My two cents on why Twitter is all the rage right now, and Facebook finds itself following: The social graph is directed. Twitter provides a better depiction of the social graph as it truly is.
Let me explain. An undirected graph is a graph in which relations between vertices (“points”, or people in the social graph) are symmetric. That means that like on Facebook, if I want to be your friend you have to approve and become my friend as well. A directed graph on the other hand is a graph in which vertices (“relations”, or “friendships” in the social graph) can go one-way. Like on Twitter, where I can follow people I admire, like Larry Lessig, but they have no obligation of following me back.
Twitter’s version of the social graph is in my opinion a better depiction of reality. When it comes to listening to what other people have to say, most of the connections we make are in fact one-way. We’ll listen to them, but they don’t necessarily listen to us. We all have connections whom we’d be happy to hear if they call us, even though we know they won’t reciprocate. It’s just human nature – we may be equal in the eyes of the law, but society’s playing field isn’t level.
Personally, I find it exhilirating that I can follow someone on Twitter with no need for confirmation and no expectation that they’ll follow back. I’d like to listen to what they have to say but don’t expect them to listen to me in return. It’s alright that I may have to work hard at saying interesting things before many people choose to listen. That works the other way too – it’s much better that I don’t have to make a boolean decision (agree to a friend request or reject it) every time someone decides to follow me. They’re all free to follow, and so remain on the periphery of my social conciousness. Occasionally I might discover that one such follower is actually interesting enough for me and follow back.
The fact that not following back isn’t considered a social faux-pas, makes Twitter a friendlier network. I don’t have to automatically acknowledge people I may know but not care much about, and not fear that they’ll feel rejected – as they surely would if I ignored a Facebook friend request. On top of that, everyone can send me a message via an @ reply. If I choose not to reply that’s OK – it probably got lost in the torrent of updates – sorry I missed it. No harm done. The freedom to ignore someone when you’re inundated with messages without the fear of hurting their feelings is simply the best feature that any 21st century communications mechanism can offer.