Image: whale
The adorable, iconic Twitter "Fail Whale" magically appears when Barbara Walters mentions the microblogging site on "The View" — or any other time too much activity causes Twitter to crash.
Helen Popkin
updated 3/6/2009 9:40:23 AM ET 2009-03-06T14:40:23

Micro-famous art blogger Paddy Johnson recently hepped her readers to a social networking application that actually makes Twitter seem relevant and interesting — at least to me. It's Cursebird, a "real-time feed of people swearing on Twitter," and it is awesome.

Not only does it relay (or "retweet" as the kids say) profane Twitter posts, the Cursebird home page features the top five bad words currently ranking on the social network along with percentage points, the cursing stats of random foul-fingered tweeters, and a search feature to check just how nasty your Twitter pals can be.

Beyond this and a couple of other independently developed Twitter apps that cater to my outer juvenile, I don’t much care for Twitter. Also, I’m really sick of hearing about it. Suddenly Twitter is the Snuggie of social networking. Everyone’s yammering about it endlessly and  busting out his or her own Twitter feed as awkwardly as wearing a blanket with sleeves.

Seriously. If you’re not Shaq, I don’t want to read it. Alas, I am forced to acknowledge the "perfect storm" (two more words I'd greatly appreciate never hearing again) that led to Twitter’s current critical mass, as well as its myriad usefulness — even if most people haven’t yet figured out how to use it right.

In 2007 I wrote about Twitter in a column titled " Twitter Nation: Nobody cares what you're doing ." Since then, a plethora of events helped reveal the microblogging site as a powerful tool, though its full potential is yet to be harnessed.

This — um — weather pattern involving the collision of a northeaster, a large high pressure system, and unusually cold Canadian air pushing down plus moisture and warm air pushing up from a hurricane to the south, includes a couple of things.

First, an increasing number of search and sort applications make Twitter easier to mold to personal preferences and use. There’s also the hip-to-be-nerd president who incorporated this and other social networking outlets to help ensure his bid. Let’s not forget the oft-referenced American student sprung from an Egyptian jail after tweeting about his incarcerated status. And of course, the tourist who used the application "twitpic" to show the world his cell photo of the Hudson River plane landing.

No wonder Twitter’s the most popular social network on campus. Even Facebook’s getting twitchy — its new format bears an eerie resemblance to Twitter in both usability and design.

But guess what? Nobody still doesn’t care what you’re doing. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the increasing number of you from telling us — in 140 characters or less. As Johnson aptly summarizes in her blog, Twitter "isn’t just a Web app, it’s a search engine … a filter… a headline generator ideal for scanning … a semi-permeable membrane (excuse the cliché), that allows users to filter the information coming in, while maximizing the distribution outwards."

Gadgets that make you look like a jerkUnfortunately, it's also a magnet for extreme narcissism —a fact lost on many attempting to harness The Twitter. How is it that every bit of new technology causes every eventual adopter to forget the social contract?

Take cell phones. Even the kindest and most careful will talk and text while driving —which is always a ( potentially deadly ) jerk move. Co-workers or friends respectful to your face will load an e-mail with all the passive aggression that fits. The reasonably well-adjusted enter chat rooms for the sole purpose of flaming, or load their " Facebook 25 " with weirdly manipulative confessions of hardship that is too much information for any setting other than a shrink’s couch. So it is with Twitter.

Like most new technology, Twitter provides an immediacy to share anything almost instantly; the constant presence of a tool to do just that seems to make it an imperative. It’s not. Baby fingers fit in light sockets. Should you put them there?

Note the much-lampooned behavior during President Obama’s first address to Congress. Instead of acting like the grown-ups we constituents reasonably expect our representatives to be, an obnoxious few couldn’t resist getting their Id on. Rather than paying attention to their guest — you know, the president of the United States — this embarrassing contingent instead chose to tweet their bon mots to the world. Because, you know — if you don’t Twitter it, it didn’t happen.

If voyeurism is your thing, this is why Twitter is for you. Many a tweeter uses it like the psychiatrist's couch. The couch provides the opportunity for the patient to avoid eye contact with the shrink, making the patient less self-conscious and more likely to just say what's on his or her mind. Now replace that one paid and trained professional on one end and the single unguarded confessor with everyone, and you can start to see why it's fun to read tweets (like on Cursebird).

Beyond voyeurism, Twitter’s usefulness means fitting the tool to the task. Twitter is good for snapshot commentary (breaking news or conferences, for example), for comedy, for link-sharing, for building your personal-brand (barf), for promoting things and in some cases, for pointillism — a sea of tiny disparate dots that together form a picture, or as with Twitter, a trend.

Twitter’s terrible for summing up anything more than a drive-by comment or, "Hey look at that," and it's worse yet for conversation or discussion. NBC News anchor Brian Williams recently told "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart that he doesn’t Twitter, nor does he intend to. Good. I don't want Brian Williams' tweet about world news any more than I want a three-word description of a sunset by Ernest Hemingway. Anyone can tell me, "it is reddish." That's not why you hire Hemingway.

Really good tweets can be like haiku, or a series can have you peeing yourself (check out  frostinglickr), but it's a question of matching meaning to medium. You don't tell the story of Hamlet in a rap song. And I like both Hamlet and rap.

Tweeting has its place. When the general shape and the texture of an experience are enough, but the ideas aren't nuanced, contextual, or otherwise in need of synthesis, it's great.

Otherwise it's a bit of a mess. It's good pointillism when it's used by friends keeping up on what one another are up to. With Twitter, the shape is more important than the nuance.

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