Ron Burnett has an interesting blog post on whether Twitter (and other social media) are really social. Ron is the President of Emily Carr University, where I run the Social + Interactive Media Centre. The crux of his argument is that Twitter is not as conversational as we might claim:

The general argument around the value of social media is that at least people can respond to the circulation of conversations and that larger and larger circles of people can form to generate varied and often complex interactions. But, responses of the nature and shortness that characterize Twitter are more like fragments — reactions that in their totality may say important things about what we are thinking, but within the immediate context of their publication are at best, broken sentences that are declarative without the consequences that often arise during interpersonal discussions.

Ron picks up on a couple of aspects of Twitter culture that tend to turn a lot of people off. One is the obsessive preoccupation with follows — as he notes, a lot of people (myself included) use Twitter at least partly as a traffic-driving mechanism, so acquiring followers becomes a relentless pursuit since number of follows is both a semi-meaningful measure of how many people your tweets reach.

Unfortunately even that vaguely legitimate reason for measuring one’s Twitter followers is quickly subsumed by something a lot more primal; I personally have to remind myself on a regular basis that the number of follows, mentions or retweets I get is not in fact the ultimate measure of my worth as a human being or even how much I am loved.

A second but related turn-off is the fact that Twitter seems to consist of a lot more shouting into the abyss than actual conversation. People tweet past each other, and if they respond ton one another, the exchanges “tend to be short, anecdotal and piecemeal”. Again, I think that’s how many people first experience Twitter, particularly if they only follow celebrities.

But what’s interesting about Twitter — and characteristic of the very best social media tools — is that it is what you make of it. Twitter can be a micro-blog, an advertising tool, an instant messaging system, or even an interface for posting to other web applications. Huge swaths of people use Twitter to blast out mini-messages..and a great many people use Twitter to have real conversations.

I’ll admit I’m an extreme case in actually building an entire web site to archive my ongoing Twitter conversation with my husband, but one of the points of that project was to look at how we use Twitter as a conversational tool rather than a broadcast mechanism. Yet even our conversation reads as very limited — little more than muttered asides, or as Ron would put it, glances.

And growing less conversational all the time. In fact, I’ve been mulling over a change in my tweeting behaviour, and contemplating the elimination of all these conversational asides so that I can build a bigger base of followers — followers who might be turned off by a lot of person-to-person chatter. As Ron predicts:

After a while, the sheer quantity of Twitters means that the circle of glances has to narrow….As the circle of glances narrows, the interactions take on a fairly predictable tone with content that is for the most part, newsy and narcissistic.

The desire to be a glancee rather than a glancer is what drives the dynamic Ron discusses, each of us jettisoning conversation in favour of the broadcast communication that can suck attention back towards us. And it’s a trend that extends far beyond Twitter: when I think back to the early days of the social web, I am regularly heartbroken by all the people and organizations who have taken to “social media” as a way of broadcasting their same old one-way ad message via YouTube, Facebook and (yes) Twitter.

But here’s what’s different: you, as an audience member, can decide how social you want your social media to be. If you’re reading a newspaper or watching TV, you can talk back — shake your fist in the air! send a letter the editor! — or you can talk about (inviting friends to watch the game with you, chatting about the latest story over your morning coffee). But the opportunities for conversation and engagement don’t vary much from story to story, or content provider to content provider.

On the social web, there are still lots of people who are using Twitter to have conversations, who are asking for your comments on that YouTube video, who are enabling — and participating in — wide-ranging conversations via blog and Facebook. You can engage with the people, organization and brands who want to hear from you…or you can go back to being a passive broadcastee.

Social media can be as social an experience as you want to have. And the more of us choose those social experiences, the more that we can reinforce the conversational dynamics that made social media feel so miraculously in the first place.