A bit of a follow-up to last week’s posting on Twitter, which seemed to come out as part of a society-wide post-Oprah/Ashton Twitter backlash.

When assessing something like Twitter, I think it’s important to remember that it’s just a tool, and as David Pogue has written, it is whatever you make of it. My objection is not so much with the tool itself, but to the way it’s being used, or at least the way so many are advising that I use it. I do understand that there is a power in Twitter, in both its immediacy and its accessibility. And that it can be a very valuable tool when used in a correct context. Cameron Neylon gives a great example of a specific situation where Twitter was very handy. He describes an ad hoc group put together to discuss a webcast meeting that led to the organization of a new meeting on the subject. Twitter worked well because people could contact one another in real-time, and more importantly, a widespread group was able to find one another to connect. It’s interesting to note that Neylon and his group needed to move beyond Twitter to other tools better suited for their efforts. While the 140 character limit is often pitched as a “feature” of Twitter, in reality, it’s a drawback to serious conversation and the communication of information. It either leads to shallow discussions or to kludgy workarounds like sending shortened URLs of webpages where you’ve written out what you actually want to say.

The issue isn’t with using something like Twitter in that sort of situation, where it’s appropriate and useful. The issue is with the idea that we’re all supposed to subscribe to one another’s tweets and spend chunks of our day reading through the gibberish that makes up so much of Twitter’s traffic. The telephone is also a useful tool, but no one is suggesting you leave the speakerphone on in your office all day to listen to the idle conversations of strangers. The stereotype so often used to deride Twitter is someone sending out messages about what they are having for breakfast. Jason Kottke attempts to defend the banality in so much of Twitter by noting that people are inherently banal, so trivial and meaningless conversations are to be expected. The problem I have with this is understanding why I would deliberately subject myself to even more banality than I face in my real life. Yes, we all generate and tolerate a good deal of smalltalk in our lives. But do we want to commit extra time to collecting more of it? Is it somehow more meaningful if it comes from a famous or respected person? Am I supposed to get off on the frisson of knowing what Ashton Kutcher is watching on tv?

Like most working professionals, I am limited in my time and attention, and need to spend both judiciously. While serendipity can lead to interesting new directions, it’s a highly inefficient process and directed methods are always going to be preferred where possible. So Twitter strikes me as a tool that can prove useful in a directed manner in specific situations. It’s the idea of using it for sorting haystacks for needles that strikes me as uninteresting.