I’m always interested in playing with the latest technologies. That extends to the latest internet technologies and web based applications. So when I first heard about Twitter I made myself an account.
Although the original idea sounded good, maybe even useful, I found the implementation limiting and frustrating. After lots of whinging, and messing about on Twitter trying to find something useful in it, I was pretty much ready to just ignore it. That was until Twitter started to invade Facebook. That invasion was the catalyst for this article.
In the beginning
When Twitter first appeared, the idea was to provide a micro-blogging service. Short messages, for giving status updates. That doesn’t sound so bad.
So what’s wrong with Twitter?
Let’s start with the obvious.
Tweets (Twitter messages) are limited to 140-characters per message. SMS messages are limited to 160-characters. Take the worst feature of SMS from the 1980s, and implement it in the 2000s…
No, even that isn’t fair. Almost every phone now supports SMS messages well in excess of the original 160-character limit (by sending multiple SMS messages disguised as a single SMS). Who in their right mind would implement a service with that limitation from day one?
The defence of this limitation is startling – the claims people make are sometimes humorous and often ridiculous. It is claimed, for example, that by limiting the number of characters, people will somehow write messages that are succinct and more interesting as a result. Take a look at your average tweet and you be the judge on that.
Some have defended the limitation by claiming that it is like the limitations of haiku, that result in wonderful poetry by limiting the number of sylables in the poem to follow a certain pattern. In the same way, this limitation of 140-characters will create status updates that will amaze with literary genius. Wonder at the typical poetic masterpiece you find on almost every twitter account:
I am eating roast chicken for dinner! Yum!
The limitation is artificial and short sighted. And results in a number of other problems that will be outlined below.
No reply threading
Twitter is a stream of posts. That would be fine if all it was was a stream of your posts, but that isn’t the way it works. People can also post something to you (and others), so in effect can reply to something you posted.
But that reply is not threaded in any way. Tweets appear chronologically, i.e. based on when you sent it. You reply 2 days later, and there are 2 days of other posts before your reply. All context has gone. Often these replies are as a result confusing.
Any sensible system that allow replies would allow threading. My mail client does it. My newsreader does it. In fact, Facebook does it.
Replies and Recipients
So when you do reply, or post a message to someone, or a number of people, you do so by putting in to your posted text an @ symbol, with the recipients Twitter name following. Suddenly your message is littered with @ symbols, and odd user account names for people you may or may not know.
@sam69 Hilarious post dude. @sexyGurl and @mr_b1g should join us for drinks with @ha1ry_back12
This is metadata! But the metadata is being put in to the actual text that is then displayed to the user. It’s like 1970s computing technology. It’s like being forced to store your files with filenames like:
Business report for my manager Mike Georgeff written by Jamie Curmi of Precedence Health Care on the 12th July 2009 owned by account “jamie” with read and write permissions for group “staff”.doc
Not only that, but this metadata is part of your 140-character limit. And there is more of this metadata abuse to come.
Where once Twitter was about short status messages, it is now about full on chat conversations, and posting to multiple parties. Next came the request to tag the message so that people could search for tweets of interest.
This by itself is a useful idea. Of course people would want something like this. So how was it implemented?
You use a # sign followed by the tag. So now you have tag metadata in your post. The end result:
@sam69 Hilarious post dude. @sexyGurl and @mr_b1g should join us for #drinks with @ha1ry_back12 #boozeup
This is metadata! It should not be in the message!
So with all these @s and #s, the text is pretty ugly. In fact, the human eye finds it difficult to read because the @s and #s, along with strange non-your-spoken-language usernames draw the eye away from the text that makes sense. And it takes up characters in your precious 140-character limit.
There isn’t much room to say much is there? So you have to either not say much (which is quite common), or link to something that says more. But URLs are usually quite long (look at the one for this page for example). That will suck up your 140-character limit – so the Twitter solution is to use services that shorten your URL by encoding it in to something that makes no sense.
So this is why you’ll see links like:
Wondering where that will take you? Good luck – it could be to something related to the tweet. Or it could be to goatse.cx. You never know.
Now there is even less room in your tweet. What to do?
Two Letter Acronyms
With such limited space, users have invented acronyms to use so that they can actually fit some useful text in with all their #s, @s, and links. Acronyms such as RT (Retweet), FF (Follow Friday, which bizarrely means to suggest a friend to someone, so now even the acronym definitions don’t make sense to a casual reader), OH (Overheard), etc.
Once again, some of this (like RT) is actually metadata – like when you forward an email to someone. Now take a look at your typical tweet and you are seeing @s, #s, acronyms, links with random numbers and letters, and somewhere in all that mess may be a message of interest.
Actually though, rarely is there a message of interest in a tweet.
So, the guys at Facebook saw there was something to Twitter, so this year they implemented a new Facebook interface that is reminiscent of Twitter, with its status updates. The difference was, the Facebook team actually improved on the idea. No ridiculously short message limit, full threading of comments, ability to add real links (and even show the link, for example display an image from that link), no need for @s, #s, obscure acronyms, links to real people’s names and not their jumbled usernames.
And this is why Facebook is the better service.
So, I could have just left it at that. Until I started seeing Facebook updates that said things like:
Enjoying food and talking crap with @sam69 @sexyGurl @mr_b1g and @ha1ry_back12 at #taxi in #docklands
What the hell was that?
Oh yes, what you are looking at there is a Facebook application that can take your tweets from your Twitter account, and post them as status updates on Facebook. So now my Facebook page is as ugly and messed up as Twitter.
And this is not on. So from today I am launching the Facebook group “Get Twitter Updates Off Facebook“.
Here’s the way this works. If you find a friend posting twitter style updates (that is, they use any inappropriate @s, #s or Twitter Acronyms), you send them a message on Facebook telling them that:
Hi <Insert Your Friend’s Name Here>,
Although I count you as a friend, your abuse of Facebook with Twitter updates that include inappropriate Twitter detritus such as @s, #s and Twitter-only acronyms, means that I can no longer accept you as a friend on Facebook.
We may still be friends in real life, and you are welcome to be my friend again on Facebook when you stop posting status updates based on Twitter limitations. Until then, I wish you all the best.
<Insert Your Real Name Here>
Sure, your friend might stop talking to you. But think about how much nicer your Facebook Home page will be. Eventually either Twitter developers will actually get it and move in to the 21st century, or Twitter will die. Either one is a good result.