I have been extremely online since the late 1990s. I’ve been using The Internet socially since I was a teenager, so the concept of a “social network” has always seemed a little reductive to me.
For me and my peers, a social network is maybe a more connected and organized internet experience. A simplification and centralization of a bunch of tools we were already using.
In light of the recent acquisition (and subsequent workplace hell) of Twitter by Elon Musk I’ve been giving some thought to why I like(d) Twitter and how I’ve been using The Internet socially over the years.
I’ve come up with a short list of things I look for in a “social network.”
News is the foundation of many social interactions. It gives us something to talk about.
I’ve never been one to religiously check a particular edited “newspaper” daily. I find that they always have too much and too little of what I care about.
Similarly, RSS has never really worked well for me as a source of news. As soon as you follow one or two more active sources, you end up with a giant inbox of unread articles every morning. I don’t enjoy wading through every single news story in the universe to find the ones I might be interested in.
Purely algorithmic news (recently via Apple News) is just as bad, or worse. The news algorithm never quite finds the right articles for me either.
Reddit is decent. However, I seem to have curated a feed where the news:lulz ratio skews highly “lulz.” I kind of like it that way, I don’t go to Reddit purely for news.
On Twitter thought I’ve been able to tune my feed to act as a curated news source (with low lulz volume). I rarely blindly follow someone on Twitter without first taking a cursory look at their timeline to see if they’ve posted links or retweets that I’d be interested in.
This approach has given me a timeline that’s full of good quality content that I’m genuinely interested in reading.
I try to be cognizant of the echo chamber this might create but to some degree this feels like a problem outside the scope of a social network. Keeping in open mind is more important than anything else.
Ever since the early days of IRC one of the most compelling features of The Internet to me has been the ability to have genuine social interactions with people from around the world.
These interactions typically take the form of semi-asynchronous, low stakes, casual comment threads.
But every once in a while these casual interactions become true friendships and slide into more synchronous messaging.
As an introvert, I’ll often start up a DM conversation with a friend to fill the time nervously waiting for something in an unfamiliar situation. Be that waiting for a business meeting with a new client at a restaurant in Winnipeg or anxiously waiting for a flight in Munich.
The Internet has truly made the world a smaller place. Social networks and their adjacent messaging systems enable this. And it’s awesome!
An Audience for Thought Bubbles
The Internet has been ingrained in my life for so long that posting an interesting thought or unusual question to “the internet” is a natural outcome of my thought process.
Twitter is the perfect medium for these types of thought bubbles because the character limit strongly encourages short content.
I could technically post all of these little thoughts and questions here on this blog but even if my blog had an audience the size of twitter I doubt I would get the same level of quality engagement. Blogging is fundamentally different from tweeting. It’s the reason I have written over 22,000 tweets and only published 433 blog posts.
Twitters’ focus on the character limit has sets it apart in the history of social networks. It’s one of the biggest pieces of its success.
A Central Meeting Space
Social networks serve an important role as a central repository of “you.” A place where people can find you, find links to the broader you and even meet you.
Theoretically a personal websites could serve the same purpose but the killer feature of any social network (by definition) is its tendency to put your face in front of people you don’t know and who you might like to meet.
You can @ or DM almost anyone on Twitter and — with the exception of the biggest names and most “important” people — you can expect to receive a genuine reply from them.
This is one of the coolest things about Twitter. I’ve never had this experience anywhere else on the internet. It’s the punkest of rock.
These various components of a good online social experience have been available online for decades. IRC, Geocities, ICQ/AIM/MSN, forums, LiveJournal, Blogger, MySpace, tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram just to name a few of the places and ways in which I’ve experienced them over the years. Not to mention the probably a half dozen websites and apps we’ve all totally forgotten about.
Twitter is special.
Twitter has collapsed social interaction into one platform in a unique way that will be very difficult to supersede. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever have anything quite like it again and I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Mastodon and other apps attempting feature parity are missing the magic. There’s something intangible about the way that users have come to interact on Twitter that can’t be replicated by features alone.
The next Twitter will look quiet different.