Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Could you get by without Twitter?

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology Reporter, BBC News

woman checks Twitter
Are good tweeters born or made?

Knowing me, knowing you... BBC reporters Zoe Kleinman and Carolyn Rice swapped social networking lives for 24 hours.

"I'm not anti-Twitter, I just don't really understand it," said Carolyn Rice, accompanied by the sound of my jaw dropping to the floor.

I have 2,149 (and counting) "tweets" - individual messages no longer than 140 characters long - under my belt, but I have never questioned whether I understand it. I just do it. Every day, probably every hour.

I use a smartphone application to post tweets to the Twitter website from my mobile when I'm on the move. I tweet about what I'm working on and what I get up to outside of work. Sometimes I even tweet about my lunch, if it's exceptionally good or bad.

Carolyn, meanwhile, last logged on to Twitter ten months ago.

Twitter addiction

Does that make me an addict? Psychologist Dr Rob Yeung from Talentspace thinks the term is a little strong.

"The definition of addiction is something that causes detriment to other areas of your life," he said. "It's not about the number of hours spent doing it."

I don't think it's ruining my career or my relationships - although popstar Lily Allen famously gave up on social networking after a dinner party at which she realised she spent more time updating Twitter than interacting with her companions.

Nonetheless, Carolyn and I decided that maybe it was time Twitter and I took a break from each other, while Twitter and Carolyn got reacquainted.

We agreed that for 24 hours she would look after my Twitter feed, while I completely removed myself from it.

Twitter experiment

Zoe Kleinman and Carolyn Rice

Despite having told my followers what was happening before we started, several expressed confusion throughout the day about the fact that "I" was online.

"One of the first things I noticed about using Twitter was the lack of history or the speed which people forget (or perhaps they hadn't paid attention in the first place)," said Carolyn.

"It was my first experience of how instant and transient Twitter can be."

Some of the confused were quite blunt in their responses - they were unhappy about not being sure who they were talking to.

"I felt hurt," admitted Carolyn. "The feeling of rejection was real, I'd somehow failed at convincing Zoe's followers that I was worth reading."

Online communities like Twitter, where people follow each other without being acquainted in real life, can be brutal.

"If you're going to broadcast as a tweeter then you need to be thick skinned," says Dr Yeung.

"If you're the kind of person who takes things personally, opening yourself up to criticism from strangers is not a good idea."

Information overload

It's also true that Twitter can appear to be an overwhelming churn of information. The bigger your community, the more people are posting and having conversations with each other - and the easier it is to feel left out.

"I could not fully concentrate on anything for longer than 20 minutes," says Carolyn.

"I simply had to check and update the feed. What if someone had asked a question of me? What if there was an interesting piece of information related to our experiment that I could read? It was highly distracting and I felt genuinely anxious."

I was equally anxious, concerned that I was missing something work-related, or news from a friend.

While Twitter was distracting Carolyn, its absence was distracting me.

Ordinarily a quick click of the mouse would have satisfied my curiosity in an instant, but I found myself obsessing about what may or may not have been said.

"Everybody craves information," says applied psychologist Dr Lucy Atcheson.

"It's what makes the world interesting. But you have to ask whether you need it all. I think psychologically people can hide behind all that information."


I felt isolated. I missed having an audience as much as I missed listening to others. I sent noticeably more e-mails during the day than usual, sharing links and information with individuals that I knew rather than posting them online.

You can get addicted to thinking that somebody is interested in your every move
Dr Lucy Atcheson

"Twitter has an element of making people feel important," says Dr Atcheson.

"You can get addicted to thinking that somebody is interested in your every move. You have this idea that there is a virtual audience. But when are you tweeting information, and when is it just vanity?"


She thinks this is a recent phenomenon inspired by celebrity culture.

"Celebs are so revered - everybody wants to have a fanbase," she adds.

Carolyn, to her credit, found this aspect the least appealing.

"I had to think hard about what to write," she says. "I don't really want to share with the world what I'm doing all the time."

At the end of the experiment I could hardly wait to log on and catch up with the events of the day, while Carolyn expressed relief at switching off.

We pooled our thoughts for a podcast and were surprised by how emotional we both were.

The feelings of anxiety, isolation and rejection we had experienced were more powerful than either of us had expected.

I would like to say that I have decided to use Twitter a little less as a result of our experiment, but I fear I am as prolific as ever.

Carolyn said that she would give her feed a second chance - and she has tweeted since. Once.

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