Why I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter

We’ve been writing a lot at GigaOM lately about different aspects of Twitter’s ongoing evolution — including the way the company is trying to control more and more of its network and the content that flows through it (so that it can monetize all that attention more easily), as well as the tension between that desire for control and the company’s commitment to the principle of free speech. But we haven’t written a lot about how those changes are affecting us as users of Twitter, or what we think of where the company’s evolution is taking it, so I decided to try and put some of those thoughts into a post. And what I realized is that after more than five years on the network, I have a classic love-hate relationship with it.

It’s hard to believe sometimes that Twitter has only been around for a few years as a mainstream media phenomenon, since it has become such a central part of how many of us live our lives — and in my case, at least, how we do our jobs as well. I have a second screen with Tweetdeck open all day long so that I can follow the stream (I follow about 2,700 people), and I have spent years curating lists of important or interesting users in technology and media that I use to track those topics. Both in a personal sense and a work sense, there are hundreds of people I would never have met if it wasn’t for Twitter. It has literally changed my life.

All of that said, however, there are things I don’t like about the service — including my apparent inability to stop using it (which of course is largely my fault, not Twitter’s). And I have to confess that I am concerned about where the network is going based on some of the company’s recent behavior. So here are five things I love and five things I hate about Twitter:

What do I love about Twitter? Real-time news:

  • I love the fact that Twitter gives me real-time information about an incredible variety of things, whether it’s an earthquake or the fact that someone just died (assuming it isn’t another Twitter celebrity-death hoax) and it does so far more quickly than the television news or anything since the old days of news radio. Twitter is like a police-band radio for the entire world.
  • I love that I get a broad variety of viewpoints, both from traditional sources like news outlets and from alternative sources, including people who just happen to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong time, depending on your viewpoint). I like the fact that taking the pulse of the news is as easy as picking up my phone or hearing the “bing” of an incoming tweet.
  • I love that I can get into discussions (and occasionally arguments) at a moment’s notice with someone I respect because of their output but may never have actually met, and that others can join in. And those discussions can happen organically, rather than having to invite someone to a specific location or convince them to sign up with a new service.
  • I love that the brevity of a tweet forces me to be concise and forces me to consider what I am really trying to say and how to say it. This does sometimes turn into a “bumper-sticker” level debate, but it also introduces a lot of discipline, and as a writer I enjoy that.
  • I love that Twitter provides anyone with the ability to publish their thoughts or their feelings or opinions with very little effort, because I think the value that comes from opinions other than our own is worth putting up with a little noise for. I like that Twitter lowers the barriers to real-time information distribution, as co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams has said.

What do I hate? Addiction and control issues

  • As I mentioned above, I don’t like the fact that I am more or less addicted to Twitter now, to the point where I’m not sure what I would do without it. Someone asked me what I would do if the network disappeared, and I said that I figured I could go back to just blogging and comments — but it wouldn’t be the same. It would be like losing a friend, or missing a great dinner party.
  • I also hate that Twitter has become so big now, and has turned into much more of a broadcast network than somewhere you can really talk to people (I think this is part of the appeal of new networks like Google+ and App.net). Most people never post anything to the network, they just follow celebrities or sports teams, and those kinds of accounts rarely interact with “normal” people. The idea of Twitter as a conversational tool seems to be dying.
  • I hate that Twitter seems to be trying very hard to become a broadcast network, and to be best friends with TV networks. I know the company has to make money if it is to continue to grow, but I don’t need new ways to find out what is on television. It might be selfish, but I liked it when Twitter seemed to care more about helping people spread the news about revolutions in Egypt than helping drive eyeballs to prime-time TV shows.
  • I hate that Twitter is cutting off the third-party services I like to use — including Instagram and Tumblr and potentially plenty of others. I hate the fact that I am now nervous about devoting time to Flipboard or Storify because I am afraid they will suddenly disappear or no longer be able to function the way they used to. I don’t think this kind of war on outsiders is necessary, and I hate the way it makes Twitter look cheap and desperate.
  • Lastly, I hate that Twitter’s metamorphosis seems to reinforce the idea that being an open network — one that allows the easy distribution of content across different platforms, the way that blogging and email networks do —isn’t possible, or at least can’t become a worthwhile business. And I hate the fact that trying to justify a private-market valuation cooked up by venture capitalists seems to be driving the company, rather than what is good for users.

Obviously, I am not going to stop using Twitter anytime soon, regardless of what I don’t like about it. There just isn’t any other network that is going to give me what I get from Twitter, without me spending hundreds of hours of time and energy spent trying to duplicate what I have built on top of the service. But at the same time, I am not happy with a lot of what is going on — or what the company’s actions seem to suggest the future might look like — and so I am watching new networks like Google+ and App.net with interest.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users bryan and See-ming Lee