A few months ago, a friend of mine decided to jump on the Twitter bandwagon. When I, a social media aficionado, asked him how he was enjoying the network, he merely shrugged.
“I guess it’s kind of nice having another thing to check,” he said.
I endlessly pondered his nonchalant response. How, I thought, could someone think of Twitter as just “another thing to check?” It is the ultimate social network! It is revolutionizing communication, and no one shall belittle it by considering it merely “another thing to check!”
It wasn’t until I took a few deep breaths that I realized how right he was.
When I open a web browser, I instinctively open a tab for Facebook, a tab for my email and a tab for Twitter. This is my daily routine because it allows me to see what is going on in my social and professional lives.
I check all three pages almost every day, and perhaps the craziest part about that habit is how it compares to my routine five years ago. Tenth-grade Jen satisfied the need to network through AIM and MySpace, and she spent so much time on each that her mother actually reverse grounded her and made her leave the house. Typically she would go to a friend’s place, and they would get on AIM and MySpace together (which was more fun, anyway).
Unlike the Xanga trend that only hit a certain crowd, everyone I knew had a screen name and a MySpace page. In regards to why we overlooked Friendster and other social networks, it was a classic chain of circumstances — we used these particular applications because everyone else in school did.
MySpace was once the coolest digital hangout, but as soon as Facebook allowed high school users, we abandoned our old stomping ground. We were quick to fall for Facebook’s clean interface, among other things. Today, the simplicity and personal nature of the website remain the aspects that compel us to check it daily.
MySpace, however, was not ready to die. Instead of letting the tumbleweeds roll through, the website was able to find a new niche, gradually arriving at the primary purpose of hosting music. The site had been forced to fill a totally different role in our lives, and it complied because we told it to.
Popular social networking sites are large companies with business plans and CEOs, but at the end of the day, it is their users who call the shots. Twitter, for example, morphs daily into whatever the “tweeps” want it to be. The service has played the role of everything from investigative reporter (as seen in the Iranian election) to marketing tool (as in our last election). When somebody slips up (like Kanye at the VMAs), the Twittosphere erupts in laughter, and when somebody dies (like Michael Jackson), it breaks out in tears.
When Twitter was founded, it really had no point. It existed to facilitate communication, but no one could have guessed the countless ways it would be employed. However, while its many facets are the reason Twitter has become one of my Internet staples, its ambiguity confuses a lot of people — 60 percent quit within their first month, hardly giving the network a chance.
Social networking sites are just like other goods and services; they work by laws of supply and demand. If we need an online system to talk about music, one will rise from the binary codes and appear (oh hey, Last.fm). The tricky part happens when we don’t know we need something, or, in Twitter’s case, when we don’t really know what something is.
Twitter’s uncertain purpose has caused it to be received poorly by those who don’t feel like interpreting it. The irony is that it is essentially the network’s undefined function that is its function — it can play the role of whatever the user wants.
In retrospect, I see that my friend was giving Twitter a compliment. Though I initially found his remark offensive, I now realize he had classified the network in the same realm as Facebook and email. In his opinion, these are today’s online essentials, as AIM and MySpace once were.
Though it pains me that I used to be so obsessed with MySpace, I recognize that the site was once the standard — and it still is for some people. The things we “check” determine how we interact with the Internet, and that relationship is an important one. As it follows, while we are able to define the role of social networks, they too can define us.
Jen Winston is a junior majoring in communication. Her column, “The Memeing of Life,” runs Tuesdays.