03 November 2009

Contrasting Twitter and Facebook updates

danah boyd has commented at length on the difference between updating your status on Twitter and Facebook. Facebook requires reciprocity. Depending on your settings, visibility of your updates is limited to people you've accepted as friends, and reciprocity limits people's ability to comment on your updates. Notwithstanding all the warnings that teenagers need about ensuring 'friends' are authentic, not exposing yourself inappropriately etc., it feels a pretty cosy world.

The stream of tweets created in Twitter is a, potentially, uni-directional presentation of self. Even your comments on others' tweets are added into your stream. Hence the emergence of 'micro-celebrities', as danah describes (maybe even nano-celebrities). This week we've heard Stephen Fry (neither micro, nor nano) complain of the aggression and unkindness on Twitter and threaten to give it up (no sign of it yet, though) (the whole rumpus is discussed at some length by John Naughton). Perhaps the license for unkindness is a symptom of the asymetry of Twitter relationships. As David Schneider points out, Stephen Fry is unlucky that he both noticed and cared what was being said about him.

You can see why Twitter, with its geek provenance, might be perceived as having a sophistication that Facebook, with roots in American college culture, does not. Twitter defenders comment that it's a tool to share their thinking with colleagues, and to follow colleagues' thinking. That sounds pretty reciprocal to me. Very different to following a celebrity of any magnitude. But that's all pre- Ashton Kutcher. Perhaps in its growth as an asymetric tool, Twitter has become a different thing; and for those using it simply to follow, lost some of its meaning, the ambient intimacy it has for its original users.

A last word on Stephen Fry, though. He is the only celeb I follow, and then I only tune in once in a while to his (or anybody's) tweets. It's true, most of them are boring but occasionally there is a gem about an event or experience I am unlikely to attend or have (weeping over Tristan and Isolde at Glyndebourne, for example). And those tweets make the others worthwhile. The boring tweets are the result, I suppose, of my not sharing any ambient intimacy, or reciprocity with Fry. No doubt his loved ones love them.

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