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The case against Twitter

At best it's a silly distraction; at worst it's a stage for self-indulgent blather, and I don't care what you had for lunch. Images: Two takes on Twitter

Editor's note: CNET is running dueling perspectives on Twitter. To read why staff writer Caroline McCarthy thinks the service adds a laudable bit of randomness to life, click here.

I've never been one to run out and try the latest tech fad. I prefer to wait and watch them vanish like pet rocks or become so culturally ingrained that I'm embarrassed I'm not participating, like with the cell phone.

One of the latest fads is Twitter, the free social-networking service that lets people broadcast up-to-the-minute accounts of their thoughts and activities to their friends either through the Web site, an instant message or a mobile text message.

The premise didn't attract me initially. And after using the service for several days of research I've determined my instincts were right on target. Not only that, my experience has further proven to me that there are bigger differences between me and my twenty-something colleagues than just how fast our thumbs can text.

For one, what is up with this obsession the Twitter generation has with expressing itself and monitoring each others' lives? I don't understand the need to spew out personal information and random thoughts to the world. And that's just what Twitter is designed for: to be a medium through which you can share stream-of-conscious babblings with your friends and with anyone who has time to lurk on the Web site and read inane musings of strangers.

Food seems to be a big theme on Twitter. Glancing at random twitters recently, I found one user who was "drinking beer and 'cooking' fish fingers.'" Another felt compelled to disclose "MUST BATHE." Another was "getting bored." Others took the time to write how late in the day it is and how much work/fill-in-the-blank they have left to do. Well, maybe if they didn't spend so much time, um, twittering, they wouldn't be rushed. But these are strangers and it's obvious why I wouldn't care what they had for lunch. What about my own friends? Actually, I don't care what they just ate, either.

Thankfully, I wasn't able to get Twitter set up to receive messages on my phone, so I was spared that annoyance. And the site was having maintenance issues when I tried setting the service up on my instant messaging, so I twittered via the Twitter page. Users can display whatever background they want on their profile page. Otherwise, everyone shares the same white window showing the twitters of friends in reverse chronological order, alongside the pictures of their friends or whatever image they have chosen. The site asks "What are you doing?" And the answers on the public page, for the most part, read like a bad college poetry experiment in droll dada-ism.

Here is a string of twitters sent by someone with the alias "Duaners" over the course of six days:

1:15 a.m. May 26: 1am and just got back from the grocery store. :)

2:11 a.m. May 25: Tweakin' stuff on the server.

8:15 p.m. May 23: Just farted a huge ol long fart and finished watching American Idol. Congratulations Jordin!!!

3:54 p.m. May 23: Bored out of my freaking skull!!!

10:14 p.m. May 21: Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!

I remember the days when people kept diaries to record their trivial thoughts intermixed with their profound emotions. They were private and hidden under beds or in sock drawers and some had locks on them. If you wanted to impress your friends with your clever thoughts or funny anecdotes you passed notes in class or gathered together to share the juicy details. That's not easy to do in 140 characters or less.

Is it me? Am I just crotchety and old-fashioned? I conducted an informal e-mail survey of about two dozen tech-savvy friends to see what they thought about Twitter. One, Web entrepreneur Josh, called himself a "twit" and said he enjoyed the "pointless one-liners" on Twitter. The remainder weren't interested in trying it. "I don't need to be confronted with how boring my life can be on a minute-by-minute basis," quipped Adam, a massage therapist. It's "narcissistic" and "self-indulgent, one-sided IM," said an editor friend. And quite a few expressed disgust at the thought of all of those twits exposing themselves to the world so casually.

Eric Auchard of Reuters eloquently wrote: "The great big science experiment in Web voyeurism strikes me as just another example of the Coyote Ugly dive bar approach to the Web...treating the world as if our lives were meant to be public spectacles at all times."

And this always-on, Web voyeurism does indeed seem to be a generational thing, although you can always find the odd old-timer microblogging on Twitter and the youngster who bucks the trend, snubbing the digital outlet in favor of having actual conversation.

Research conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project backs up my theory. While Pew hasn't yet focused on Twitter, it has studied the social-networking phenomenon, with which there is huge overlap. Its surveys have found that in the United States, 55 percent of all teenagers (ages 12 to 17) have social-network profiles, compared with 20 percent of all adult Internet users. Breaking it down by age, 50 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have a profile on a social network; followed by 15 percent for those aged 30 to 49; 8 percent for those aged 50 to 64; and only 2 percent for those over 65.

My young colleagues who use Twitter say it is addicting and talk about conducting "twitter-ventions" to get reluctant friends onboard. I just can't grok that. Not only am I satisfied sending e-mails to groups of contacts when I feel the need to share, more importantly, I just don't have the time for Twitter.

I've got to run now. It's time for lunch. Tuna on whole wheat. Yum!