One thing that Twitter is not

Twitter is not a log book.

I had a grumpy moment this morning.  Someone on Twitter was encouraging people to:

Scare yourself sh*tless about your caffeine intake: for a week, #tweeteverycoffee – comments on quality/location optional…

My response, slightly shamefully:

sorry- sounds a bit pointless to me. Track your own caffeine intake, sure, but don’t expect me to be interested.

Again: Twitter is not a log book.

I’m aware that a lot of people think that the whole of Twitter is pointless.  It’s not.  People all over the world are using it to stay in touch with their friends, promote their businesses, announce everything from blog updates to the birth of their children, 140 characters at a time.  You can say a lot in 140 characters.

Unfortunately, you can say a whole lot of nothing in 140 characters, too.  And, for me, a bald statement (“I ate cheese!”  “I collected the mail!”) is more nothing than I want to deal with.  I don’t care how good a friend you are; the fact that you are eating takeout for the third time this week is not going to set my world on fire – unless you tell me something interesting, touching, funny or thought provoking to go with it.

Why Twitter is not a log book

There are two problems with using Twitter to log things like your caffeine intake, or your exercise regime, or what you had for lunch.

One is that your Twitter archives aren’t really very searchable.  You can put the information in alright, but can you get it out again?  More importantly, can you get it out in a usable format?  How will you actually find out how many cups of coffee you drank in a week?  You’re better off getting a habits tracking app for your iPhone (GoalMaster is good), or using a spreadsheet, or even tally marks on the back of an envelope.

The second problem is bigger.  Twitter is really about one long, ongoing, distributed conversation – and announcements like “I fetched the mail!” both interrupt the existing conversation and fail to start a new one.  You’re not giving your readers anything for their brains to latch on to.  By peppering your tweets with this kind of comment, you are decreasing your signal to noise ratio (the number of ‘things’ you say compared to the number of ‘nothings’) significantly, and you will start to be ignored.  People will glance past your best tweets, assuming they are yet more noise.  When you want to announce something really important, your friends will think you’re just checking in at the store again.  You will not be included on anyone’s “people I really like to follow” lists, and your posts will be missed.  In the end, people will stop following you.

A better way

I’m not saying you can’t use Twitter as a motivational tool in your quest to better your habits, but if you’re going to post your progress in a public forum, don’t you want us to cheer along with you?  Don’t you want to record how high up the hill you’ve climbed, not just the fact that you’ve taken another step?

Let’s say you want to start taking your own lunch to work instead of depending on the mayo-based sandwiches sold by the catering van.  Tell us that, and tell us why.  Cost?  Health?  The van’s sandwiches are just plain grim?  You’ve added a human touch already.  I know something about your thoughts and your motivation.  Set yourself a goal, publicly – and check in in a few days, or a week, and let us know how you’re doing.  Now I can cheer you along!  Example time:

Lunch: leftovers from last night.

Lunch: homemade sandwich – ham and tomato

Lunch: Bought ham salad baguette from van.

Lunch: Homemade sandwich – peanut butter.

Lunch: Pie and chips down the pub.

Or as an alternative, let’s try:

Remembered to pack leftovers for lunch today; would have been easier last night. Did you know that chili reheats really well?

Celebration! Packed sandwiches for today’s lunch last night. Downside: sliced tomatoes made the bread v. soggy.

Forgot to make lunch last night; too tired this morning. Managed to avoid mayo though: ham salad baguette from van

Peanut butter sandwiches from home today.  Running out of ideas – can anyone suggest easy/healthy lunches to bring from home?

Pub lunch! I love Fridays. Money saved Mon/Tue/Thur paid for my pie and chips. Had homemade lunch 3/5 days this week!

Which would you rather read?  The second one is still a bit facile, sure, but it passes on the finding of the week (chili reheats well; tomato sandwiches don’t keep so well; three days’ worth of sandwiches pay for the pub lunch on the Friday); it asks for user feedback; it records progress over the week.  I’m likely to unfollow the first writer.  But I’m likely to cheer on the second.

By the way…

I’m @yarnscape on Twitter, and I’m not normally this grumpy, honestly.  And I’d like to apologise to @danielsladen and @giraffetweet, who happened to get in the way of my grumpy moment this morning.


  • I’ve never felt the urge to twitter or tweet or twiddle or whatever it is. On the other hand, I don’t text, either. I may have been born in the wrong century…

    13th January 2011
  • Great post, babe. And you’ve just summed up one of my main reasons for packing in Twitter for the second time. Actually there are enough reasons for a blog post of my own, if I could be 4rsed writing it. Executive summary: other people’s late-nite drunken (and morning after) oversharing; my own increasingly addictive Twitter-related behaviour. Sadly, being a second-time Qwuitter makes me feel as though I’m losing touch with my friends (especially as I’m also a Facebook refusenik).
    Speaking of which, could you send me your email address? I need to ask you something.

    13th January 2011
  • twitter is off my radar… but if more people tweeted (hmm Freusdian slip, I just mistyped that as “twitted”) in the way you suggest, I might try to work out what it is all about!

    14th January 2011
  • So yeah, you’re right really. Twitter is rubbish as a journalling tool (but then so’s Word, yet people use it to record all sorts of data when they have Excel sitting unopened next to it on their programs menu). And reading the banal details of people’s lives, reduced to 140 characters by carefully removing any wit or originality from the basic idea is pretty depressing. But in the same way as the SMS was never really intended as a bulk communication medium, yet got adopted as such, what Twitter is good for is sometimes the opposite of what it should be good for.

    Take the #tweeteverycoffee tag for example. It’s not a rational way of recording caffeine intake, and it’s not interesting for the reader. And yet there’s a kind of virtuous circle: most tweeters become compulsive about it, so whereas they wouldn’t fill in their coffee spreadsheet for more than a day, they like having something to tweet so will maintain their attention on the caffeine project for far longer. On the other side, the basic idea of sending a tweet about coffee provides a hook to hang something creative on, or to start commenting on the merits of different coffees, or espresso machines, or cafes, and all of those other nice things that get communities of shared interest going.

    And there’s the general social media interest value of seeing how dumb a hashtag one can get to trend (basic answer: if you’re famous, pretty much as dumb as you like because a thousand slavish followers will join in; if you’re not famous it probably won’t get picked up however good it is). Experimenting with this kind of thing shows what a myth internet democracy is, and how corporate power and real-world celebrity drive the dynamics of most social media.

    So with this experiment I’ve found an interesting blog (this one), had a couple of conversations with people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, and thought about the way I drink coffee. In a rational world you wouldn’t use Twitter to get to any of those outcomes in this way; but then we’re not very rational as a species.

    14th January 2011

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