Article: Seeing Stars

Twitter has been twiddling around with its features again. It likes to do this from time to time, to remind us that the archaic platform is still capable of handy nuances for up and coming users. Remember the little Bing translator, which allowed you to see some frankly hilarious versions of a friend’s tweet about buying a kebab, often in a completely irrelevant language? That was quietly fazed out; much to my disappointment, as I now have to be more careful when slyly slipping German into conversations; it also means that I can’t cheat, and pretend I understand French. But there’s always Google Translate, that wonderful little app. Still, I miss Bing’s cheerful little globe-symbol.

What I won’t miss, if it goes the same way, is the new “younger sibling” function that has been assigned to the favourite, which appears to now be copying the retweet. That little star has always been somewhat mysterious in its multifunctional usage, with misunderstandings cropping up from time to time; there are no hard and fast rules on what constitutes endorsement, or simply an acknowledgement of receipt, or bookmarking a link. It is also used for a silent term of endearment, or as the Twitter equivalent of the Facebook “Like”; as a “bitte schon”, or as an expression of gratitude. I happen to use it for all of these things, and still more, if I took the time to think about them all.

The difference was in the relative privacy of the act, and the choice of this. Typically, only the author of the tweet and the person favouriting would know of the action; if someone happened to retweet the author, they too would receive a notification, if a follower chose to favourite it.
(This social networking lexicon is faintly hilarious.)

Now, with the prospect of favourites appearing in others’ timelines – whether they follow us or not – things just got a bit hazier. I’m already becoming hyper aware of what I favourite, what I am potentially drawing attention to.

While some view this new function as a means of better integration onto an admittedly complex platform for new users – allowing them the chance to see how @ conversations work, who might be best to follow through symbolic recommendation, what trends are worth knowing about – there doesn’t appear to have been a marked consideration for the ramifications. For veteran users, the symbolic extension of voice found in the retweet is enough – using another’s words and media as endorsement, or to continue a trend of information in a timeline; to call followers’ attention to something we deem to be relevant, though not necessarily positive.

The favourite, on the other hand, was closer to a “thought bubble.” See something funny, but don’t particularly want to draw attention to it? Favourite. See something relevant to your personal life, which smacks you between the eyes, but you’d rather not sound like you’re griping? Favourite. Find a picture that is of outstanding beauty, which you’d like to keep a hold of, but not necessarily share? Favourite. Of course, these would still appear on the far-right feed of the tweetdeck, but would only be available to see for followers.

Now, those private sentiments and matters of interest aren’t going to sit quietly on favourite lists. They’re going to be appearing in the timelines of people who don’t even follow us (possibly for good reason), and as someone who is more than a little addicted to the functions of the favourite – and who prefers to keep to herself – I find this rather unappealing.

I admit, I’m not particularly vocal when it comes to using my own words on Twitter (when I’m not going off on one about Tic Tacs and coffee.) This tails over from the outside world, where I generally avoid drawing attention to myself, and like to be left alone to think. Online, there’s a sense of reassurance in using someone else’s “voice” if their opinions are framed succinctly, or if they have access to information that I don’t possess, but is of interest; or if they’re just so ridiculously funny, I need to pass on whatever they have come out with, whether anyone else finds them amusing or not. My retweets are not always endorsement, but when they come with a favourite, it’s like a stamp of approval – as must be the case for others, too. It’s all based on symbolism, really. With Twitter, I’ve found innovative ways of expressing myself that are simply not available elsewhere, unless I take to carrying a pack of Post-Its about.

But the fact remains that I chose to pass on that information, that picture, that sentiment. Whether my followers would be interested or not, these would appear in their timelines, but not in the timelines of people who do not follow me; unless a follower happens to retweet my retweet. Etc.

While nothing is truly hidden away on Twitter, unless you happen to lock down your profile in the privacy Settings, the interaction hinges upon unspoken protocols and respect for the personal space of others. It’s another strange twist of symbolism in Twitter etiquette; to favourite a tweet is to acknowledge that you have seen it. If said tweet happens to make up part of the running thread of an @ conversation between users, whether you follow them or not, you are effectively announcing your presence, via notifications. Whatever the time and date that conversation took place, and even if you do not vocalize an opinion, you have displayed an awareness of what is/has been discussed.

Somehow, the act of favouriting a tweet on someone’s @ timeline feels more appropriate when I am Following them, and the conversation is taking place between people who I would consider myself to be on close terms with. If two or more participants are people I am following, I will see the entirety of the conversation on the tweetdeck, as well as the lists I use, which compile @ tweets as well as general “broadcasting to the world” tweets into a linear format. I can watch a conversation unfold for hours, crossing timezones – but whether I choose to acknowledge my presence with a favourite on a tweet that’s caught my interest / tickled me, is another matter. It’s rather daft, really; if they wanted the conversation to be held in private, there’s always the messaging service (haphazard at best.) But I still get a little niggle under the skin, much as I would about jumping into a conversation at the bar, between two people who I am only vaguely acquainted with.

This is also true of those spur-of-the-moment talks, often built out of emotional tension, when the tweets fly thick and fast and the self-awareness of privacy v.s. public platform is decreased – no matter how strongly I concur on an opinion, I will hesitate to favourite it, unless a [.] has been added before an @, to call the world’s attention to it.

To get back to the privacy (or lack thereof) in the favourite – perhaps what Twitter is trying to do, will be beneficial for people like me. Maybe it will push me out of my boundaries. With the self-awareness pinned to the fact that whatever I favourite could end up in someone’s timeline against their will, perhaps I am better off using my voice to elucidate on an answer. But it takes less time to press that little star and give acknowledgement of receipt; and sometimes, words simply aren’t necessary.
(Yes I know – I feel slightly heretical, saying this as a writer. But it’s true. Sometimes, words do fail us.)

I also like to favourite tweets while engaged in conversation, in lieu of paralinguistics – rather like a nod, or a smile. Will these then end up floating about outside of our enclosed pseudo-privacy bubble?

There’s also the little niggle of bookmarking. Some of the things I choose to read about, will not be of particular interest or appeal to my followers, or their followers – and vice versa. Why should we be interchanging links that have been deemed notable, and worth keeping hold of in favourite lists, when that was the function of the retweet?

If Twitter decides to keep hold of this experiment, I will feel myself sadly diminished. The favourite button was my way of thinking aloud – a “nod” in the author’s direction, left out of sight. Sure, anyone can have access to these thoughts, if they feel like taking a walk around my profile. But that’s the point. The effort had to be there, the willingness to do so. I feel as though I have lost a valuable part of my Twitter language.

Come on, Twitter. Give us our quiet stars back.

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