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Why the Twitter Haters Are Wrong

By Mike Elgan
February 25, 2009

When Twitter was a scrappy underdog in the Web 2.0 eyeball wars, chatter about the service was like some kind of 1969 San Francisco love-in. But now that major newspapers are writing about it, celebrities are using it and Congressmen are abusing it, the haters are coming out of the woodwork.

I understand. Twitter feels trendy. And trendy things (not to mention trendy people) usually deserve our scorn and ridicule. But most of the Twitter haters are misguided and confused.

The UK's Times Online quotes a couple of psychologists this week equating the use of Twitter with insecurity. "Twittering stems from a lack of identity," one writes. "It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.” "Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognize you, you cease to exist," said another.

The article then goes on to mischaracterize Twitter and its followers based on a huge number of absurd assumptions based on nothing. Twitter users are "young" devoid of an "inner life" and "feel marginalized, empty and pointless."

Really, Times Online? Are you sure?

This is how the haters hate Twitter -- by hating a subset of its users. The haters think Twitter users are by definition narcissistic, insecure, shallow, self-indulgent and insist on sharing every mundane detail of their dismal and pointless lives.

Unfortunately for the haters, this view is easily proved false. Twitter users are, essentially, everybody and they tweet about, essentially, everything.

Sure, some people post things like “Just ate a bagel” or “hung over this morning… too much Triple Sec!” If you choose to seek out and follow narcissistic, insecure, shallow, self-indulgent people who insist on sharing every mundane detail of their pointless lives, there’s something wrong with you, not the Twitter service.

People also use Twitter to link to brilliant academic works, poetry, music and political discourse. Some users are extraordinarily insightful and witty. You can follow whomever you like. To focus on shallow users is to pretend that you didn’t choose to follow them.

And some haters even hate themselves for how they feel about Twitter.

Steven Levy writes about what he calls the "Burden of Twitter," which is that he feels guilty when he doesn't post something, and he regrets it when he does.

The Guilt arises when he doesn’t post something because he feels he’s disappointing his followers and failing to give back to the community. Give me a break. Nobody cares if you post anything, Steven. I've got more bad news for you: All those thousands of people who have given you their business cards over the years? Yeah, they're not sitting there staring tearfully at their telephones for you to call, either.

Levy also finds it creepy to share "intimacies" with a "community." Um, again, nobody's twisting your arm here, Steven. I find it bizarre that a journalist and author who publishes his stories in Newsweek and writes bestselling books is queasy and unsure about communicating with a large number of people.

Admittedly, Levy's piece wasn't a criticism per se, but more of an exercise in how social sites like Twitter make us feel. My advice: Get over it.

The bottom line is that most Twitter criticism is really criticism about other people, or self-criticism. Twitter itself is merely a medium, and one that is different and awesome precisely because every user can control exactly who to follow and what to post. It’s like the telephone. When you hear some narcissistic teenager yammering away on something pointless, you don’t attack the telephone system. Because, well, that would be idiotic.

The fact is that Twitter can be a breaking news resource, a celebrity gossip site, a business workgroup communication tool, a personal diary, a way to track packages or thousands of other things. It's whatever you want it to be.

Also: Twitter is not an activity that one does as an alternative to other activities, such as enjoying news stories, watching events on TV, or participating in a hobby. It's simply a better way to enhance and communicate about other activities.

Don't worry, haters. The Twitter hype will soon fade away. In fact, the more useful and ubiquitous Twitter gets, the less hype and excitement it will generate. Twitter will be accepted and used by huge numbers of people, but nobody will care. For example, the telephone is infinitely more useful than Twitter, but there's zero hype about it. Twitter will be just like that soon enough.

So haters: Stop complaining about how shallow and narcissistic Twitter is, and start following someone interesting. Like me!: twitter.com/mike_elgan