Who isn’t on Twitter?

When the American Anthropology Association is on Twitter, that must mean everyone is. But, I ask: is there a Twigital Divide? Should I be writing a grant proposal to study those left behind, tweetless and downtwodden? Clearly the time has come for me to stop not thinking about facebook and start not thinking about Twitter!


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

13 thoughts on “Who isn’t on Twitter?

  1. I remain without a Twitter account. It just started becoming popular in my country (Ecuador), and I still refuse to get one. Let’s see how the story develops over the next few months and see how many of my friends decide to get one. So far only 4 of all my facebook friends have gotten one.

    Oh, and hi!

  2. I didn’t have enough to say about these to warrant a post of their own, so I’ll just hijack this comment thread to post a few links on Twitter in Iran:





    I’d also like to say that I see Twitter as being quite different from Facebook: it is much more flexible, both in terms of how you form your online social network (Facebook requires reciprocal connections, Twitter does not), and in how you use it (Twitter is many different things to different people). In short, much more than Facebook, Twitter is simply a tool: like e-mail or SMS and much less a social game filled with stupid quizzes. (Even when people like to make Twitter into a game you can very easily unfollow them.)

  3. Chris, I think danah boyd’s recent post “Twitter is for Friends, Facebook is for everybody” (http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html) might begin to answer your question. If I can spin danah’s argument a little bit, it seems that there is a twigital divide by design. The moment that everyone is tweeting, a disaffected group will have to choose another program, mode of communication, etc. But that seems to be more about the life-span of commodities than the state of Information Communication Technologies.

    I’m glad I read Kerim’s comment, because this makes sense of his wall post tweet on facebook, that other world that we both share. But, Kerim, I don’t get the difference between complete virtual world and mere tool. What about early usenet communities that created virtual worlds with much less communicative capacity and flexibility than tweeters?

  4. Jay,

    I disagree with the idea that Twitter will become less useful to those who use it as it becomes more popular. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and this addresses your question), one of the major differences between Facebook and Twitter is that Facebook “friendship” is reciprocal. If you “friend” me I have to “friend” you back. If I don’t you can’t read any of my posts. Twitter, on the other hand, is unidirectional. Except for the small minority who lock their tweets (less than 1% of the people I follow) you can follow anyone because Twitter is open. It isn’t a closed virtual world. This also means you don’t need to follow people if they follow you. For this reason Twitter remains useful to me no matter how many people join.

    Regarding the virtual world vs. tool distinction. I admit it wasn’t well thought out, but the main thing for me is that Twitter is open and much more flexible in terms of how it is used (as some of the Iran posts linked above point out).

  5. If I try to harvest email address from Gmail on Twitter (which I’ve tried to do every now and then for the past year or so), I still wonder who is on Twitter. Very few of my friends (a mottled mixture of academics and NGO people) use Twitter, while a vast majority are on Facebook.

  6. My husband was a really, really early Twitter adopter, and I remember him telling me close to two years ago that it was going to be the next big thing. He’s never compared it to Facebook (we’re both really late to Facebook). Rather, he calls Twitter “microblogging” and suggests that there is a much lower threshold to posting than for a traditional blog, where many people feel like they have to have an idea that is well developed enough to post. He follows a number of people who have fairly popular blogs (Kerim’s unidirectional point), and notices that they have been using Twitter to post ideas that often get incorporated into full blog posts over the coming weeks.

    I agree with Kerim that its flexibility and the multiple ways people can come up with to use it make Twitter a whole different animal from Facebook.

  7. I don’t think I was arguing that the utility of twitter will diminish as more users adopt it. I think I was saying that consumer affect around using twitter will change once it as seen as ‘for everyone’ (if it is not already seen that way). I think Chris’s proposal for studying non-users, late adopters and those left behind is on point. The unsexy, non-cutting-edge, aspects of technology use are possibly the most sociologically interesting.

    Besides, aren’t the differences in the modes of communication the result of usage as much as of the tools themselves? One can use facebook as a completely open broadcast tool, regardless of social contacts. The site has a sliding scale for a profile’s publicness, just as twitter allows users to build a closed social network. Why do most facebook users choose to restrict their commuincations while tweeters opt to not restrict it? A lot of it probably has do with the mechanics of communication made possible by both technologies. But I imagine it also has to do with how users feel about the different programs and simple mimetic behavior.

  8. Good gawd, there’s only so much time in the day for reading and I can’t imagine missing Savage Minds and other favorites in order to twit!

  9. i’ve been hearing about twitter as a “microblogging” service for so long that I’m surprised not to have heard about macro-blogging. I think that may be what I want. I’m the kind of person who keeps all my tweets in my head until I’m quite sure that they form a coherent thought. I suppose I could accept the challenge of expressing that in 140 characters, and I like that idea, but I don’t get the sense that such highly condensed, mulled-over tweets are what make twitter valuable. In any case, I think my frustration with blogging is the scholar’s frustration–what I want is a service or tool that accumulates and orders thoughts and ideas in ways that allow them to be continuously amended, critiqued, updated refined. Blogs are half-way there (they allow searching and are ordered and collated by date, author or tag), but they tend to disappear nonetheless. Twitter, by contrast, even as a “microblogging” service, is resolutely and avowedly ephemeral. Even the ever-present RT is not much more than a self-reflexive marker of gossip, not a tool for saving, refining, or complexifying a thought. I don’t buy the claim that because something is archived it is remembered.

    All of this makes me feel ever more curmudgeonly, but I can’t shake the feeling thing we should also be innovating and cheering for tools that go in the opposite direction, against instant, against gossip. I think I will go read the Phaedrus again now.

  10. While I don’t disagree with the desire to preserve a space for contemplation in an increasingly frantic media landscape (I believe I even posted something along these lines myself a few weeks back), there is one common misconception about Twitter I’d like to clear up: namely, the 140 character limit. Looking at my twitter feed right now, I’d say that about 70% of the items posted have a URL, which means that they are really just indexing longer content somewhere else. In many ways, Twitter has supplanted my RSS reader more than it has supplanted Facebook, Blogs, or other social media. Some of these posts are, in fact, simply RSS feeds posted to Twitter (like that from this blog), but many others are people I have elected to follow because they read interesting things and share them over Twitter, often with a short comment.

    As Jay says, it is true that one can do the same thing with different technologies. In fact, e-mail is still used in this way by many people, like my parents. But technologies facilitate different kinds of behaviors by their design and their institutional structure. Twitter has also been good about responding to unintended uses of its technology by its users. Using @username to reply is one example of such an unanticipated use which was quickly adapted and implemented into their API.

    Finally, regarding Jim Delaney’s comment about how Facebook users aren’t on Twitter. This is my experience as well. And in Taiwan people seem to prefer Plurk, while in India they like to use Okurt (although Facebook is catching on in both places). The people I follow in Twitter are often people I know from reading their blogs, or people who I met because they follow me or Savage Minds. (See the Neuroanthropology post linked by Jay in his weekly roundup for links to several lists of anthropology users on Twitter.) For me (and I’m sure I’m not the first to say this) Facebook is more like a high school reunion, whereas Twitter is more like a cocktail party.

  11. ckelty, I’ve been without reliable access to internet for about a year and a half, so I’m not really up on what people outside my immediate circle are saying about Twitter, sorry if mention of microblogging makes you curmudgeonly.

    I don’t think what you want is well served by the “blog” structure. Frankly, I miss the periodically updated static pages of web 1.0. But I think maybe a wiki structure is more what you’re looking for than a “macroblog” whatever that might be (I would think of something like metafilter or slashdot as a macroblog, which is not at all what you described).

    My husband is a software developer, and they have a tool they call a “sandbox” where you can play around with bits of code without affecting the overall product. When he calls Twitter a microblog, I think he means it much more in that sense, that in relationship to people’s blogs, Twitter acts as a sandbox where people can play with ideas that aren’t yet ready for full “implementation”. I’m sure there’s plenty of gossip there, and perhaps the term microblogging is already too loaded, but I meant to speak to the way in which people use it to “think out loud” more than anything else.

  12. two things

    I just got spammed via Twitter. QED. But I don’t know what it proves.

    @carmen. yes, a wiki is something more like what I mean by macro-blog… but i do mean seriously something that is the opposite of twitter which does not yet exist, and may never. What seems to excite people about Twitter, as Kerim suggests, is that it lowers the barrier to posting and communicating ideas. It’s the cocktail party: a bit of liquor, a relaxation of rules, and a flow of conversation. I want something else, something more like the equivalent of an academic conference, perhaps. Barriers to entry, (amendable) rules about content and style, structured contributions, a system of review, acceptance and archiving (proceedings) and so forth. I want all these great ideas we are supposedly sharing via Twitter not only to stick around, but to accumulate capital in the way scholarly knowledge does. I guess I worry that without something like this, there is not much hope for scholarly research. It’s a bit like having conferences without any papers, only mingling in the hallways and so forth. Which is not a bad idea, granted… but….

  13. How about having an online conference with a wiki? You could set it up with calls for papers and stuff like that, dates for submissions, and run it in a lot of ways like a regular conference. Then at the designated times, the papers would go up (you could do one or two at a time over the course of a weekend or whatever), with an associated page for discussion. People could read the papers and then ask questions and have discussion online, which could all be archived together. Then there could be a post-conference discussion page for each of the papers, and you could set it up so that people were notified if there was someone commenting on the board, so they would have a chance to come back and continue developing their ideas.

    I mean, obviously it would be a lot of work to set up, but I think the tools are there for doing something like what you want (even if what I said isn’t it). It’s more a matter of getting large numbers of scholars to start thinking about how to use the internet as part of their serious work and not just their sandbox.

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