The Truth About Twitter
A few days ago, I reached that point where you can’t hear any more bullshit without correcting it. I actually called into a radio station to correct yet another pundit who, on the basis of the name alone or maybe 10 minutes worth of playing, thinks they understand Twitter, and worse, that they can summarily dismiss anyone who uses it as flaky. So here’s my attempt to educate those folks who either a) haven’t tried it, b) have tried and are still new, or c) don’t use it often enough or in the right context to see it’s real power. This post is not for those people who are just willfully ignorant or worse, active luddites who are resisting what Twitter is about just to resist change. If you fall in either of these camps, you are beneath my contempt and therefore unworthy of further commentary.
Ok, so what is Twitter and why should you care? First, let’s start with what it isn’t. Twitter is *not* about micro-blogging. Yes, it is described this way — yes even by it’s founders. But they have also admittedly publicly that much of the innovation on Twitter has happened in the user base — the convention for retweets (RT), for example, came from the user base. For those of you who are new, RT is just a way to a convention for sharing a message from someone you follow to your own followers. It’s sort of citation plus recommendation plus message all wrapped in a little two letter acronym.
The use of hashtags is another user-generated convention which is now supported in dozens of Twitter clients or services. Hashtags (#) are used to identify a message as related to other messages with the same tag. Sometimes these are used to have something like real-time Twitter chat, sometimes as a way to flag a topic as related to a particular company or conferences, sometimes as a way to create virtual groups. The uses are endless (though in certain specific cases they are being replaced by the much improved Twitter search capabilities).
You might be surprised to learn that another ubiquitous and central Twitter convention, the @ identifier, also did not come from the founders. The @ emerged early as a way for users to direct messages to particular users. Like the RT and hashtag convention, the @ identifier soon became a central element in virtual every Twitter client and has, of course, now become central to Twitter itself.
Is this enough to convince you that we shouldn’t look to the founders for guidance on what Twitter is or isn’t? Ok, you’re right. So let’s do one more: shortened URLs. While shortened URLs are now an essential part of many messages, URL shortening did not begin with Twitter though it is easy to see why people may think this is a “Twitter” thing:
- a) most have not previously seen or used URL shortening technology
- b) it’s part of a significant number of messages
- c) it’s part of nearly every Twitter client.
But TinyURL, one of the more heavily used short URL sites, actually started in 2002, four years before Twitter was launched. Like hashtags, the use of @, and the RT convention, URL shorteners emerged as a result of user behavior, not by design.
So what does all of this mean and why am I making such a point of referencing Twitter conventions that didn’t happen by design? The point here is that Twitter has evolved – like any fundamental and fundamentally well-designed technology, Twitter has become what’s its users wanted, not what it’s designers intended. Like the web or video, Twitter is a “base” technology. It’s not a dialog box for messing with my router. It’s more like the telephone (another piece of technology that was initially derided and misunderstood).
When newscasters, comedians, and otherwise intelligent people deride Twitter, it’s most commonly as a “micro-blogging” tool. Brian Williams, in a February appearance on the Daily Show said this about Twitter:
“I don’t Twitter. When you Twitter, the suibject line automatically is “What are you doing right now?” And the answer I have to that question at any moment of the day isn’t interesting enough.”
If this were what Twitter was really about, I wouldn’t use Twitter either. But this is really the heart of the problem. This is exactly *not* what Twitter is about – at least for those of us that use it professionally.
In 24+ months and across 1000+ posts, I think I might have answered “What I’m doing” less than 50 times. The rest of what I post? Links. Comments on other people’s links. Responses to people’s questions. Suggestions for people to connect. Twitter, for me, is not about sharing the minutia of my day but about sharing the insights and sources that shape my professional thinking. And by following the contributions of others, I can see what’s shaping their thinking, what sources they follow, how they connect their professional dots. You see, a funny thing happened when the community began shaping Twitter’s usage: it stopped being about micro-blogging and it started being about micro-sharing across personalized networks.
Before the advent of the user conventions, Twitter was designed for users to post micro-updates about their day to the world at large. You could follow updates from anyone without any permissions or approvals, just like a regular blog. People were however required to subscribe to your Twitter account by following you. They also had to have their own Twitter account to see all of the updates from their follows. The result was that people could easily see who was following them and then follow them back. And why not? If someone is interested enough in your posts to follow them, maybe you are interested in the same subjects? In fact, this is probably pretty likely when you think about it. So pretty soon, what emerged were personalized, overlapping networks organized around domain interests.
I personally move between two main networks – a general Web 2.0 / social media network, and a social learning / elearning network. I also have some sub-networks around soccer (I coach both my kids), HR (talent management and the like), and now a few vacation / business follows. The point here is that this is *my* network. I’ve selected and designed a personal network of 1000+ members to suit my interests, both professional and personal.
Which then raises the next big derisive comment about Twitter: “OMG, how do you actively keep up with all that content and all those connections?” I don’t. I keep up with some. The rest I search or group or retroactively scan. Think of websites: some you personally go to a few times a day, some you RSS, some you just hit through Search. And if you find one you really like via Search, maybe you RSS or maybe you check-in to the actual site now and again.
What makes all of this workable are the user conventions. @ lets me send messages to specific individuals so I’m not just broadcasting posts, but responding to other people’s posts, sharing my ideas, and actually connecting. # enables me to assign a tag to a post so it can be more easily grouped and found by others, in some cases enabling something like real-time chat or asynchronous message board uses. RT provides a mechanism for sharing great posts and information across networks. And of course, the use of URL shorteners enable Twitter to be the stem sentence of a much longer, more in-depth piece of content.
It *is* possible to use “Twitter as content” or “Twitter as media,” but it’s a bit tricky given the format. While you can certainly learn new stuff and communicate in bite-sized chunks, it’s a bit like trying to drink a fast moving river. The Twitter group @kevindjones started – @slqotd (Social Learning Question of the Day) brings a little more order to the chaos by focusing a wide range of people on a single topic each day. And the Thursday night #lrnchat that Marcia Conner and Clark Quinn started serves a similar purpose, but it’s more wide ranging and tangent-prone because it’s real-time tweeting with sometimes dozens of active participants. Marcia and Clark use the hashtag #lrnchat as a mechanism for participants to identify posts.
A more compelling use of Twitter is “Twitter as conduit.” In this model, the value of Twitter lies at the intersection between personalized networks and URL shorteners. As more and more people began to share via shortened URLs, Twitter began to provide exponentially more value. People weren’t limited to sharing information within a 140 characters. That just needed to be the stem sentence – the intro to a much more nuanced and deeper piece of content. Through the use of @, your followers could then engage you in conversation around the material. Through the use of #, content could be grouped and more easily accessed en masse. And though RT, this content could be easily shared across personalized networks. This is the central value of Twitter — it’s basically a giant link exchange that is mediated by human expertise.
This will be a central area of continued growth on Twitter. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons Twitter and Google are talking. Human-recommended content that is shared en masse in real time is something new. Human-recommended content that is shared en masse in real time across personalized networks is something revolutionary and game-changing. We’re starting to see the first wave of tools that let you mine and manage this content from low-end tools like Tweetdeck to higher-end offerings like MicroPlaza, a tool that aggregates popular links and enables you to do “tribal search.” Twitter analytics is also now a hot space, filled with tons of innovation and new ideas. And there are even Twitter social network graphing tools that either display your connections in a graph or recommend connections based on content and follower similarities.
Twitter will continue to evolve. Search will get better. We’re at the beginning of a brand new model on the web. But even today, Twitter is incredibly powerful. Let me share one brief story of how Twitter is changing the identification and sharing of expertise. Earlier this week, I was asked via email if I knew of any non-profits that used Twitter. I honestly had no clue, but I had a feeling that someone among my 800+ Twitter followers did – so I tweeted the question in hopes of someone pointing me in the right direction. Within 30 minutes, I had over 10 replies, many of whom offered to connect directly to provide more info. Others shared links. Still others suggested people or Twitter accounts to follow including a Twitter account that only followed non-profits. At the time, I did a conservative rough estimate on the reach of my tweet (looking at the RT and followers of my followers) and found to my surprise that my message reached several thousand people in under an hour. As a result, I learned a whole lot about a subject about which I previously knew nothing, and I was able to help a colleague in some very deep and meaningful ways.
Stories like this one are why Twitter is used predominantly by working professionals and not by teens. Unlike other social media technologies that skew younger, Twitter’s demographic is the mid-career professionals who use the technology to extend professional networks, share expertise, and otherwise increase the scope and breath of the resources they can draw on to be successful. In my case, I have a network of 800+ professional colleagues through whom I can access a vast pool of knowledge, expertise, and wisdom. This network also helps my find and make sense of relevant industry news and events. This is the part about Twitter that new users and uninformed pundits miss. You can’t experience the “network effect” until you have a network. It takes time, patience, and active cultivation to create your own personalized network. It’s a hell of a lot easier to be critical and derisive from the sidelines.
As discouraged as I am by the comments of Brian Williams et al., I guess I really shouldn’t be too surprised. When the telephone was first introduced, it was pretty well slammed as well. In early 1877, one famous British paper wrote: “The telephone is little better than a toy, it amazes the ignorant people for the moment, but it is inferior to the well-established system of air-tubes.” Later that same year, the papers had no choice but to surrender to the wonder of the achievement. By the end of 1877, the London Times wrote: “Suddenly and quietly the whole human race is brought within speaking and hearing distance; scarcely anything was more desired or more impossible.”
Today we laugh at people who couldn’t see the value of a telephone or underdstand it’s uses. I wonder how history will regard those who couldn’t see value in Twitter or the fundamental shift in communication and sharing that it represents. I won’t be shocked when folks take me to task for comparing the two, but I’m prepared for that if for no other reason that I’m pretty sure I’m right. For those of you who continue to wonder about Twitter and it’s value, I hope this has helped. For those of you who continue to be derisive for want of effort or intellect, I hope history judges you accordingly. Now, as you might expect, I will be tweeting about this post.