On This Week in Tech and other places, many people comment about the ephemeral nature of Twitter. Even one of Craig Ferguson’s Check the Tweets segment mentions the ephemeral problem. Everyone’s talking about it these days.
The point of sending tweets is that they are short and sweet, quick and easy, direct and accessible. Tweets are great because the cost of sending a tweet is tiny. Writing a blog post on the other hand requires much more time – it’s a much larger drain on the author than a tweet. Working on posts in the WordPress editor is a vastly different experience than working on a tweet in Tweet Deck. Twitter, where all tweets are, is great too. You can follow or be followed, the barrier is so low, anyone can do it.
Of course, the low barrier means there so much going on that things get stale quickly. Stale doesn’t mean old, it just means it’s pushed to the back of fridge. You don’t know if it’s old or not, but since it’s in the back, it’s better to prefer something already in the front. News gets old certainly and so does commentary. It’s hard to keep things fresh when there is just so much stuff going down the pipes. That’s the ephemeral nature: tweets blur into the conglomerate mass of congealed garbage. Kinda.
I never heard of any serious ephemeral media until Twitter. I never heard a person refer to a newspaper and say, “Man, you know, this newspaper will disappear in two weeks! That sucks, man.” Nope, never heard that. Perhaps it was always a given, but they never pointed it out to me. It’s a lot harder to write a newspaper, obviously, when comparing writing a tweet (or a series of tweets resulting in a short newspaper like article). The barrier of entry is so high for a newspaper – the press, the staff, the distribution and so on. Tweets are next to free (excluding internet service and computer costs).
I thought of the ephemeral nature like this,
A magazine article in the 90’s is more ephemeral than a tweet. A tweet can be linked and those sources will last, an article cannot be.
Let me explain my theory about that.
Tweets are screened by the people who read them. Twitter is hard to go to and make friends. You need to already have a few people willing to follow you. You need to also have some kind of content that people can search for and that’s easy to consume. If a person tweets and nobody reads it, does anyone care? No. If a person tweets junk and someone does read it, does anyone care? Yeah. So there’s a difference between posting possibly useful and posting junk and having nobody and somebody reading those posts. Neither of these cases, though, are the point. We only care when we find a tweet that meets the easily searched and easily consumed criteria – a good tweet, and when someone reads it.
If a tweet is good, it’ll be retweeted. If a tweet is consumed well, if it had a link embedded in it, someone will follow it. They’ll be encouraged to cite the tweet on their own blog or their own medium of perpetual presence. While a single tweet can easily grow stale (by being pushed down the list by a million other tweets that same hour), it’s harder for two tweets (by different people) referring to the original to be stale at the same time. That glob of sentence reduces to this: if a single tweet can be buried in a x time, then two tweets can be buried in 2x time. It’s probably not as linear as that though. For every single person who reads your tweet (assuming it is a good tweet), there is a chance they’ll make it persist much longer than otherwise possible.
Now, there’s another story. Imagine a newspaper article. How about one from when I was born in 1992, in November, on some Friday. Assuming you could find that article, how stale would it be? Insanely stale. Old and dead, long gone and over with. Now compare it with the state of an old tweet. You’ll find the difference interesting. Nobody can refer to that news paper article in the same way they can to that tweet. It’s not ephemeral in the sense that tweets disappear, it just gets blurry. When you have those direct links persisting your tweets however, the idea of a newspaper being far more ephemeral becomes easy to accept.
A newspaper will rarely be refereed to after its run is over while a tweet can be linked as a source for ages to come. This brings up another problem though. Even those mediums of perpetual presence can be get dirty and stale. That’s true. No one disputes that things will get old, eventually However, the newspaper gets old because it cannot be linked and therefore not refereed to and refreshed while the tweets get old simply because the world has moved on to other topics of more relevance.