In a recent piece in The New York Times, Jenna Wortham says she’s becoming fatigued with Twitter. Basically, she uses all the Twitter discussion around Justin Bieber’s arrest as a springboard for a broader argument about how the service has become less about finding useful, relevant information and more about competing for attention.
As you’d expect, the piece saw its share of praise and criticism. The most common critique seems to be some variant of, “Dude, just unfollow people who are annoying,” but as Wortham and others have noted, that’s easier said than done, because it can be embarrassing or awkward to unfollow someone, even if you’re really tired of their tweets.
There’s another reason why the “just unfollow” argument falls a little flat for me. Wortham is, I think, careful to use the word “we,” particularly in the article’s best passage:
It feels as if we’re all trying to be a cheeky guest on a late-night show, a reality show contestant or a toddler with a tiara on Twitter — delivering the performance of a lifetime, via a hot, rapid-fire string of commentary, GIFs or responses that help us stand out from the crowd. We’re sold on the idea that if we’re good enough, it could be our ticket to success, landing us a fleeting spot in a round-up on BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post, or at best, a writing gig. But more often than not, it translates to standing on a collective soapbox, elbowing each other for room, in the hopes of being credited with delivering the cleverest one-liner or reaction. Much of that ensues in hilarity. Perhaps an equal amount ensues in exhaustion.
In the ensuing discussion, “we” seemed to get transformed into “other people” — sure, Jenna, other people can be annoying on Twitter, so why don’t you unfollow them? The default assumption that it must be other people who are Doing It Wrong on Twitter is … interesting.
Personally, I found the article valuable because I immediately recognized the behavior that Wortham was talking about, and not just in other people, but in myself. I suspect that my default mode on seeing a broader conversation on Twitter is, “How can I say something funny so that everyone will talk about meeeeeee?” (Note also that Wortham isn’t condemning this behavior outright — she admits that it can be entertaining, but also exhausting.)
So as a description of personal experience, I found Wortham’s words to be a valuable reminder to try, at least, to be less self-promotional and less self-absorbed.
On the other hand, as a broader description of “Twitter’s Achilles’ heel” I found the article to be less convincing. As others have noted, Wortham is a reporter who follows nearly 4,000 people and has more than 500,000 followers, so her experience is almost certainly atypical. She actually addresses this in the article itself, arguing, “I think the number of followers you have is often irrelevant,” but I’m dubious. With my own much smaller Twitter following, the dynamics changed as my audience grew, even if the change wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d expected, and ditto the amount of noise as I started to follow more people.
Yes, Wortham is absolutely making some very interesting anecdotal points, but her piece suffers in my eyes from trying to transform those points into a Big Idea. Has Twitter become less informative and more self-promotional? In my experience, it has always been a mix, and I’m not sure that mix has changed all that significantly. But again, we’re just mashing random pieces of personal experience together and pretending it means something about the company as a whole. That way lies madness. (And by “madness” I mean “asking teenagers what they think about Facebook“.)
But hey, since we’re sharing about anecdotal evidence, I will offer this: Where did I first hear about Wortham’s article? And where did I first see most of the ideas, pro and con, expressed in this post? On Twitter, of course.