Design your network. What has become of Twitter aesthetics?

On: October 5, 2009
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About Nicola Bozzi
I was born in Catanzaro, Italy but I was raised in Milan. I studied Arts and Multimedia at Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, where I achieved a BA and then an MA in Cinema and Video. I have collaborated with magazines like Zero (www.zero.eu) and Exhibart (www.exhibart.com), writing art and cinema reviews. I was part of the Check-in Architecture editorial staff (checkinarchitecture.blogspot.com , youtube.com/user/checkinarchitecture) and I now work for yskira.com, an online architecture magazine.

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http://www.almostnothing.org    

“My nephew has HDADD: Hi-Definition Attention Deficit Disorder. He can barely pay attention, but when he does it’s unbelievably clear.” – Steven Wright

Since Twitter came out it was pretty obvious it was something else. Its minimal, quasi-zen approach (short haiku-style posts, ultra-light interface, a very “carpe diem” real-time nature) won many users over. But why would such a restrictive, limited social network become so popular? There are so many more things you can do via MySpace or Facebook, where you can easily embed everything possibly embeddable.
Nonetheless, although Mark Zuckerberg‘s well-tested money-making machine is still bigger than Twitter (I’d go as far as to say it’s almost necessary for internet users), the social colossus has been learning a lot from its younger, smarter brother.
The “twitterification” of Facebook has raised some perplexities and the opening of that once closed and well-guarded environment wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing for their business. I like the definition of Facebook as a “gated community” (read here): you can easily do everything you need on the internet inside of it and forget about the outside web. This has been part of the network’s strenght in the past, one more reason why it is both scary and addictive.
While Twitter’s openness (making information public and searchable in real-time) has definitely played a major role in the social network’s rise to pop culture phenomenon, replacing Facebook as the next internet thing, I think there is another factor worth analyzing (and no, it’s not journalist A.D.D.).


(Image from pixterdust.com)

If we compare the aesthetics of Facebook and Twitter it’s easy to notice there are many differences.
First of all, the logo. The first site timidly features a textual and cold corporative stamp, the second sports the cute-looking illustration of a blue bird, easily entering the popular internet imagery and embodying an image of lightness and speed (as opposed to the heavy and bulky “fail whale”). Also, once we get to using the site, it’s blatant it is far more open in terms of background customization, colors and so on. And that’s just the beginning.
If we use Twitter long enough (and by this I mean as soon as any of our contacts tells us about TweetDeck or any other Twitter client) we find out the 140-character limit is not really an issue and, if we need to post pictures on our feed, we can easily upload them on Twitpic.
As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone points out here, the possibility for users to develop their own Twitter-based platforms has been key the network’s success. While Facebook apps and the “share on Facebook” feature on many sites tend to have everything converging into the standard, visually uptight Facebook interface, Twitter is far more de-centered and image-curious.

With a single account, Twitter users can access many extended interfaces (like Twitterface, Monitter, Re-Tweet Radar and countless more), some of which can get really elaborate and aesthetically spectacular (see Twittervision, Trendsmap or Twittearth).
Of course such open-ness has also generated some scams, but it looks like Twitter development is basically an everybody-wins practice.


(Image from thezeninyou.com)

After browsing through all of these different platforms, graphs and interfaces, one question remains. What has become of Twitter’s eastern-flavored aesthetic appeal? How many users are really thinking tweets over to stay in the 140-character limit, instead of just stuffing anything in via FriendFeed or other transversal means?
Twitterers using the site are less and less numerous compared to the overall client-enthusiasts, and it appears like, instead of sucking everything in its own mini-internet Facebook-style, the blue bird is flying all over the place, re-territorializing its social network on the whole www. But the internet has also been affecting Twitter usage, spoiling much of its micro-blogging potential.
The 140-character challenge might still be a good way to learn how to weigh words before using them, to reclaim some of the juice dispersed in the web’s information cauldron and focus on REAL communication, stripping it off all the viral applications, animated puppets and vacuous statistics.
Twitter could have helped us all develop HDADD, like Steven Wright’s nephew.

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