I’ve been “tweeting” for about a year now. As many of my friends know, I joined fairly reluctantly, but felt it was one of those things I just “had” to do professionally. Over time my use of the service varied, but I tried to stick to using it for mostly professional purposes (with exceptions of important life events, like my hospital stay, the birth of my son, the time I had to wait extra-long at the bus stop, and about that really yummy cookie I got at Specialty’s). In the past year, Twitter usage has grown leaps and bounds, and their brand awareness is clearly reaching the mainstream.
Now there are those who feel this is bad for society, as we reduce content intake to bite-size formats and become headline crazy. Personally I think this happened over a decade ago, and Twitter is merely the cough to our lack-of-depth cultural pneumonia that’s going around. That said, there’s something a bit more to the Twitter effect than the other rapid-fire tools people seem to have at their disposal. When you talk to people who really use Twitter (I’ve tried to do so to find employees, refer business, donate money, rally volunteers, but none of these efforts really go anywhere for me – I think you have to be in the Scoblesphere to actually have impact on your followers), they talk about it differently than virtually any other Web service they use. Further, there seems to be a little bit more… fanaticism to Twitter than anything else I’ve seen. I’ll paraphrase the commentary I’ve heard and seen…
“You aren’t on Twitter? Dude, *everyone* is on Twitter, what are you thinking?”
“Did you see my funny Tweet today? It got retweeted like 4 times!”
“I’m already up to 600 followers, but I gotta find more.”
“OMG, @garyvee is following me now! I’m special and important!”
To the non-twitterers, this kind of talk is clearly reminiscent of the Smurfs, with more gibberish words being used to describe any derivation of a Twitter-based action. But as I’ve spent time watching the unbelievable quantity of discussion about Twitter itself, it’s become utterly clear to me. Twitter is a cult. Maybe not we’re-all-going-to-live-on-the-great-spaceship cult, but a cult nonetheless.
Warning to the thin-skinned: there are broad generalizations here – if you cannot deal with that as a concept, go here instead! As sourced by The Internet, a cult can be defined as a group having all of the following 5 characteristics:
- It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members
Twitter users attempt to get non-Twitter users to join. They talk about the urgent necessity of being on Twitter (funny video on this). New twitterers are welcomed with very open arms. Gaining followers is rewarded psychologically (go find a single human being not happy with “being followed”), and once a user has a mass of followers, they are highly dis-incented to leave Twitter.
- It forms an elitist totalitarian society
Twitterers tweet to each other, and in person, talk about their tweets. Twitterers believe that everybody should be twittering. Non-twitterers are ignored. Companies and individuals who do not use Twitter are belittled, and generally looked down upon. Having followers is “good”, not having them is “bad”.
- Its founder/leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma
Okay, this one is a stretch – first, I don’t know the founders at all, and second, from what I do know about them it doesn’t seem like a very accurate claim whatsoever (though they certainly are treated like royalty around the valley). But instead of thinking about this in context of the individual founders, think of the so-called “twitterati”. Many “top” twitterers absolutely act these ways. They make bold claims, talk about the famous people they are meting with, and otherwise spend a lot of time self-aggrandizing on Twitter.
- It believes ‘the end justifies the means’ in order to solicit funds/recruit people
Forget the solicit funds, since we are still waiting to hear about a business model, but again, look at the communication style of self-proclaimed “Twitter experts” and the utter requirement on dragging anyone and everyone into the twittersphere. People have offered to spend money to be a “recommended twitterer”. Social Media Consultants tell 100% of their clients they “must” get on Twitter. And it’s all self-serving – companies “have” to be on Twitter, because “that’s where the conversation is happening” – and by the way, they need to pay someone to get there and pay for advice on how to Tweet and pay for others to “monitor” their Twitter topics. If topics like ROI arise, they are swept aside by the “importance of the conversation” and being told “all the early adopters are there”. Buzzword merchants rule the day, and rational business logic is thrown out the window. Don’t misread me here – there are early adopters on Twitter, and there are plenty of reasons to get your business listening and engaging in the 140-character-at-a-time shouting match, but the manic rush to push big business there is truly amazing.
- Its wealth does not benefit its members or society
As I linked to above, studies are showing the concerns of impact Twitter may have on society. Personally, I found myself agreeing with many points raised. As I saw what I will call “prominent” technology Twitterers reacting to the article, their comments treat it with disdain. Why? Because it’s a threat to the foundation that Twitter must be good. While I have seen a few examples of people using Twitter to actually produce a benefit (raising some money, rescue stranded bloggers from the desert, etc), it’s pretty hard to justify other true benefits. It certainly occupies time, and is unquestionably a fascinating method of communication (albeit a fundamentally broken one), but I’d wager a fine penny that heavy Twitter users are not healthier, happier, or otherwise more satisfied with life than the poor schlubs out there limited to such primitive tools as the phone and texting to just one person at a time.
Quick update: Just read “Twitter Leads to Immorality? C’mon!” – one other common attribute of a cult is the complete inability to handle negativity nor criticism about the cult itself.
Now before anyone massively overreacts to my statements (oops, too late, the angry reactions probably got written as comments/tweets long before most readers would even get this far), I’m not saying “all Twitter use is bad”! But maybe we need to really consider the role it plays and how we could and should use it. I fundamentally believe it is not creating “a community” and I am also deeply concerned about the combination of “Attention Grabbing Headlines” with the lack of responsibility used by many Twitterers (urban myth perpetuation, worms/attacks, and, of course, Rickrolling).
If there’s one thing I do believe is that Twitter is pushing us even further down the perilous road of “instant reporting”, regardless of the news or facts about a situation. Fact-checking is all but dead in traditional writing, let alone 140 character chunks. This pace is part of the contribution to the “work creeps into personal time” calamity modern society faces. Yes, it’s a calamity – did you know that when we were hunter-gatherers the average human “worked” for about 17 hours per week?
How to solve the problem: calm down about the Twitter. Don’t have to stop. Don’t have to quit. But also… don’t have to have 50,000 followers. Don’t have to be retweeted a hundred times a day. Don’t have to have everyone know every intimate detail of your day. Don’t call me up to tell me about a cool tweet you wrote. Don’t try to recruit your grandpa to sign up. Don’t expect every company to beckon to win your love just because you wrote (something negative) about them in 45 seconds.
And, of course, don’t expect a free latte just because you have some followers.