make sense of it, I think I'll stop following so many people dunno. Facebook is nice to have for me, because I've been able to reconnect with friends I haven't seen or heard from in years.
  • I agree, I'd probably be much happier without it. I spend far too much "idle" time on it, wasted creativity time. My own fault, I could just stop logging in... The few people from my past that I've reconnected with have been fun to e-reminisce with but I won't be disappointed when FB goes the way of MySpace and becomes unusable.
  • FB allows me not to do any thing else sit here sucking my time away but I can't to brake free from the force!
  • To add to what I said before Facebook also helps me stay connected with a friend, when both of us aren't the most comfortable as far as the phone goes, I just never have been, and you know who she is too J.C. :) On the other hand, I do waste time on Facebook and so many of the apps are stupid and annoying. I liked it better without apps.
  • it's great....i'm in contact with old friends and conversing with people i would not have had the opportunity before....people like J.C. HUTCHINS author of 7TH SON (GREAT FRIGGIN' STORY)
  • Another thing I forgot: Facebook allows me to learn things about friends I never knew or never wanted to know, to pry into other peoples' lives, and to make assumptions about friends by learning about only a small piece of the big picture.
  • Mainly access to people that I would never have otherwise been able to contact and befriend.
  • Facebook gave me what I've always wanted, the ability to read people's minds.
  • hey give me the opportunity to shoot random thoughts into space and actually get responses to them, they allow me to stay in daily contact with people I never get to see, and they help me to discover and be in contact with other great creatives who inspire me to keep writing.
  • I hate talking on the phone, but this way I can keep track of people's lives whether directly or indirectly.
  • Twitter is just a distraction. It's not so useful to me. Facebook, however, keeps me connected with my friends all over the country and here in town. I hate talking on the phone, but I could type back and forth all day long. It's also great for planning get-togethers and inviting people to my choral concerts.
  • I've moved a lot in my life and lost contact with many friends, in spite of all the promises to "keep in touch".
  • Facebook has reconnected me with them and it's been wonderful. I don't have to email everyone separately to keep up with day to day things that aren't really important enough to email, but are nice to know. My mom has stopped complaining about how I never call, since she can follow me on FB. Without FB, I would feel much more disconnected from my friends who live all over the country. Twitter, on the other hand, moves too fast for me to keep up and it's too hard to go back and see something you missed. I don't use it as much.
  • Twitter: even the mere concept strikes me as a total waste of time. Refuse to get account or visit the site. Facebook: More of a source of pain to me. It's good to hear from old friends, colleagues, and the like, and now I get to see about 95 percent of them are more accomplished than myself.
  • Facebook: last week, I reconnected with people I went to Kindergarten with and learned that a friend I haven't seen in 20 years now takes her daughters swimming at the house I grew up in (and introduced me to the family that lives there now and we've shared stories). That's pretty awesome. Twitter: Reminds me of Prodigy chat rooms in the early 90's, which fostered tight groups who chatted among themselves regularly. I made friends there, that I still have. I don't have time to "hang out" with people much, but I am never lonely with all the people I talk to on Twitter.
  • Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with people I grew up with and lost touch with over the years, I have found people that I havent seen since I was in greade school. Pretty exciting to be able to reconnect.

What I Think

In last night's conversation, I concluded that nearly all of the tweets and Wall posts people make are meaningless and valueless. I don't mean this critically -- I mean precisely what I say: these online "blips," as personal as they may be, often have no resonant meaning for me, and therefore have no value. I don't get the rant-tweets, could care less about what many people are shilling, and can often be stymied by messages folks personally send to me.

(I assume most folks have similar apathy about my own rant-tweets, shillfests and "@" messages.)

The most valuable commodity we have as communicators is context. Context anchors our minds, and the minds of the people with whom we speak. And yet Twitter and Facebook often represent a context-less medium -- tools that can be used by anyone to express anything they wish, in any way they wish. Users are not obligated to provide context for what they post online, nor should they be.

This ultimate freedom of expression often results in tweets or posts that have no meaningful context to anyone other than the person who posted it: a rogue rant (the source of which isn't identified) ... a gripe about someone's behavior (without identifying the offending party) ... a statement that they're having a great day (without explaining why) ... etc.

Because of this, I've lately leaned toward the conclusion that Twitter and Facebook do not reflect a meaningful, truly accurate representation of a person's life. Its limitations -- and the choices users make on what to share and when to share it (and their own limitations on how they can express it -- vocabulary, thoughtfulness, etc.) -- cannot possibly accurately present a person's state of mind. And yet, this is precisely what so many social media users assume. That's a road that leads to unreasonable emotional investments in the self-curated projection of a person -- what that person chooses to share with his/her public and global audience -- and not what could be described as a "true" real-life reflection.

Those who embrace these networks with True Believer abandon -- with a relish that makes these sites not tools but a lifestyle -- are at risk of perceiving people, events and communities through an inaccurate lens. Of course, this risk exists for zealotry in any form, for all politics, products and people.

I am increasingly realizing that meaningful conversations rarely occur in such preposterous spaces. These are context-less, flawed means of communication where knee-jerk reactions abound -- and in-depth exchanges are nigh-impossible. It appears, based on my personal experience, that the most resonant, relevant communications occur where it's always occurred: in the back-channel, via email and private messages. If that's true, why are we investing so much time and effort creating and consuming endless streams of 140-character personality "blips"?

The question is rhetorical, as I don't have the answer. And it does not mean that Facebook and Twitter are completely without value -- nearly all of your comments clearly illustrated that Twitter and Facebook resonate emotionally, and provide terrific opportunities to share, interact and make friends.

I'm suspect my feelings about Twitter's and Facebook's value -- and my thoughts regarding the billions of bits that are piped into those spaces -- contribute nothing new to the topic. But in light of my recent decisions to retire from the social media creator space, and the distance I've deliberately placed between myself and these online networks, I thought it might be illuminating to share them.

As with any communication tool, we get what we give. If we manage our expectations -- and pipe out positivity, meaning and value -- we'll most certainly receive it in kind. Or as one of my Facebook pals said in her reply to my question:

"These sites can be what you want them to be -- they don't have to be giant commercials (you can turn that off), or outlets for spam, or giant time sucks. Make the tools work for you -- not the other way around -- and you might find something to like about them. That said, you shouldn't feel societally required to engage in social networking just because 'everyone does it,' because plenty of people -- don't."

--J.C.