Why Twitter?

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What’s the point of Twitter?

That’s a question I asked my own Twitter followers yesterday, prompted by ambivalence and confusion after reading two recent Pew Institute studies relating to what was once called a “micro-blogging” service. Don’t get me wrong; I know why I am addicted, but I doubted that many other people saw Twitter as the necessary delivery system to force people to watch videos of old Monkees songs or whatever Britpop reference happened to be floating in my head at that particular moment.

So I asked everyone else, and got what was a surprisingly coherent response.

Before I get to the response, though, the first of the studies that made me wonder about Twitter in the first place: According to Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media is doing Twitter wrong. The problem, the study argues, is that most media outlets look at Twitter as an alternative to an RSS feed, and just push links to stories and other information that’s available elsewhere, instead of trying to engage with other Twitter users (93% of all tweets from the thirteen media outlets studied during the course of a week for the survey were links, according to the results), which seems to be missing the point and potential of Twitter altogether. While individual journalists may use the service to solicit information or retweet comments from others, institutional Twitter accounts exist, it seems, merely to be a voice of authority. And that, I’d argue, isn’t what Twitter is about.

(MORE: Are Companies Being Anti-Social with Twitter and Facebook?)

This is where my own, entirely unscientific, research comes in. When I asked my own followers why they were on Twitter, it wasn’t long before patterns in interest became apparent. Twitter appealed because it was informal, because it was concise, and because it was conversational. One person called it “the world’s best self-selecting cocktail party [with] fast breaking news, good conversation, low commitment,” with another replying that “it’s either the watercooler or the watering hole, depending on which metaphor you wanna run with.”

“Twitter is far less time-consuming [than other social media],” said a friend, “plus the 140-character limit forces people to be more concise and clever.”

“Twitter is, for me, a conversational medium where I select those I converse with while ignoring barriers of class, age and locale,” wrote another.

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I also asked, somewhat cheekily, what Twitter provided that other social networks didn’t, and the overall feeling again was that 140 characters is just enough for the Twitter faithful: “The tight form of tweets both lets me sample strangers efficiently and keeps my friends from rambling too much (FB does neither),” said one reply. Another explained, “For whatever reason, Facebook encourages everyone’s inner angsty high schooler. Twitter’s conciseness requires better.”

Along similar lines, someone suggested that on Twitter, “you live or die on your wits,” whereas “Facebook is more like school, you just have to deal with everyone.” My favorite response, if only because I’m still parsing out whether or not I agree with it, was “Twitter supplements your social life, while Facebook seeks to replace it.” Somewhere out there, Facebook fans are lighting torches and gathering pitchforks in response, I’m sure.

There’s something about the “ignoring barriers of class, age and locale” response that feels as if it goes some way towards explaining a finding from the second Pew study, the wonderfully-named “Why Americans Use Social Media”. While 66% of all online Americans use social media in some form, according to this new survey, Twitter users are more likely to cite the ability to read comments by politicians, celebrities or athletes as a reason to join a social network than non-Twitter users (11% versus 4%). Perhaps it’s just my reading, but I feel as if that speaks to the equalizing nature of the cocktail party/water cooler metaphor surprisingly well: On Twitter, you get 140 characters to be worth paying attention to, no matter who (or what) you are.

(MORE: Twitter Breaks Tweets per Second Record in Response to Steve Jobs’ Death)

On a more macro level, the survey also found that around two-thirds of those Americans on social networks are there to stay in touch with friends and family, with 14% of social media users naming hobbies or shared interests as the reason they signed up, and only 3% of users explaining that they’d hoped that Facebook, Twitter, MySpace et al would help them find love. That last figure, of course, should be obvious; why would anyone sign up to Facebook for romance in a world where OK Cupid and its ilk exists?

The idea of Twitter as great equalizer, in turn, explains why media outlets just sending out links and little else into the Twitterverse isn’t necessarily going to get them anywhere—unless all of your links are amazing conversation-starters in and of themselves. Simply standing up and shouting instructions to visit another cocktail party/water cooler/building/your-metaphor-of-choice-here gets old very quickly, which will lead to you ending up ignored, standing in a corner and telling yourself that this new link is really, really worth reading—really.

Calling Twitter microblogging isn’t quite right, because blogging is still more of a one-way thing than a true conversation. And it’s the latter—the feedback, the discussion and back-and-forth and the chance to learn and argue and change your mind—that’s more important to getting Twitter “right.”

What’s the point of Twitter? It’s not what you say, it’s what happens afterwards.

MORE: Tila, Quarterlife and $#*!: Why Social Media and Old Media Don’t Mix

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem and he’ll genuinely try not to bore you with comic book talk or too many Monkees songs. He’s also on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan, despite what he said above. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and, of course, on Twitter at @TIME.

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