What makes Twitter Twitter?


I love Twitter. Maybe you do too. If you use Twitter (whether you love it or hate it), what is that makes Twitter, well, Twitter for you? And what would you do if what made Twitter Twitter for you were to change?

The essential oddities of Twitter use
The connectivity, the conversations, and the creativity forced by constraints are all part of what I love about Twitter.

There’s also a real charm in the oddities that are essential to Twitter use: your @’s; your #’s; your RT’s; your MT’s; your ICYMI’s (the list goes on…).

So what if these “oddities” went the way of the dodo?

In a fascinating BuzzFeed article, Charlie Warzel weighs up recent comments from Twitter head of news Vivian Schiller that Twitter views such stalwarts as “@” replies and hashtags as “arcane.”

Schiller is quoted as saying that Twitter is “working on moving the scaffolding of Twitter into the background.”

It’s not certain that the “arcane” essentials of Twitter communications are to be removed. But “Twitter appears to already be phasing out at-replies in its Android alpha test group app.”

Who needs endless possibilities?
I’m a great believer in the idea that creativity can thrive through constraint.

This idea is beautifully expressed (and frequently demonstrated) by Brian Eno. I love Eno’s definition of what he brings to the table as a record producer:

“I try to provide constraints for people.”

Eno expands on what this means:

“What I do can work for any artist. In modern recording one of the biggest problems is that you’re in a world of endless possibilities. So I try to close down possibilities early on. I limit choices. I confine people to a small area of manoeuvre. There’s a reason that guitar players invariably produce more interesting music than synthesizer players: you can go through the options on a guitar in about a minute, after that you have to start making aesthetic and stylistic decisions.”

Twitter is of course all about “limited choices” and “confining people to a small area of manoeuvre.”

What can I possibly say in 140 characters?

What are the fewest words I need to say something?

Who even thought this was an effective way to communicate in the first place?

Why should anyone buy in to such a bizarre mode of communication?

A peculiar sense of belonging
“Twitter, at its core, is a strange service,” says Warzel. “Its foundational feature is an arbitrary 140-character limit.”

Where Warzel’s article gets really interesting for me is in its exploration of why Twitter is so damn strange – and the suggestion that this strangeness could be what keeps us coming back to it:

“Twitter demands significant time and energy from the user up front. It doesn’t fully succeed in telling you how to use the service; it fails, utterly, to tell why you should. Those willing to stick around long enough are rewarded with a peculiar sense of something that could best be described as belonging.”

Many aspects of our daily Twitter use were “born out of user quirks and necessary behaviours,” says Warzel. But he notes that each evolutionary change to Twitter seems designed to make it “more accessible and less strange" – and also to make it “look a lot more like its competitors.”

Change is to be embraced. “Impermanence is the essence of everything,” says Pema Chödrön. “Impermanence is a principle of harmony.”

Language must evolve. So too must the media through which we communicate.

So what makes Twitter Twitter? Would we still love it without its essential oddities?


  • What’s so great about Twitter? More on why I love Twitter.
  • Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards demonstrate how this approach can work in practice. The artist draws a card at random, each of which bears a single instruction (such as “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” and “Are there sections? Try transitions.”), which they are then free to use to shape and inform their work.

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