Communities within Communities

There is an op-ed floating around Twitter today: As a social network, Twitter is a dud. Is it ironic that an article deriding Twitter is being spread on Twitter? Irony is so ill-defined.

Twitter is not for everyone, and I respect that, but the author, Alex Groves, seems to be basing his entire point of view on Ashton Kutcher. Alex claims (and this may well be true; I don’t know since I’m never on Facebook) that “[t]he only problem with all this twittering by celebrities and politicians is that they are on Facebook much more often.”

Based on this, Alex argues that Twitter is an “unnecessary” alternative to Facebook walls and warns that “[b]y spending more time on social networks and the Internet than we need to, we enable ourselves to become reclusive, sheltered from family and friends.”

What Alex is ignoring is that most people are not (just) following celebrities. If we look at the number of “following” relationships—even relatively inactive people often follow 30 or 40 others—the 1 million “follows” of Mr. Kutcher seems much, much less impressive.

What occurs to me, the more I see Twitter on newspaper websites and on the Today show, is that there are multiple communities within a larger community like Twitter.

On the very smallest scale, you may have a “community” of family and friends that are mostly following each other. You may have a TweetDeck group set up for them. That kind of mutual relationship leads to what Clive Thompson of the Times called “ambient awareness“. I would encourage Alex to read Mr. Thompson’s article, it might answer his question: “How does one know if his friends are OK?”

Now, Alex is absolutely right that spending too much time on the internet can take time away from other meaningful activities, like “enjoy[ing] a crisp, clean-smelling spring morning.” (With my allergies, I don’t think I have ever “enjoy[ed]” that.)

But the same could be said about almost any aspect of life. Too much time at work causes you to lose time with the family. Too much time away from work can make you lose your job. Too much time using computers can give you carpal tunnel.

On the large end of communities, I think you could classify several, such as “people interested in social networking,” “people interested in marketing,” “people interested in programming” (I’m in all three of these communities) “people interested in celebrities,” “people interested in news,” “people interested in .”

I would argue that these communities reflect real-life relationships the same way the small communities do. A person who is more likely to read Us Weekly is probably more likely to follow more celebrities. A person who enjoys Britney Spears’ music is more likely to follow her. Just as I am more likely to make a joke about the word “const” on a construction sign, I am more likely to follow John Resig.

Alex asks, “[w]ith all the good we can do online, including disseminating information and spreading knowledge, why do we become obsessed with Britney Spears tweeting about playing with the boys on tour?”

I contend that the people Alex is really criticizing (surely many of the newest users) are the same people snapping up People at the checkout lane and watching TMZ in the mornings. Furthermore, he fails to recognize the rather large community of users that uses Twitter to share information and resources, follow the lives of people who may be emotionally, but not physically close, or generate other types of value.

The complaints he levies could—arguably should—be equally directed at Facebook, MySpace, several websites, magazines and TV shows. Alex is confusing “Twitter” with a culture of “celebrity worship.”

I argue that the people creating value off Twitter (and Facebook) are the same people creating it on Twitter. If all you follow on Twitter are celebrities, you obviously aren’t contributing much to that community’s conversation. On the other hand, if your community is broad, and includes peers, friends, family, then you have a unique opportunity to both benefit from, and provide benefit to, that community.

Fortunately, the way Twitter works, I don’t need to follow those celebrities. And neither do you, Alex.