Is Twitter TOO good?
Twitter scares me. For all its popularity, I see at least three issues: 1) it's a near-perfect example of the psychological principle of intermittent variable reward, the key addictive element of slot machines. 2) The strong "feeling of connectedness" Twitterers get can trick the brain into thinking its having a meaningful social interaction, while another (ancient) part of the brain "knows" something crucial to human survival is missing. 3) Twitter is yet another--potentially more dramatic--contribution to the problems of always-on multi-tasking... you can't be Twittering (or emailing or chatting, of course) and simultaneously be in deep thought and/or a flow state.
[Disclaimer: I'm SO in the minority on this one... it looks like about a hundred-to-one in favor of Twitter, so I'm most likely way wrong on this one (but it doesn't stop me from trying). And this post is mostly a mashup of a variety of earlier posts I've made on related subjects.]
I'll look at each of the three points in more detail:
1) The Twitter Slot Machine
One of Skinner's most important discoveries is that behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to extinguish. In other words, intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards. It's the basis of most animal training, but applies to humans as well... which is why slot machines are so appealing, and one needn't be addicted to feel it.
From a Time magazine feature story on multitasking:
Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist,...believes part of the allure of e-mail--for adults as well as teens--is similar to that of a slot machine. "You have intermittent, variable reinforcement," she explains. "You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle."
2) The feeling of connectedness
The biggest benefit most people seem to be deriving from Twitter is the ability to feel more connected to others. Carson Systems' Lisa put it this way in a comment to Tara Hunt's defense of Twitter:
"Twittering fills in those gaps...recording our friends’ feelings, geographic location and actions as if we were spookily almost there. That makes us feel *really* connected..."
Is this really a good thing?
Probably, yes. For most people, perhaps. But I think it's worth a critical look as opposed to an automatic connected-is-awlays-implicitly-good response. UCSF neurobiologist Thomas Lewis claims that if we're not careful, we can trick a part of our brain into thinking that we're having a real social interaction--something crucial and ancient for human survival--when we actually aren't. This leads to a stressful (but subconscious) cognitive dissonance, where we're getting some of what the brain thinks it needs, but not enough to fill that whatever-ineffable-thing-is-scientists-still-haven't-completely-nailed-but-might-be-smell. He didn't make this claim about Twitter... I attended his talk at The Conference on World Affairs, and he was addressing e-mail, chat, and even television (brain recognizes it's looking at "people", and feels it must be having a social connection (GOOD), but yet it knows something's missing (BAD).
Dr. Lewis cited a ton of studies which I didn't write down, so you can take this with a grain of salt. Plus, I'm extending his issues from e-mail and chat to Twitter. But part of the reasons he talks about are that our brain has evolved an innate ability to interpret body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. so the brain expects these channels of information and becomes distressed when the social interaction appears to be there, but these innate, legacy-brain pieces are missing.
Again, this doesn't mean that it's not worth it and highly valuable for people TO stay connected to far-flung family and friends, I'm just saying that it's worth a look at whether that might be lulling some folks into a false sense of "I'm connected" at the expense of real-life connections.
Coffee with your next-door neighbor could do more for your brain than a thousand Twitter updates.
While this same argument has been going around forever, and is the same claim made about television, that doesn't make it untrue. (There's that study about the isolated Canadian village whose collective IQ went down once cable finally came to the village... Lewis cites it in his talks, although I can't find it referenced online).
Ironically, services like Twitter are simultaneously leaving some people with a feeling of not being connected, by feeding the fear of not being in the loop. By elevating the importance of being "constantly updated," it amplifies the feeling of missing something if you're not checking Twitter (or Twittering) with enough frequency.
3) Twitter is the best/worst cause of continuous partial attention
From an earlier post of mine:
Worst of all, this onslaught is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.
And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.
We're already seeing a backlash response to info overload, and it seems like a good chunk of Web 2.0 VC investments are going to companies that promise to help us get/stay organized. There's a reason 43 Folders is a Top 100 blog, and it's got to be more than just Merlin Mann's good looks ; )
Lots of people are talking about this, and perhaps nobody more eloquently than Linda Stone:
"To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking."
Do I think Twitter has benefits? Clearly, and Tara does a great job of defining them (although not everyone agrees that these things are all benefits, they are for her and that's what matters).
Do I think people can use Twitter responsibly, without letting it get out of control or become too much of a distraction or encourage the same kind of voyeurism that makes tabloid news and TV so pervasively popular in the US?
All I'm saying is that beyond the hype, we should consider just how far down the rabbit hole of always-on-attention we really want to go.
I am not in the target audience for Twitter--I am by nature a loner. I don't want to be that connected. And I also have a huge appreciation for the art of keeping the mystery alive. I don't want to know that much about so many people, and I sure don't want people to know that much about me... mundane or otherwise. So, that puts me in the minority, and my Twitter fears are probably based solely on my own--quirky and less common--personality traits.
Posted by Kathy on March 16, 2007 | Permalink
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Kathy, you're dead-on with this assessment. In fact we were just talking about Twitter phenomenon that came from nowhere this morning in our office and how you couldn't pay me to get bombarded with the brainless twitter updates that people are sending around every second. The power of variable ratio reinforcement is huge. I know they say that the younger generation needs constant stimulation but at some point there can't possibly be concentration in the face of this deluge of communications.
btw, i wrote up a simple technique for gmail users to cope with this effect in their inbox and it's worked well for me: http://www.scrollinondubs.com/2007/02/13/productivity-blinders-for-gmail-users/
Posted by: Sean Tierney | Mar 16, 2007 2:11:46 PM
These are well thought out points about Twitter. I've just recently started to use it because, you know, the bridge didn't look that dangerous, and so far it's been fun. Granted I only have two people I'm following so I'm not sweating under a deluge of tweets and I'm sure I'll never use it for anything other than fun.
What I've noticed is I often use twitter as a mirror. That is, I use it as a source of awareness not a tool to take awareness away but to enhance it. Saying to myself I Am This Thing can be a powerful transformational statement.
Using Twitter as a means of translating your behaviors is probably how it's most conceptualized and used but it could also be used as a personal transformational tool, not a translating one (do vs. deep being). It could be, I'm not saying it is, but it could be, used as a tool to get into flow and be aware of flow. I mean, I've used it to post short little poems which helped ease me into a nice stream of writing, for one example.
I'm not defending Twitter. Hell I might not be using it in a week but I think its intended purpose and its possible usages diverge at some point.
Posted by: A.M. Griffin | Mar 16, 2007 2:12:47 PM
Thank you. :) I spent SXSW, it seems, having arguments with people about Twitter! I do wonder whether I am just not "with it," but it somehow felt faddish to me. The idea of constant interruptions like that would drive me nuts -- IM interrupts me too much as it is. I can see the value in a situation like conferences -- but the #1 purpose I saw Twitter being put to at SXSW was to coordinate people getting together at the right party or bar. :)
Posted by: Raph | Mar 16, 2007 2:13:13 PM
Amen to some sanity! I'll ping in as likely being a bit of a loner as well, but I don't want _more_ things, I want _higher_quality_ things, and I already can't put enough _quality_ into many of the things I do. Twitter is a manual intervention into something that is sufficiently taken care of by status on IM. Upping the noise to the extent that twitter does really isn't that useful, and isn't going to get you using your neurons, but it will get you imagining perceptions of things that you believe are the conditions, but are not. It's text. The context is perceived as high only if the context with the people on your "twitter network" are already high. Count me out. And the idea coming from some analysts that people like Jonathan Schwartz should twitter? The CEO of Sun? Please don't. I value my shares! His blog is genius, and provides an excellent level of connection with him on one dimension. Thanks for a counterpoint on this phenom Kathy!
Posted by: Dallas Hockley | Mar 16, 2007 2:14:18 PM
I too find it so deeply, deeply disconcerting that just soooo many people seem to love Twitter, and as such I found this post so refreshing. My response to Twitter has generally been simply, "WTF???!!" whereas you discuss the subject here with an eloquence and depth I could never hope to have achieved.
So, erm... well said! Me too!! : )
Posted by: Dave Foy | Mar 16, 2007 2:18:05 PM
Yay! another person who's challenging the "always on" psychosis we're tied up in. I posted on my own blog about this too in which I said:
"What are we teaching our clients and colleagues? We’re teaching them that there are no more boundaries. Instant availability, instant access, instant blurring and instant gratification. It’s not possible to meet anybody else’s needs to that extent – we will wear ourselves out, increase stress and erode the ability to care about others. Saying “no” is a fundamental boundary setting exercise if not done appropriately leads to an inability to manage our wants and desires."
Posted by: annette | Mar 16, 2007 2:30:37 PM
I myself have struggled to understand the twitter phenomenon. Look, I'm 24, I am involved in not one but two startups (http://Planyp.us - where friends make plans, and Cohesive FT - a virtual appliance middleware company). I consider myself pretty geeky and highly social at the same time. Shouldn't I be the perfect demographic for twitter?
Yet..I find it to be more a distraction than a bringer of value. It seems to me that the people who have embraced it the most are the really active bloggers. Those who are already used to posting updates about their life more than once a day. For me..I blog maybe once a week when I have something worth writing about. Most of the other time I spend actually working on my own stuff and reading other people's blog posts on topics related to what I'm working on.
I can see twitter being useful (maybe) as a sort of virtual office, but then it's just about the same as IM or chatrooms, except that it might make it a little easier to build virtual rooms on the fly by following the people you need to follow. As a way of keeping up with the 'cool kids' I just don't see the value, sorry. I already have way too many blogs to read (probably 50-100 in my blogroll) and adding the twitter stream to that seems excessive.
All that said, I do recognize that the cool kids are on twitter so we're releasing twitter support for Planypus very shortly :-)
Posted by: Yan | Mar 16, 2007 2:34:33 PM
If you're in the minority, Kathy, then we live in a sad world indeed. I was having a similar conversation yesterday about Second Life which I think has the potential to do even more damage to human social interaction, but I won't go there...
All of the justifications I hear for using (and being hooked on) these services can generally be distilled into a single sentence: it makes me feel good. But as you point out, it doesn't give people everything they really need or want, it just tricks them into thinking that.
It's like virtual crack; no matter how much of it you get, you'll never be satisfied. And the more time that gets spent on it, the less time is available for the important things that it's doing such a poor job of replacing.
Strange that you would call yourself a loner, though; it's the people who spend countless hours with these things that are truly alone (even though they think they aren't!).
Posted by: Aaron G | Mar 16, 2007 2:41:10 PM
I can see Twitter being useful in some well defined circumstances : I was talking to some of my students today about group working and meeting deadlines and I could see where a team of people working together could use twitter to keep each other abreast of what they were doing and perhaps put out calls for help as the deadline approached. But beyond that I don;t get it either.
I should say that I also don't get a lot of the organisation things that are around either. A lot of GTD users exhibit very cultish behaviour - you should have seen the hate mail I got when I suggested this on another list, which just went to confirm my suspicions. (And no,this is not knocking the ideas behind GTD, though they don't work well for me)
Posted by: xman | Mar 16, 2007 2:43:44 PM
What a timely post. I just read a great article in The Walrus called "Driven to Distraction" that talks about this very phenomenon. I agree: people seem to be forgetting that "alone time" is important. I can't stand being always on, although I deeply value the ability to communicate in many ways. I've been disabling my net access more of late, which has resulted in more flow in my work. Takes some discipline, though.
Posted by: Geoff Wozniak | Mar 16, 2007 3:01:27 PM
I am with you on this one. It is hard enough to get things done with the distractions of e-mail and IM. In fact, sometimes I wonder if my job is mostly just answering e-mails. I think Twitter has some positive uses (i.e. letting your friends know where you are so they can meet you for a movie or coffee) but the constant micro-blogging use doesn't seem to provide much value. In fact, as you allude to, it causes constant partial attention which leads to a lack of good solid thinking. That can't be good.
Posted by: Eric Olson | Mar 16, 2007 3:15:38 PM
It's a Dunbar's Number problem.
You feel more connected with more people, check. You have to spread your social grooming efforts out further, check. Per capita depth of relationship, zilch.
Twitter, as noted above, is fine in small groups. That's why: the increase in connection is NOT offset by the spread.
Posted by: Michael Chui | Mar 16, 2007 3:36:29 PM
I think Twitter is a silly idea. Who gives a damn what people are doing? If there is some person whose whereabouts or activities directly impacts my life I can call them. Having twitter or your phone is really distracting. Prove to me that Twitter could have helped coordinate rescue efforts after Katrina and I'll consider changing my mind. Otherwise, I don't need to know that some guy in New Jersey is in a pilates class.
Posted by: Virginia | Mar 16, 2007 3:43:33 PM
Probably less than 1%. My mother (an 80 year-old Silver Surfer) had two very astute observations following her cursory examination of Twitter:
1. There really is no interest like self-interest. Twitter is an exercise in pure narcissism.
2. Don't worry what people think about you - because they're NOT thinking about you.
Posted by: Rowan Manahan | Mar 16, 2007 3:44:41 PM
I liked Twitter on my cell at SXSW.
But before, and after, I have it turned off on my cell, web updates only (no IM either). Then it's something I might check on the web once a day or every other day, and have a general idea of what's going on in my friends' worlds -- without being constantly interrupted. I do like that aspect of it.
I didn't like the amount of texting I was doing at SXSW. It felt wrong, but useful... to the end of coordinating groups of people for party crawls, lunch, and dinner -- so it was antisocial behavior that resulted in lots and lots of fantastic real-human contact.
My line would be "useful, but only in moderation." There's more than one way to use it, and we all have to learn what our distraction levels are. I personally felt torn in 50 ways at SXSW and it was a relief to just be with people and turn off the phone (but couldn't have found them without it.)
Posted by: Amy | Mar 16, 2007 3:45:30 PM
I just wanted to say that you are indeed right on the spot in this. It seems that this is a phenomenon that we are going to see more of: Applications, Games, Web Sites that satisfy some deeply rooted urge inside of you without really doing you anything good. Case in point is (in my opinion) World of Warcarft, which has transformed from being a game to being an addiction.
Posted by: Winsmith | Mar 16, 2007 3:52:30 PM
Kathy, I know I'm just addding to the chorus, but I have to agree with you. I tried Twitter and after a short period of time I felt, for lack of a better word, saddened. It didn't make me feel closer to people who were geographically distant. It just made me realize how far removed I was from them.
Mere knowledge of what someone is doing didn't make me happier, because there was no meaningful interaction. It has the hollow feel of a prolonged tease, stringing you along but never delivering. A call, an IM, or an email can involve real expression and interaction, but there's something about twitter that is deeply schizophrenic. It may be the ultimate manifestation of the "always on" culture Annette mentioned.
I like being connected, but not so much that I lose sight of what *I* amd thinking and doing. This reminds me of something a friend mentioned yesterday, in a different context. He said that people fail to distinguish between "fun" and "happiness." A life of constant fun doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. By the same token, constant connection doesn't necessarily lead to real fulfillment.
Posted by: Erik | Mar 16, 2007 4:10:06 PM
I must be in the minority too. I hate reading my friend's new Twitter blog posts. I didn't know it was popular, but I can see how it could be. The only reason I would participate is fear of missing out and being out of the loop, and my guess is that aids in it's popularity.
I'm definately a sit down and talk with people face to face kind of gal. Can you tell? ;) Ok, I love the internet, too, but I need lots of daily human interaction. Maybe that's what Twitter is going for, (but is SOO not a successful substitute for.) I know that I really need to have people in my life who know about the minute fabric in my day, (and I do want more of that,) but I need to have them in the kitchen chopping the onions with me.
Posted by: B. | Mar 16, 2007 4:13:56 PM
I don't know that sentiment is 100 to 1 in favor of Twitter; I think the people using it are the ones who are inclined to like it, but most people will have no interest in it.
I've yet to hear what Twitter does that can't be done (usually less annoyingly) with phone calls, emails, IM, or text messages.
It sounds to me like a recipe for a nervous breakdown, actually.
Posted by: John Whiteside | Mar 16, 2007 4:15:50 PM
While I fear that this is probably all true, I don't think I would leave the house if I thought like this. :)
Posted by: David Armano | Mar 16, 2007 4:37:11 PM
I'm with you on this, Kathy. You mentioned Twitter before and I visited it for a few moments. My opinion was this: it's SIMULATING social interaction for all the reasons you stated. I agree that forums and places like Twitter can be a nice momentary glance (eg: "It's nice that I'm not too alone in the world...") but even loners can interact with one or two friends for REAL social nourishment now and then. You do as many brain-study researches as I do, and you know that the brain needs live contact. "Internet" contact can be a stop-gap but it's not a replacement for the real live human responses.
Read Frank Forencich's "Exuberant Animal"; he describes that humans need 5 nourishments (edible, physical, experiential, biophilic, and SOCIAL) for health and survival: take 1 or more away (most of our American busy-society removes ALL) and we start getting ill: ill in the head and/or the body, and most likely, BOTH.
Twitter just seems like time-wasting public masterbation to me, and I can think of far better ways to waste time: NOT wasting time!
Posted by: Lauren Muney | Mar 16, 2007 4:57:27 PM
THANKS for making me feel just a bit more sane (you and the many commenters here).
I could see a tiny bit of value to Twitter at SXSW - it had the potential to make a shared experience a bit more intense. Outside of something like that, I don't see the point.
I suppose I'm also a bit of a loner. I like my social interaction in larger, more meaningful chunks. Then again, my wife loves it - it gives her something she misses when working at home.
Like all social software, Twitter will be a godsend to certain people and at certain times -- it's always this way when something opens up a new avenue for social interaction. But that doesn't mean it's for everybody...
Posted by: Michael Moncur | Mar 16, 2007 5:17:05 PM
Cool service or more mindless drivel for the masses. You choose.
Posted by: Blog Bloke | Mar 16, 2007 5:20:34 PM
I'm with you on your assessment above about Twitter. Then again, I also am a bit of a loner (what gave it away?) and also not their target audience.
Posted by: LonerVamp | Mar 16, 2007 5:34:30 PM
I'm not sure if twitter really fits into the "always on" category quite this neatly. While I can get stressed by email and IM, there has never been a case of where I actually felt that I desperately needed to reply or pay particular attention to twitter.
I admit to hugely enjoying twitter, and every morning when I wake up there are probably somewhere between 5 and 10 pages worth of new twitters/tweets, but I read at best the most recent 2 pages and then pick things up where they are. Even reading RSS feeds is actually worse than this, where I feel some sort of compulsion to at least scan each entry.
I guess it depends how you use it.. but for me, it's a faintly frivolous, often useful and interesting, but always easy-to-ignore additional channel for picking up some up-to-date information in all its shapes. The attraction for me is exactly that it doesn't make me feel like I'm always missing something, but that I can dip in and out of some continous stream whenever I feel like it.
Posted by: Mario | Mar 16, 2007 5:41:11 PM
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