Three Hidden Dangers of Twitter

SMS Text

It seems that everyone is talking about Twitter, and while the service is seeing enormous growth and all the celebrity bloggers have started using it like their life depends on it, before you jump on the bandwagon, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.
For me, Twitter remains a service that I haven’t used and don’t even plan to use simply because I am a blogger at heart. I prefer being thorough to brevity (read: just typing a largely useless stream of consciousness without any context) any day of the week. When our very own MG Siegler profiled Twitter and told us which feeds to follow, I decided to take a look at them. Let me exemplify my position on Twitter by looking at three dangers of unequivocal acceptance of the service.
Danger 1: Loss of quality and relevancy
What Steve Rubel Blogs
Watch Live TV on Your Google Home Page
Track Your Social Network Using Your iPod
Google Blog Bars for Your Site
Google Buys Data Visualization Tech
Fired without Cause for Blogging
What Steve Rubel Twitters

@scobleizer Like Lycos? 😉 about 19 hours ago from web in reply to Scobleizer
@scobleizer That’s true, but as you know the web is extremely transient. Someone comes along with a better mouse trap and people will leave. about 19 hours ago from web in reply to Scobleizer
@scobleizer YouTube is going to go down as a purchase worse that or Geocities. There’s no moat. Then again, they can afford it about 19 hours ago from web in reply to Scobleizer

Am I the only one who doesn’t see any major difference between Twitter and regular instant messaging conversations or text messages (sms: short messaging service)? The only difference I see between the two is that Twitter makes your private conversation with another person – a conversation that is in all likeliness irrelevant to anyone else reading it – available for everyone to view.

I like to think of Twitter as a kind of massively-multiplayer IM chat. On one hand it’s kind of annoying if someone is only talking to one person in a tweet (marked by the @_ prefix) but on the other hand it’s kind of interesting and definitely voyeuristic…especially if you know both parties.

How is this any different from posting your conversation logs online (apart from the fact that posting entire logs would put the conversation in context and perhaps more sense than Twitter)? Based on the Twitter feeds I have seen while writing this article (and I saw ones from bloggers that I follow quite regularly), I am going to stick to blog RSS feeds, at least for now.
Danger 2: Hidden Costs
While I was looking for interesting Twitter feeds, I checked out Jason Calacanis’ and read the following,

Crushed by twitter bill… Ugh. Be careful people! about 18 hours ago from txt
oh sh@#$%@#$%t… jsut checked my tmobile bill: 2,367 extra messages… $236.70 in extra charges!!! does tmobile have unlimited?!?!?!?! about 20 hours ago from web

So before you start Twittering away, keep in mind that every time you do a status update, or publish something new but equally irrelevant on your Twitter feed, if you do it from your cell phone your carrier will charge you for every text message you send. And unless you have a plan that includes text messages, Twittering can be an expensive hobby, as Jason learned the hard way.
Danger 3: TMI: Too Much Information
It is a generally recommended practice for bloggers to disclose some information about themselves. Some personal disclosure allows your audience to have a more closer connection with you when reading your content. There is of course the problem of disclosing too much information, or all the wrong kind of information about yourself.
The same problem that arose from the popularity of social networking sites will come up with Twitter. As the masses get addicted to Twitter, people will start texting all sorts of things to the service, only to later realize that they shared some information that they shouldn’t have. While you Twitter, just keep in mind that you are broadcasting whatever you’re doing to the whole world (or at least your friends and colleagues). Please don’t tell us about what diseases, who you got them from, and who you’ve been doing what with.
After this diatribe on Twitter (though not unjust) I should point out that Twitter does have its uses too. People familiar with Sturgeon’s Law know that ’90 percent of everything is crud’. The law applies to Twitter more than I’ve witnessed it being applicable to anything else. If you manage to be selective, and weed out the irrelevant information, you can definitely learn a thing or two form what people are saying. Ultimately I agree with Siegler when he says that, “While the mundane can be interesting/humorous and may be important to true friends, the breaking news is where the power of Twitter lies“. This latter fact is exemplified by the list of top 100 Twitter users, over 21% of which is comprised of BBC, CNN, Google News, and other news outlets.
Are the benefits from reading Twitter feeds worth the ‘crud’ that you have to sift through? Please have your say in the comments.

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  • Skitzzo

    Somehow I think Jason-the idiot-Calacanis can afford the extra texts… However, I agree with you, letting people in even more could have some unforeseen and undesired effects. You think there’s a lot of your personal information out there now, wait til you start twittering every stinking thing you do. Do you honestly want everyone in the world to be able to track that stuff down? What about prospective employers? And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the whole “quality” aspect.
    Very good post and you can be you’ll not find me twittering my time away.

  • Steven Hodson

    I’ve written a few times about Twitter and also pointed out the hidden cost as displayed by Jason’s experience but in the context that the only one’s making money at this point is the cellphone companies.
    I raised this point with Robert Scoble in a twitter message when he was talking about a new service that was going to add twitter support (IIRC). My question to him was:
    “don’t these people that come out with all these cool web 2.0 stuff take into consideration the hidden costs to the end users”
    Robert basically replied that yes one should be careful when using this type of service.
    That however didn’t really answer my question IMO. In a world where cellphone operators love raping your wallet anyway they can this just provides them with additional funds for nothing – and how many users are in for a really rude awakening from embracing the so cool web2.0 to mobile phone stuff.

  • MG Siegler

    Great post Muhammad. I only briefly mentioned some worries about the service in passing in my article but you do a good job outlining some real concerns. I actually just today had the perfect example of a ‘TMI’ come across my Twitter feed (I’ll leave the guilty party’s name out):
    “Whoever said that masturbating before sleep gives you a good night is LYING. It’s 3:25AM and I’m already up? wtf.”
    That’s about as bad as I’ve seen yet. We are definitely approaching the ‘sitting in the bathroom…’ posts.
    What shouldn’t be overlooked however in your comments on Steve Rubel’s postings is that he (and others) does (do) have some very valuable things to say sometimes both in terms of breaking news and insights. I’ll repeat again, Twitter BADLY needs a way to filter the breaking news from the mundane.
    It has the potential to get news out there faster then just about anything, but Twitter needs a way to make sure the good stuff isn’t overlooked or skipped because people are afraid of or too busy reading about someone masturbating.

  • Dan

    Am I the only one tired of people bagging on Twitter because people insist on using it like IM? If you want to chat, do it with one of the myriad applications that were designed for that purpose. If you want to let all your friends know what you are up to right now, use Twitter. I don’t stand up in the middle of the office and shout across the floor a comment meant for one person. I go over to them and have a conversation. However, if i’m headed out to lunch and want to see if anyone else is interested in Thai food, I address everyone and allow them to take action or not. I’m all for creative uses of new services like Twitter, but IM it is not.

  • Thomas Hawk

    hmmmm… should I go with Taco Bell for lunch today or soup? Tough choice.

  • Muhammad Saleem

    Thomas, I think you should throw that question up on Twitter. People are dying to help you with your paradox 🙂

  • Chip

    I’m glad to see not everybody is crazy about twitter. 🙂
    Great post!

  • Chris Hemphill

    Thank you for posting this Muhammad I thought I was the only person who wasn’t interested in or even for that matter care one bit about twitter. I also see some security risks in letting people know where and what you are doing at all times.

  • Chas Grundy

    I was skeptical at first. In fact, I’m still skeptical. But the key is understanding that Twitter isn’t a mini blog (see Tumblr). It’s not IM. It’s basically just an away message. In college, AIM and Facebook are often become nothing more than a battle for the most interesting or funny away/status message. Twitter does this, but also provides other ways to extend the usage.
    Our development team is using it to notify us of code commits, for instance. Nobody else will care – it’s just a convenient messaging system we can hook into.

  • Doug

    Great post Muhammad.
    It seems that explaining Twitter’s popularity is a bit of a conundrum to a lot of folks in the “web 2.0 community.” I think that’s because there is no simple answer (obviously, hence the riddle). It seems that a lot of people use it for different reasons…which simultaneously seems to suggest that it could explode or implode by the end of the year.

  • aaron

    I think you’re holding twitter to standards that don’t apply to its intentions. Tweets aren’t about credible information, and the fact that there’s no context is typically what’s entertaining. If you’re trying to extract value from a Rubel / Scobel twitter conversation, I feel for you – it just isn’t there. Twitter is about peering in on people’s offhanded blurts. It can’t be compared to blogging any more than flickr can. All this is coming from a twitter convert – SXSW was my tipping point.

  • Tamar Weinberg

    “Twitter is about peering in on people’s offhanded blurts.”
    That’s a great way to put it and is exactly why I use Twitter.

  • Mario Sundar

    Great post. Well articulated.
    Twitter was hot because all the cool people were on it. It’s also a great conference PR tool; yet again used to the hilt by celebrity bloggers like Scoble. Apart from that I don’t see any major benefit particularly as a blog replacement.

  • Sean

    I’m personally not sold on twitter, and this comes from a young San Franciscan with a mild tech fetish.
    I know lots of people use it in the Web 2.0 community, but I get this itching feeling that people use it because it’s new, because others are using it, and because it’s “cutting edge”. I wonder how popular it will be in 5 years? I mean, can you seriously see this service being widely picked up by the masses like Google or YouTube?
    This is probably too strong of a way to put it, but let’s just say some of Web 2.0 smells of the over enthusiasm that we saw during Web 1.0. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

  • aaron

    Not sure this discussion is still going, but I do think twitter has at least a fighting chance of going perpetual. Twittering (tweeting?) is easy – you can post by web, IM, or SMS. Viewing it is similarly easy (web, IM, SMS, and now twitterrific.) But what people aren’t considering is that tweets have RSS feeds. And not that you need it, but they’ve already put together a widget for bloggers to display their blurts. When twitter widgets start hitting myspace, facebook, virb, etc. it’ll be huge. You’ll be able to post to one place (twitter) and display it everywhere vs posting updates on each social network you participate in. It sounds a lot like flickr.

  • Cam

    A couple of nit-picks:
    1. Twitter is not, nor is it intended to be a blog replacement. It’s merely a tool to keep in touch with what people are up to at any give time. That people have found other uses for it (e.g. as a kind of public IM) that it maybe wasn’t intended for is actually not all that surprising, nor is it necessarily a bad thing.
    2. The Steve Ruble example doesn’t site right — the blog posts are all posts in their own right, fully self-contained pieces of information; the Twitter examples are presented bereft of context, and therefore will of course not make sense when taken as stand-alone bit of information. If you look at the stream that contains Scoble’s ‘tweets’ then it makes more sense as a conversation.
    Having said all that, I’m not a one-eyed Twitter fanboy… the service does have its flaws, but on the whole, it’s an innovative use of the technology, and its ubiquity (web, IM, SMS interfaces) makes it uniquely useful in staying in touch with others.
    As with most technologies, the problem comes with trying to managed the amount of information and the way that it reaches you, similar to the issue that people have with building up a massive number of feeds in their news readers.

  • Daniel R

    Unlike blogs, Twitter does not work on scale. It is not useful to follow 100 conversations – its noise.
    I’ve found it most useful to follow around 5-8 of my friends. San Francisco is a small city, so its a handy way to talk about events, musing etc around our neighborhood. Its easier to maintain than a blog.
    But when Scoble et al are following 400 people – or even 20 – it just becomes noise.
    – Daniel

  • Paul

    Really, who wants to know where I am or what I’m doing every minute of the day? The growth seems to be out of people’s desire to publicize that information (an extension of ego – and I don’t mean that negatively but in the positive sense of ego). Where they will fall apart is that the mobile functionality and use fail to deliver what might be a great service – alerting people of where friends can be located. Unfortunately, such a service could only be provided by MSN, Yahoo, MySpace, or Google as it provides little value unless everyone is using it.

  • William

    A) I rarely use twitter for direct conversation, knowing that my other friends will not see the context. Instead, I send a direct text message! (Unless it’s a particularly clever response that can stand on its own.)
    B) I have unlimited text messaging.
    C) I’m Gen Y and the whole concept of my generation is information sharing. What used to me TMI is now just Regular I. Especially with the rise of sites like MySpace, people from my generation are used to posting private information and happenings for the whole world to see.
    The bulk of my friends list on twitter is family and close friends. It’s a great way to stay in touch! It’s easier than calling or even emailing or texting them all individually.

  • Charlie Rockwave

    “I wonder how popular it will be in 5 years?”
    I bet that it changes quite a bit in 5 years, like other businesses/companies/services.
    They have a business model that could be HUGE here in a mobile culture like Japan.