Last Monday morning, Twitter users were outraged by its latest outage. Everyone — from your mom to Ashton Kutcher — had zero followers.
The micro-blogging service’s following/follower popularity-o-meter had been wiped, and you can bet your 140 characters that calamity ensued. Hackers were blamed, cap-locked red alerts were issued. The great real-time searchable hierarchy was disrupted.
“Today ordinary tweeps can feel as cool as Ashton Kutcher: everyone is equal with zero followers,” sagely tweeted tech skeptic Evgeny Morozov, ForeignPolicy.com’s Net Effect blogger. “Hail Twitter Socialism!”
Yet the Twitter socialist movement wasn’t meant to be. The site issued a report stating that the 0 follower/following had been set to resolve a bug that allowed any user to “force” follow other users — like your mom or Ashton Kutcher — by tweeting “accept @username”.
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The loophole was discovered by Turkish teen Bora Kirca, who was misindentified as the #Twitterhack when popular tech blog Gizmodo broke the story.
“Such an accident led to a big chaos,” said Kirca to the New York Daily News. “I want to apologize for all Twitter users, I didn’t intend to harm anyone.”
Did Kirca truly harm anyone? Obviously not, but he did reveal the value we place on our follower/following. No longer are your following/followers “friends”: more often than not, they’re celebrities, newsfeeds, or even Zodiac facts.
Strangely enough, the most sense I’ve gotten of Twitter’s changed usage has been by observing the experiences of two friends who just joined. One is a writer, someone who signed up purely for professional reasons — to stay connected with other writers, to build his readership — and likens Twitter to being “a live business card.”
The other friend is a part-time student giving social networking another go. He approaches Twittter as a “customized stream of information,” and has already unfollowed users who “tweet insignificant things like having computer problems or complaining that the plumbing in their building isn’t working. These insignificant things don’t interest me, especially if I don’t know that person personally.”
As Twitter expands and has its outages, it’s usefulness changes: no longer is it a means of connecting with friends, but a personal broadcast medium. While the following/follower hierarchy remains, at the very least, we — including your mom or Ashton Kutcher — run and own these channels: while we can’t force anyone to follow us anymore, we can be abitrary in who we follow.
Rea McNamara writes about the on/offline statuses of niches and subcultures. Follow her on Twitter @reeraw.