Twitter isn’t a messaging platform, like e-mail or SMS texting. It isn’t one-to-one: you send a message to another person, they reply. It isn’t even one-to-many: you send a message to every other member of a group. It’s a broadcast mechanism: one-to-all.
When you send a tweet, your message goes in a big box with all the other tweets. To make Twitter usable, messages in that enormous box can be searched. You can go to a particular person’s feed, and see everything they’ve sent out. Or you can search the text of all the tweets in the box. You can do any kind of search, but two special kinds of search have become common: searching by username, where it’s referenced in the tweet, and searching by hashtag. There are no real guidelines for how to use these. People use them however they want, and a kind of norm gradually develops, but different groups will naturally develop different norms—based, among other things, on how their friends use the service and on the kinds of platforms they’ve used in the past.
Similarly, there’s really nothing like a “reply” in Twitter. Or more accurately, there’s no way to distinguish reply, reply all, forward, forward to a mailing list, or post to Facebook. Some people may assume a follow-on tweet is like a personal reply, while others may feel it’s more like a comment to a large group.
There’s no way to hide your identity on Twitter. There’s no way to post information to Twitter that doesn’t allow everybody to trace your tweets back to you, and reply to you personally. It was like this in the early days of listservs and Usenet, where you had to take relatively extreme measures to hide your e-mail address, your IP address, and even to some extent your physical location. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the days of dial-up BBS’s, before many people had e-mail, even at work, someone who wanted to say something to you had to say it in a public forum where everybody could see. With blogs and website comment threads, and with some moderated mailing lists if they were in digest form, and with some group discussion platforms, contributors are to some extent anonymous. They have to have an identity, but in most cases only the operator of the site knows how to contact them directly.
There’s no way to group discussion on Twitter, so that it “feels” like a group of people are coming together regularly to discuss the same topics. You can restrict visibility to your own feed, but Twitter isn’t a club that restricts membership so people who use it can feel safe. It isn’t a platform for setting up discussion groups, either.
There’s no way to moderate discussion on Twitter. You can’t designate one or two people to tell others when they’re getting out of line and should probably cool it. And since there’s no way to make Twitter into a “group” experience, participants themselves can’t moderate discussion as a community. There’s no way to restrict discussion among a group to the facts, or to personal communication, or to anything at all.
Different people use Twitter in different ways. Some use it for public relations. Some use it as an easy e-mail platform. Some use it as a substitute for a Usenet that’s gone away, as commenting on blogs seemed safer, and then less interesting. Some use it as a substitute for Facebook or MySpace or a personal blog. Some use it in the same way they’d use a big discussion platform like Usenet or Atrios.
In the past year, we’ve seen a lot of suffering caused by the inability to decide what Twitter should be. We’ve seen people stalked and harassed by Twitter accounts—created by someone who used it as a substitute for a web page devoted to defaming a specific person. Also, we’ve seen writers and journalists and musicians upset when they found out that readers were using Twitter as a big group where they could discuss what they read or what music they bought. Those professionals used Twitter among themselves, in part for personal reasons, in part for PR reasons, in part as an extension of their professional output. They did not intend to use Twitter to provide an outlet for fans and non-fans to discuss their work. They were upset by the way fans’ comments appeared under the Twitter platform: indistinguishable, in some cases, from personal messages to the writers themselves, and likely to come up in a search for what the writer himself or herself had written. It isn’t new for writers to become upset by the way readers talk about them in public (or mostly restricted) online discussion groups, and to call those readers out. Most likely, writers also complained about the way they imagined in-home and library-based book clubs were talking about them. But in this case, the comments were interpreted as e-mails directly to them, and taken very personally because of the apparent intimacy of the tool being used.
I’ve been using the Internet long enough to see platforms change, as more people started to use them, and to see some of the effects as people switched platforms or became more used to platforms that had just been launched. BBBS’ers and AOL’ers moving onto Usenet, around 1990 or 1991, was a painful process. The mixing and mingling between Usenet and more staid, often academic listservs—in both directions—caused a lot of friction all-round. The lack of moderation on the traditional Internet, compared with newer services like AOL and the Well, caused confusion and distress, resulting in people lashing out at those who did things the “wrong” way. The rise of chat rooms caused similar confusion, as some wanted to distinguish their groups from those more casual structures, and others just didn’t like chat and were annoyed when they were reminded of it. The rise of the personal web page, and later, the blog, created new, alternate modes of self-publication; and the rise of the blog comment section created new modes of creating and responding to a topic for discussion.
I don’t use Twitter, and as I’ve just revealed, I’m old, in Internet years. But I do know something about e-mail and related services. An app that’s used for something it wasn’t designed for may work for a little while, for a small amount of data, a small number of people, with a minimal amount of hassle. But push it to its limits and it will work less well. Maybe there’s a market for someone to create a better way to send out newsletters and the like.
 More accurately, from other people’s point of view, your tweets are in a big box. From your view—the sender’s point of view—each of your tweets is going to the end of a long list of all your other tweets.