In Your Words: The Value of Twitter and Facebook by J.C. Hutchins

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 give me lots of friends and games to play while I listen to your
  • 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."


On Twitter, and the Great Unfollowing of 2008 by J.C. Hutchins

So there's this fascinating service called Twitter. I won't waste time trying to describe it, except to liken it to the world's largest cocktail party. You -- and the Twitter users who "follow" you, and the people whom you "follow" -- are all assembled in one cavernous virtual ballroom, all with bullhorns, gabbing away. And the acoustics are so damned good here, you can hear every word everyone is broadcasting. It's a helluva thing. I love the service. I love the kind of instantaneous, worldwide, bite-sized communication it delivers. If you know Twitter and pause to think about what it does -- bringing people of all types into a common experience where, in 140 characters or less, they can make friends, expose themselves to new creative work, and express themselves -- it is thing worthy of awe.

The brilliance of Twitter is that it is "opt-in" all the way: You choose which people you want to "follow" -- their communiques will be visable to you in your "tweetstream". If you're blessed enough to have people interested in "following" you and what you have to say, you can follow them back.

Following the natural logic, the worst-case Twitter scenario is that you have no followers, and you tweet into a void. Best-case scenario: You (and your friends) are awash in a stream of communication, back-and-forthing with conversation. It's a hoot.

I was an early adopter of Twitter; my memory's foggy here, but I believe I signed up for the free service before it became a monster meme at South By Southwest 2007. Not much was happening there at the time ... but the thing caught on, friends came, chatter blossomed. The great Following began.

This was a good thing. It further lowered the barriers of communication between creative people. It was a far more direct avenue between me (a new media entertainer) and the folks who dig my work. It empowered me to talk "directly" to fans and vice-versa. Twitter is more immediate than email, and more convenient than messaging on Myspace/Facebook, or commenting on a blog. (In fact, I think Twitter is killing the art of blog commenting, but that's the subject of another post.) Combine these facts with the understanding that on Twitter, everyone has deservedly equal conversational footing, and you have a mighty powerful form of free, nearly instantaneous communication.

During my first year of using Twitter, there was -- and to a degree, still is -- a pervasive popular philosophy of "Twitter karma." The gist: If someone has put forth the effort and interest to follow you on Twitter, you respectfully return the favor. (There's even a clever Twitter Karma service that allows you to manage such "following," and a recent Twitter quasi-competitor called Plurk that incorporates this karma concept into its service.) It makes good sense, engenders goodwill and reciprocity, and levels the communication playing field. Accessibility is in. Gated community, begone.

I, like a great many folks on Twitter, followed everyone back. I benefitted from the relationships, made new friends, was exposed to brilliant creators, bloggers and fans. Twitter changed my life. It opened my eyes to a landscape of new media beyond the "ghetto" of podcasting (I do not use this word disparagingly; see this post for a better understanding), and has connected me to people whose work I admire beyond words.

And then more Twitter followers came. And more. At the time of this writing, I have more than 1,800 followers. This number is a drop in the bucket for more popular entertainers, but it's significant, at least to me.

I continued to apply my personal rules of reciprocity and karma to Twitter, and followed a great many of these folks. Conversation thrived.

And as the months went on, more came. And more. And more.

Perhaps it's my history with Twitter -- and the memories of those early months when Twitter didn't just feel like a small secret community, but by God, it was one -- that influenced the way I've begun to recently view it. When you follow around 1,500 people and a great many of them are not connected to one another (but are connected to you), you are exposed to a flood of mostly-unrelated messages. There is no cohesion. Communication is happening, but it's impossible to follow. The guest list of the world's largest cocktail party has grown so large -- and everyone's voices can still be heard -- that the result, for me, was a cocophany.

I hate myself for saying this, but it became noise.

Am I suggesting that the things people are saying now are any less significant than they were saying last year? Absolutely not. Perhaps there's even more significance to what pours into the tweetstream these days, since its growing user base is using the service in more creative ways than ever. (Folks are tweeting fiction; they're also using it as a platform to promote products or new creative endeavors. I do this relentlessly on Twitter.)

No, I'm saying that my personal experience began to sour. The messages being transmitted to my Twitterfic Twitter reader became too numerous to read, much less understand. The mostly-geniune and mostly-important conversation became an incomprehensible squall.

There are ways to cut through the noise -- I call them Twitter "dog whistles" -- and they come in the form of "@" replies (which show up in the public tweetstream) and "DMs" (direct messages, which only transmit to the intended recipient). These messages show up in special places on the Twitter site, or are are given special highlighted prominence in Twitter readers such as Twitterific. I enjoy receiving these messages, as they rise above the din and more easily get my attention. When appropriate, I reply in kind.

I hate admitting this, but for much of 2008, I've mostly been reading the "@" and "DM" messages directed at me, and not the unfolding conversation in the public 'stream. The Twitter service may be scalable, but my attention couldn't keep up. I began to hate the noise, and felt guilty for hating it.

There are tremendously talented folks in the space who manage Twitter accounts with thousands upon thousands of followers, and follow these folks back. I presume that either their attention is more scalable than mine, or they perceive and use Twitter differently than me.

There are also folks who have thousands upon thousands of followers, but rarely follow them back. For many a moon, I considered these brilliant creators -- Wil Wheaton, Warren Ellis and Xeni Jardin to name a few -- to be hypocrites. What, you'll use this thing to communicate with fans, but you won't connect with them on the level that Twitter was built for? I thought. You'll stand atop your mountain and evangelize your cause, but won't let people into your Ivory Tower? What bullshit.

But now I get it. It's the noise, man. It's all the fucking noise. If you can't parse the communication, you can't participate in the conversation in any useful, meaningful, way. To me, that defeats the philosophical intent of Twitter ... or at least, the philosophy I project upon it.

And so, today, I conducted The Great Unfollowing. I examined the list of the nearly 1,500 people I was following, did some voodoo emotional math (which I won't share here), and removed most of them from my "following" list. It was draconian. It was a slaughter.

I am now following less than 200 people. I am certain this decision has hurt some feelings, but I've best explained how I came to it, and why it was important to me to follow through with it.

Have I become one of the social media starfucker hipocrites I spent months sneering at? Yes. Have I removed myself from hundreds of lively conversations? Yes. Do I feel like an asshole, particularly since I've built a reputation for being a very down-to-earth, accessible entertainer? Yes.

Do I think that, given my awe for this service and things I love most about it, this was a necessary deed, a "red phone" option that would rejuvenate my interest and enjoyment of Twitter? Yes.

I've said on numerous occasions that Twitter is an ephemeral thing; its experience is as varied as the people using it. I'm changing how I use Twitter, so I can better experience it.

Interestingly, The Great Unfollowing doesn't mean I'm any less accessible. Folks can still send me "@" replies (which I always appreciate, and repsond to, when appropriate), and thanks to Twitter's robust search function, I recieve aggregated RSS reports of relevant tweets about me and my work. When appropriate, I reply to these tweets, too.

Jaded Twitter veterans -- or less naive users -- probably see this post as the confession of a noob. Others might read it as the manifesto of a philosophical sellout. I'm neither of these things. I simply realized that the cocktail party was now too popular and spectacular for me to fully appreciate. I am still tremendously grateful to the 1,800+ people who follow me, and understand how blessed I am to have people interested in what I have to say.

I'm still at the shindig, just chillin' a little further from the bar and dance floor these days. Shout my name, though, and I'll probably bound over like a happy puppy.

We'll put down our bullhorns and talk for a while.


Continuing The Conversation by J.C. Hutchins

If you've ever:

  • visited a blog and left a comment ...
  • listened to a podcast and emailed its host ...
  • wrote on someone's Facebook wall, "friended" someone on MySpace, or posted an update on Twitter or Pownce ...
  • sent an email, SMS, or instant message to your friends about darned-near anything ...

... then you've participating in what social media leaders call "the conversation." "The conversation" is this, this here, the wild frontier where community transcends geography, and ideas are exchanged at the speed of a mouse-click. Life-changing stuff.

I'll be writing about my experiences in this world in the 2008 edition of The Age of Conversation, a book whose creative philosophy can be likened to the Open Media movement. It's a brilliant concept. There is no one author. Dozens and dozens of bloggers will participate in its creation.

The best part? You can participate, too. Visit editor Drew McLellan's site to vote on this year's The Age of Conversation book topic ... and if you like, sign up as a contributing author, like I did. It doesn't get more democratic -- or conversational -- than that.