Tweet Quality

April 4th, 2009

As Twitter becomes more and more popular, the quality of tweets (Twitter updates) seems to be taking a dive. I attribute this to a couple side effects of the relentless population rise:

  1. An increase in conversational, challenging, and defensive tweets.
  2. The use of tweets to mass-distribute unoriginal ideas and propaganda.

Conversational Tweets

I wasn’t among the earliest adopters of Twitter, but I’ve been a member long enough to remember the days when you were more or less likely to know everybody you followed, and vice-versa. In this environment, Twitter’s concept of a “reply tweet” was ideal, facilitating a mix of public statements and conversation among friends.

As the Twitter ranks grew, it became more common to stumble upon people we don’t know, but whose work we admire, or whose thoughts are original and worth reading. I follow a number of people whose reputation is well known to me, and they have no idea who I am. This is fine, because I am getting something of value from their tweets, while my quiet observation is generally of no bother to them.

But Twitter’s egalitarian implementation of reply tweets allows responses to tweets even from somebody you don’t follow. This has many positive effects, because a genuinely helpful or insightful person can respond intelligently to a tweet, and have a fair amount of confidence that the original author will receive their feedback. In short, Twitter replies enable the masses come to your aid, sing your praises, or perhaps less conveniently, to call you on your bullshit.

Calling bullshit can be a useful service, but on the internet it tends to become a pathological blood sport. Some members of internet society become so invigorated by the opportunity to prove somebody wrong, that they’ll stop at nothing to quench their thirst for victory. They stretch facts, bend logic, and insinuate false intentions for the chance at glory. The chance to prove you wrong on Twitter.

So here we have a system on which millions of users stake their personal reputation, and where some significant percentage of users makes a pathological game of trying to assassinate those reputations. The more followers you have, the greater the number of idea assassins you have at your quite unfortunate beck and call. When even the most innocuous of statements invites pointless scrutiny, the original author is bound to get defensive. This leads to an unfortunate and noisy interchange that looks something like this:

  • MacLover: Man, these new MacBooks looks awesome, but I don’t think I can buy one unless they put Firewire ports back on them.
  • Apple4Ever: @MacLover If you hate Macs, you should just buy a PC. There’s no point in complaining about it. Just buy a PC if that’s what you want.
  • MacLover: @Apple4Ever What are you talking about? My freaking name is MacLover. Of course I love Macs. I was just making an observation about the new
  • MacLover: @Apple4Ever MacBooks, they’re sooo close to being perfect. I wish they would make a MacBook that is as fine-tuned as the old PowerBook 12″.
  • Apple4Ever: So buy a PowerBook 12″.
  • * MacLover Head Asplode *

This conversation is agonizing enough for the people involved, but the poor followers of MacLover and Apple4Ever had to follow along, utterly disinterested (unless they turned on “Only show me @replies to people I follow,” which can be a good idea). In this scenario, Apple4Ever is assassinating MacLover’s ideas, scraping the bottom of the barrel for any controversy that could possibly lure MacLover into a personal dialogue.

People in MacLover’s position would do well to ignore such bait, but it’s not always clear cut. The 140 character limit in Twitter makes it difficult to completely express a thought without ambiguity. Conversational moods such as sarcasm and irony are hard to convey, and the audience is filled with people who are chronically deaf to such tones.

So Twitter is filled with people who care that their thoughts be expressed with accuracy and meaning. And it’s also filled with people who, because of boredom or lack of attention, are hell-bent on causing rifts that invite confrontational interchange. This is a recipe for lots of misunderstandings and escalating hostility. It sucks, man.

To improve the quality of conversational tweets, I propose a little more consideration on both sides of such conversations:

  1. To the would-be idea assassin: take a step back and examine the tweet you’re responding to. Does it actually say what you’re alleging it says? Are you making a leap of logic to start an argument, just because you’re in the mood for a debate?
  2. To the would-be defensive tweeter: breathe. The person egging you on is one drop in a puddle next to a lake abutting an ocean. Their provocative tweet is only visible to you and some subset of their followers. Chances are, most people will never see it.

I’d like to think I’m never the idea assassin myself, but I am sure we all have the tendency sometimes. As for the defensive tweeting, I’m positive that I do it to a fault. So I’ll be trying especially hard to take my own advice #2 above.

Tweet Propaganda

Twitter connects a hell of a lot of people. The idea that a simple viral tweet message could prompt others to act in a manner that itself perpetuated further tweets, is irresistible to commercial marketers and internet stuntmen. The simplest form of viral propaganda on Twitter is the simple word-of-mouth repetition of ideas in an author’s own voice. I wrote about Word Of Tweet Marketing just over a year ago, after being impressed by the growing impact Twitter was having on my own company’s sales and reputation.

As people recognize the power of word-of-mouth dissipation, it becomes tempting to spread every good idea that comes along. Every funny joke. Every classic YouTube video. Every friend worth following. Since people are lazy, and rephrasing an idea in one’s own voice takes time, the phenomenon of the “retweet” emerged. People annotate a tweet with “RT @whoever”, implying that the contents are being more or less repeated verbatim. Great for the spread of ideas, terrible for the individual personality of a Twitter account.

But even a retweet involves some personal involvement by the account owner. More and more, we’re seeing examples of tweet propaganda where the contents of the tweet are entirely machine made. A classic example occurred a few weeks ago, when a steady flow of “Don’t click this URL” messages began pouring into peoples’ tweets.

The gist of this prank was that clicking the URL took you to a page where, if you clicked another URL after being warned not to, it would submit a tweet to Twitter under your logged in account name. A classic example of the power of reverse psychology.

There was no financial gain for the perpetrators of this idea virus. Just the satisfaction of Twitter being virtually painted, for a few hours, with identical tweets from thousands of different accounts. People who fell for the trick were embarrassed and apologetic, recognizing that the tweet was not only of no value to their followers, but also posed the risk of snaring them into the same gag.

In other cases, the propaganda is voluntarily added to a person’s twitter stream. Some vanity services, for example, will do an analysis of your twitter account and tweet the results with your permission. Often, the permission is thinly veiled or questionable, and users end up apologizing that they “didn’t realize it was going to tweet that.”

Tweet propaganda is still young, and people are still grappling with where to draw the line. By engaging in a viral process of any kind on Twitter, you’re trading your originality to be part of a larger scheme. Depending on the terms of the scheme, it could be beneficial to you and your followers, or it could be annoying and embarrassing.

Just a few days ago, a controversial form of tweet propaganda came by way of the MacHeist promotion. Their so-called TweetBlast rewards buyers of their bargain software bundle with extra software if they agree to let their Twitter account be used to promote the bundle. If you follow more than a few Mac users, you’ve no doubt seen the tweets by now:

One of the nice things people like to do is share information about great deals. This makes viral marketing a natural avenue for sales and bargain discounts. But there’s a distinction between a person, writing in their own voice to endorse a sale, and a mechanized robot puking thousands of tweets into the system on behalf of users looking for a freebie.

Michael Lopp recently wrote about The Art Of The Tweet, and touched upon something that I think is important and appropriate for this discussion. In a section titled “Add a Bit of Yourself”, he discourages the excessive use of re-tweeting, and opens with a bold rationale for this discipline: Twitter is you.

More Of You, Less Of Them

Ultimately, the quality of tweets is closely related to how much of you there is in them. When you forfeit your individuality to a commercial promotion, or to the vain attempt to either defend your own honor or assassinate somebody else’s, you compromise your own tweet quality.

Whenever anybody complains about some aspect of Twitter, a fair number of people like to respond reflexively: “If you don’t like something, don’t follow them.” This advice is fine, but apply it to the other fine things in life, and you quickly find that it leads to stasis, a situation where the state of the art does not advance for lack of iteration and refinement. If nobody reviews and offers opinions on books, movies, fine arts, poetry, etc., then they are all liable to degrade in quality over time.

My intentions in being critical of Twitter and the state of declining tweet quality is not to bask in my own whining or seek consolation or apology. I honestly think that by rethinking the situation, we’ll decide what kinds of tweets are of best service to us all.

Certainly, different subsets of Twitter will have differing standards. There is room enough in Twitter for all attitudes and priorites, but I’ll be filling my follow list with the people who put the “you” into Twitter.

28 Responses to “Tweet Quality”

  1. hawkman Says:

    Great post. Sadly, it often seems that a mainstream audience reduces the quality of a service – Facebook was once useful, and presumably even things like MySpace once had a point to them. Twitter is just another victim. Somehow with more people, you end up knowing fewer.

    Seems like your first point, about Twitter’s enforced equality among responses, ties into the blog comments debate that got some air recently. Only wanting to hear from people you know, or people influential enough to get your attention, can turn things into (excuse the expression) a complete circlejerk – but with no way to filter based on quality of contribution maybe it’s understandable. Thanks for allowing comments, by the way.

    Marketing entering Twitter is horrible, but I still took part in the MacHeist thing (although I immediately deleted the tweet). I weighed up annoying my friends and getting free stuff, and made my decision. What does that say about me? :-/

  2. Mike Abdullah Says:

    I believe “Only show me @replies to people I follow” is the default setting (pretty certain I never changed it!). Perhaps the default setting was different when you joined though?

    I consider this a pretty good thing as I believe it’s the desired behaviour for most people, and as you noted above, stops most people having to witness a pointless flamewar.

  3. Riccardo Mori Says:

    Very nice and agreeable post, Daniel. I’ve been on Twitter for a little more than a year and have recently given it a second chance because I think I may have started with the wrong attitude the first time around. I absolutely loathe the same things you pointed out, and viral marketing via Twitter just irks me. If I notice that a follower is just a spammer or an ‘empty account’ shooting nothing more than URLs around, I block it. I want my followers to be real people, people for whom I’m not a number or a possible marketing target.

    Lopp has written quite interesting posts about Twitter, and I do agree that our Twitter space is like a house. And, like what happens in any good neighbourhood, I believe every one has to keep the place clean. I try to do my little part :)

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,
    Rick

  4. Jonathan Says:

    Very interesting and insightful observation on how people are using Twitter. Nice post. Thanks!

  5. Scott P. Richert Says:

    Playing the devil’s advocate here. I agree with the gist of your post, Daniel, though I do retweet a few times per day and I also participated in the MacHeist TweetBlast.

    But in the past week, you’ve criticized (as you have in the past) those who don’t have comments enabled on their blogs. But many of the most prominent people who don’t have comments enabled on their blogs have publicly stated that a primary reason they don’t is because of the prevalence of (as you put it) “idea assassins” and their own tendency to engage in defensive replies.

    So, in other words, they want to avoid the very things that you’re criticizing about Twitter. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how you reconcile your position on blog comments with this post on Twitter.

  6. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Hi Scott – to answer your question about comments and the vulnerability to idea assassins, I would just stress that even though there is a risk, I don’t think the associated problems outweigh the overall value of an open community where voices can be heard.

    There are checks in place on Twitter to curb the blatant abuse of @replies. I have had to block a person here or there because the weight of their incessant replies become too much for me.

    On my blog here, I’ve been pretty lucky over the years to have predominantly thoughtful and polite comments. But occasionally I have been forced to the same kinds of quality control here, where after warning a particularly unruly user, I will delete their continued abusive comments.

  7. DDA Says:

    Given that you are critical of MacHeist, in general, I’m not surprised you disliked the TweetBlast. But I do have to say that this: (https://twitter.com/danielpunkass/statuses/1447484920) seems quite a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

  8. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    DDA: I made a joke page, and I thought it was funny. So I linked to it from my Twitter account. The joke page wraps and references my software company’s home page.

    Every single thing about that Twitter message, the link it takes you to, and the content it presents, is personal and related to me. It’s quintessentially appropriate to my twitter account.

    I think it’s a stretch to compare that to a user giving a third party permission to populate the tweet stream with their information.

  9. Idea Assassin :) Says:

    Us Usenet people read things like this with mild amusement. First blogs, now Twitter. It’s funny how people think there is something new about any of this, that all of these issues weren’t coming up in the ’80s, that other people didn’t already work through them and even solve most of the problems.

    Everything you’re grappling with here is not only familiar, it’s routine, it’s been a part of online existence since before anyone even knew what the “Internet” was. People have been there, done that, worked it out, and stopped really even worrying about it years ago.

    I still don’t understand why Twitter isn’t stupid, but it seems that community might take the route the bloggers failed to take, and learn something from those who came before them.

  10. ronnie Says:

    Good post. This topic synchronises for me. I only connected with Twitter & Facebook recently and just yesterday thought I’d cancelled the facebook account. No way. Nothing happens to the page, no auto update from facebook itself, so I get irate private emails from friends who think I’ve individually cut them off.

    The whole scene feels like a spiderweb to me now. You get easily stuck in but you can’t easily get out again, which to who’s running these shows is the point I guess.

  11. Jonathan Wight Says:

    You propose a little more consideration amongst semi-anonymous internet folks?

    That’s adorable!

    ;-)

  12. Jonathan Wight Says:

    The thing is – twitter seems to be whatever you want it to be. Some people are using it to communicate with their customers, some to connect with their peers, some are using it as a colossal marketing tool, some just to goof off, etc, etc. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way but it’s almost futile to say “hey don’t use twitter like this, use it like this”. (Although nothing should stop you from trying.)

    That said some users of twitter (macheist for one) _will_ diminish the value of twitter for other users. Hopefully the tools and community will form to solve that. But who knows.

  13. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Jon Wight: Heh, several people have pointed out the possibility that it’s futile to try to change Twitter, and also made allusions to the history of untameable egos on the internet.

    I think what’s slightly different about Twitter than say, Usenet, is you literally do control the circle of people you engage with. The tools to follow and block in Twitter make it possible to define an environment that suits your social tastes (even if that means blocking and unfollowing until you’re just listening to yourself).

    I guess my point here is just to get my thoughts out and hope for the best. It seems like the kind of time in Twitter history when lots of things will change quickly. Lots of people will try to start using it for marketing, and if I can put the idea in just a few more peoples’ heads to consider rejecting that, then maybe I’ll protect my little corner of Twitter :)

  14. Scott P. Richert Says:

    Once again, a little bit of devil’s advocate:

    Lots of people will try to start using it for marketing, and if I can put the idea in just a few more peoples’ heads to consider rejecting that, then maybe I’ll protect my little corner of Twitter :)

    You’ve got a MarsEdit Twitter account. It’s true that you don’t do hard-sell marketing through it, but it is marketing.

    So, in other words, you’re not really against using Twitter for marketing; you’re just against using it for a certain type of marketing, or using it for marketing in a certain way.

    I’m sure you have some sense of personal limits on using Twitter as a marketing tool, and you know why your use is different from, say, MacHeist’s use. But I’ve retweeted (I believe) MarsEdit tweets, and I’m sure others have as well. Do you regard that as an abuse of Twitter? As a violation of your limits on marketing?

    Again, I write all of this as a devoted MarsEdit user and beta tester (which is why I’ve retweeted MarsEdit tweets!), and someone who largely agrees with the gist of your post. I simply think that things are perhaps not quite as cut-and-dried as you present them.

  15. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Scott – that’s a great point. Naturally I do think Twitter is great for marketing, and I endorse using it for marketing. The crux comes down again to the marketing being authentic to the twitter account in question. MarsEdit as a separate account allows it to be self-interested and promotional without particular concern of overdoing it, because … hell, it’s MarsEdit *itself*.

    Likewise, I reflect back on what I wrote above about the distinction between heartfelt endorsement of a product, and utterly sacrificing the content of your stream in exchange for some payoff.

  16. Scott P. Richert Says:

    To follow up, are you suggesting, then, that a developer would be wrong to use his own account to market his products–that each product needs to have its own account, as you do for MarsEdit? To pull a couple of examples at random from my Twitter list, are Craig Hockenberry and Fraser Speirs doing it wrong? (I’m not trying to set up some sort of conflict here; I’m just looking at two Twitterers whom I like, who, in my opinion, mix personal and business tweets together in a way that I find appealing.)

    What about those who are marketing themselves? Or at least, are marketing something that is less easy to separate from themselves than a discrete software product is? In your opinion, do they need a Twitter account that is clearly a business one, entirely separate from a personal one? Should, for instance, John Gruber never link to Daring Fireball or the Talk Show from @gruber, since @gruber is essentially a personal account?

    On your second paragraph, thanks for clarifying that. I think that makes it clear why a retweet of @MarsEdit is different from the MacHeist TweetBlast.

  17. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Scott: My take is that self-promotion is always fine in moderation. And that would include one’s own products. I do it myself from @danielpunkass. It’s authentic because it’s part of me.

    Many people self-identify with their work. And especially on the web, the very reason many people are following somebody has something to do with their notable works on the internet. I would find it awkward and less “them” if they were artificially silent about their endeavors.

  18. Scott P. Richert Says:

    Thanks, Daniel! This has been a very useful exercise in clarification (at least for me). It gives me a lot to think about.

  19. Victoria Wang Says:

    Thanks for posting this. Twitter has been making me want to scream for all the reasons you’ve mentioned, but I don’t think I could have put it as kindly (and usefully) as you have :). I’m tormented that the options are to hear everything someone has to blurt out, or to unfollow them — almost all the people I follow are my friends and colleagues in real life. Unfollowing a friend, even if she is being intensely annoying on Twitter, feels awkward and painful. Anyways, I really need to just hack some snooze functionality into Pwitter.

  20. Tom Harrington Says:

    I tend to agree with “Idea Assassin” about both the nature of the problem and the means to address it. Although it’s true, as you note, that Twitter gives you more control over who you interact with than Usenet, it’s also true that @replies from people you don’t follow pierce this restriction. That leaves the door open to those who “are hell-bent on causing rifts that invite confrontational interchange” to show up in your Twitter stream, and requires a positive action on your part to block them.

    The only solution I know from Usenet is that trolls feed on attention, and the only way to stop them is to recognize them quickly and cut off that food supply. Blocking’s not necessary– they’ll get bored with you and move on to someone who will take the bait. In your vignette, “Apple4Ever” is clearly being an asshole in his first message, and the defensive reply is just what such a troll is looking for.

  21. kwokheng Says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I don’t suppose Posterous does trackbacks (and I’m happy for it to be that way).

    But I referenced you here: http://originbear.posterous.com/on-twitter-3 and thought I should state so.

    cheers
    kwok

  22. Leo M Says:

    There’s no difference between someone saying ‘Please RT’ and the MacHeist blast.

    They’re both marketing instruments of the opt-in spamming that is twitter.

    ‘RT’ = re-spam

  23. Guillaume Cohen Says:

    Great post Daniel. But is “quality” really what most people want? This may be sad but people like gossip and arguments like the ones you sampled from twitter. Drama draws large audiences. Why? Because people like fights: it’s exciting (at least to some) and more importantly because it’s personal and emotional, which validates your other point “Add a Bit of Yourself”. It is for the same reason reality TV shows get a larger audience than PBS documentaries although the quality of the content is questionable. So I would say that if growing a twitter audience is a goal, it is not always compatible with quality. This may explain the popularity of TechCrunch too.

  24. David Says:

    Wow this was like one huge “bitch” post.

  25. Paul McCann Says:

    Err, David: did you actually read the message? If anything it was the last in a long series of laments, each emerging as one favourite medium after another becomes mainstream and suffers the corresponding influx of banalities and annoyances. Offhand there has been news (old-style news: think “rn” for those who remember Larry Wall’s first great piece of software; ah the horror of the endless September…), email (remember the days before spam filters?), the web, twitter. Call it elitist/unsustainable/whatever, but each of these media have suffered devastating drops in quality as they have become ubiquitous.

    And yeah, I did spam all four of so of my twitter followers to get DL during the recent Macheist. I do regret doing so, but only because I did the idiotic thing and used my “real” account for the blast: the smarter thing would have been to create a new account for that purpose…

    Cheers,
    Paul

  26. Mike Grace Says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. It is sad that so much spamming and noise is making its way on to twitter. Thanks again for the reminder that I need to be a better twitizen.

  27. John Says:

    RT=FWD. Simple as that.

  28. jmontoya Says:

    Nice post. Your idea that the arts, literature are refined through criticism is intriguing and I wondered whehter Twitter is a self immersion into the principle of “an object observed is changed by the observing”.

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