Twitter's Real Edge: It's not Scary

joybeharWhen I was writing my last book, I used to go run at the gym for about an hour every morning to clear my head. The TVs were always set on ABC, so I’d zone out to either “Live with Regis & Kelly” or “The View”–two shows I’d never watched before.

I was always struck by the constant fear mongering about the Internet, particularly on “The View.” It seemed every day there was a story about pedophiles patrolling MySpace, ex-wives putting retaliatory dirty-laundry-airing videos on YouTube and 20-somethings getting fired because of college keg party pictures on Facebook. The message to housewives was loud and clear: DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS USE THESE HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE SITES!

Yesterday after a pretty brutal morning, I found myself sitting on the couch, flipping channels for a little background noise and settling on my old jogging buddy “The View.” Mainly because Lil’ Wayne was the guest and the combo of my favorite saucy rapper and ultra-right-winger Elizabeth Hasselbeck sounded TiVo-worthy. It was the first time I’ve watched the show in at least a year.

Imagine my surprise that Joy was texting away on her Blackberry while on air, and a conversation about a study that showed good friends could help you live to 100 years old immediately brought up Twitter. “This is why I am on Twitter,” Joy said, “We’re all on it now except for Whoopi…We like to have all these friends. It’s like a community of people who are interested in you.” Nods all around. Turns out– as I learned from “The Soup” on Friday night–they’ve been talking about it all week, as has every other Oprah-wanna-be. Yes, even Tyra. (See video below.)

Wait a minute, ladies. Wait. One. Minute. You’re telling me that you are blasting your every move out to a bunch of strangers’ mobile phones, and there’s no fear of stalkers, crazed fans or psychos? Not even from Elizabeth? I had to check to make sure I was really watching “The View.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as yet more celebs jumping on the Twitter bandwagon. But that masks the really remarkable thing Twitter seems to have pulled off. It has seemingly side-stepped the whole fear-of-technology mania that usually plagues most social media sites as they start to tip mainstream. There was that little report about terrorists using it and that was pretty much it. Throughout 2007 I heard these same ladies make the argument that spending all this time on MySpace and Facebook was eroding kids’ abilities to make friends. Now just two years later, the same people are equating Twitter with real world friendships. What gives?

Is it that everyone has finally gotten used to the idea of real world and digital friendships overlapping? I doubt it. Because you still hear fear mongering with a lot of the other sites. There’s just something about Twitter that’s less scary. And that may prove its biggest strength and differentiator.

I think part of it is how simple the site is to use, the flexibility of using it via the web or mobile, and the relatively low barrier to that “a-ha!” moment. You know, the mini-endorphin rush you get from knowing what your friends are doing at any moment, or for a celebrity, hearing from fans in a more direct, more immediate way then you could before.

But that’s only part of it. I think the key to Twitter’s mainstream celeb success has been the asynchronous, non-committal nature of the site. As Facebook and MySpace grew, we all experienced that social pressure akin to seeing someone on the street that you know, but don’t want to talk to and wondering how you can politely avoid them. Most people who indiscriminately add “friends” just because they asked don’t wind up really using Facebook to connect with actual friends, because they don’t want to over-share photos, contact information, or videos with “friends” who are essentially strangers.

But on Twitter, the personal information is contained by the restraints of the site itself. It’s just short text updates, unless you chose to link to a picture or video. People feel like they know you, while you actually give up very little personal information. You get intimate connections with as many people as you want, but on your own terms. People can follow you, without you following them. You can still see what people you aren’t following are saying about you and respond, or not. And you can add someone for a bit, then unfollow them, frequently without them noticing while they still follow you.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn CEO and uber-Web 2.0 angel a few weeks ago. He pointed out that lifecasting never took off in a big way because it was originally conceived as video. Many people don’t want to show that much of their lives, and most friends just don’t have the time to watch. It’s not that people don’t care, it’s just that sometimes we’re not great editors. We tend to think we’re more interesting than we really are.

But Twitter is noncommittal, bite-sized lifecasting in a manageable text form. It’s similar to how I refuse to check one long rambling voice mail, but I’m happy to scan hundreds of texts or emails. Hoffman compared it to the difference between watching a vacation movie of your friend sitting on a boat in the water for an hour, versus reading one 140-character Tweet that your friend was sitting on a boat enjoying the sun.

Ironically, the asyncronicity of Twitter was hotly contested by a lot of early adopters who pressured the Twitter team heavily to change it to an auto-follow model. Evan Williams & crew always held out, convinced it was of key importance to how the site would grow and scale. Looks like they were right.