Twitter these days is like that scene in Swingers. You know the one.
Jon Favreau and Ron Livingston are standing in a bar so crowded they can barely move.
Livingston: God, I can’t believe the women in this city.
Favreau: It’s like the hottest one percent from all over the world come to our gene pool.
Livingston: Darwinism at its best.
Another struggling actor, played by Alex Désert, comes by. They all briefly chit-chat about their failure to land work while looking around the room.
Favreau: Look, we’re going to this party in the hills. Some modeling agency. Beautiful babies. You want to come with?
Alex Désert: Yeah, why not? This place is dead anyway.
I thought about this after reading an article published by the Atlantic called The Decay of Twitter.
Hating on Twitter is trendy, but the sentiment put forth in this article — that the way tweets are written and contextualized has changed exponentially over the social media platform’s life-cycle — is spot on.
To briefly summarize, we once wrote and read tweets like spoken language. Unlike written language — a book or a newspaper article — our tweets were quick and chatty. Like most things spoken in passing, tweets were useless almost the minute they were said. Speech can be like that. We say a lot and yet nothing at all.
This wasn’t completely a bad thing. Being on Twitter at a certain point in time — let’s say, 2008 to 2012 — felt like being at a great party that all your friends and all your friend’s friends and all the people you wanted to be friends with, were attending. It was loose and fun, like a giant AOL chatroom with everyone in it.
But over time, things changed. The room got crowded and the flow of the conversation unwieldy. It became hard to keep up. What’s more, tweets became searchable. You were now responsible for everything you ever said, context be damned.
Suddenly, what was chatty and informal became very serious. Your tweets were your politics. Your tweets were your social stance. Your tweets were your culture. Your tweets were you.
This was good partly because in life, some people struggle to find their crowd. On Twitter, they could and still can. This is one of Twitter’s — heck, this is one of the Internet’s — greatest selling points.
And yet I think online community-building on Twitter is highly unnatural. It is a flaw built into almost all public social networks, and it’s the reason why people eventually opt out of them.
Consider the way status is derived on Twitter. Sure, there are follower counts, but there are also retweets and favorites. In fact, that is the social currency of Twitter. What you say gets either liked (favorited) or shared (retweeted).
These currencies always existed, but in Twitter’s boom years, they were not publicly-measured. There was no real gauge for how popular a person’s tweets were. So, people said things just to say them. It was pure expression. Value was not attached. Which is natural, right? You don’t get graded on every sentence you say in real life.
In the past few years, that value system has become far more important, and the nature of what is said on Twitter has changed accordingly. It is not a crowded room anymore with everyone looking to talk to each other.
Instead, it’s a crowded room with a few people standing in the center, while everyone else gets ignored.
In that way, Twitter can be the hottest club in town, but people are still going to be looking for another one. Because it doesn’t matter how many people are there. If they’re not paying attention to you, there’s only one way you’ll feel.
This place is dead anyway.