Thou shalt deal with it, verily

Tuesday 16th Feb 2010

One of the great things about Twitter is that it’s open-ended. You can use it how you want, it doesn’t impose any structures on you, you don’t have to do it this way, or that way, or whatever. Trouble is, there are people out there who don’t like things like that, they want control; they want to control you, what you write, and how you write it.

You know the sort, they write articles like, “10 things you shouldn’t tweet about” which listed a bunch of stuff that I’m sure I’ve tweeted about and may well tweet about in the future. I even say “I tweeted” something, rather than “I posted on Twitter” because, for crying out loud, why not? I retweet things, sometimes using the new built-in thing, sometimes, quelle horreur, “RT” and other times using “/via”, and I even used an em dash for a while. Big deal. Did anyone actually fail to understand what I was saying? I doubt it, and if they did it wasn’t because of the specific formatting I used.

Then we get to apps like Feathers. Sure, there are some issues around it if you write a word in the unicode equivalent of ASCII-art, there are people who won’t have the character set on their shitbox phones or whatever, or something’s mangled the formatting and it’s just garbage they’re getting. It’s a problem that they can’t read your tweets, but hey, they’re your tweets, you can write what the hell you want whether it makes sense or not. If you want to smack your head into the keyboard a few times and then click “Post” then so be it. No-one is forced to read anyone else’s tweets so if you’ve a problem, unfollow them, preferably without metaphorically flouncing out and slamming the door, but hey, if you want to do that, again, no-one is stopping you.

The rise of the machines

No, I think some of the objections to all the different formats, the character-art tweets, the retweets and all that, come from ideas of data-validation and cleanliness. Twitter could be a vast database of the thoughts and outpourings of online humanity, and with one query you can find out an aggregate opinion on Subject X, and with another the general mood of everyone in Place Y, and it’ll be amazing and we’d have created a great new thing, a record of our collective lives, a great social encyclopædia, of incredible use to future historians! Using different formats, screwing around with how you write words, posting garbage, dingbats, retweets, they all add noise, duplication errors: unindexable data. We’re making it hard for machines to work out what we’re saying.

I call bullshit on this. If we want to index Twitter, then we index it as it is. The 140 character limit is enough of a restriction already - and besides, if you do want to use Twitter as some kind of historical resource (and I’m sure it will be) then all the noise, all the varying forms of retweeting are just as important as the tweets themselves. Twitter is full of crap, and it will stay that way. Moaning about “unicode spam” (whatever that is) and how you’re “not tweeting properly” isn’t going to change that one bit - just follow the people who don’t post crap and unfollow the ones who do, if that’s what you care about.