I’m writing this in an airplane to Vancouver from Chicago. When I get home and read my mail, if recent trends continue I will hear about a few new Twitter followers, bringing the total up over one thousand. I think that with Twitter, something important is happening. But I’m having trouble figuring out what.

Let’s be accurate: This does not mean that there are a thousand actual human beings reading my deathless tweets. Quite a few people try out Twitter for a few days or weeks, find it stupid or trivial or irritating, and never go back. And then some “followers” are actually spammers: Twitter-feeds promoting some product or cause or person, who “follow” others on the chance that the follow-ee will have a look at them.

So, of the thousand, how many actually follow? No idea; “a few hundred” would be my guess.

What Is It? · Twitter is sort of an extended low-speed low-intensity bulletin board. Some people almost exclusively react to others’ tweets, some contribute mostly fresh little nuggets of wit or wisdom. A lot of tweets are just a link with a few words of commentary.

I personally use it to post little observations or cool links or minor snarks that don’t merit a blog entry. Plus, I’ll ask LazyWeb questions and answer a few of those from others.

The river-of-tweets I read contains a fairly steady conversational buzz around camera technology and online marketing and general randomness. Interestingly, I haven’t found that many really stimulating straight-tech feeds, the 140-character limit is a problem I guess. I follow real people except for @CBCNews and @BreakingNewsOn.

Why? · I enjoy it for the background-conversation-hum effect, sort of like being in a busy coffee shop. And there’ve been a few times when I’ve got professionally-important news way before I would have seen it on another channel, or that I might otherwise not have seen at all.

And, unlike a few other input streams, when I need to focus on something complex, I don’t really feel any regrets about just turning it off while I do that.

Finally, to be honest, I find that I enjoy the challenge of saying, in 140 characters or less, something worth the one or two seconds it takes someone out there to notice and read.

What Does It Mean? · Late last year I wrote On Communication, noting with interest that we’re getting new modes of human conversation on a fairly regular basis. I’ve drawn one more conclusion since then:

Since the process of conversation is close to the essence of what it means to be a human, even small changes in the enabling machinery can have pretty big impacts. I mean, Twitter isn’t that different from IRC or blogging; but even that slight delta seems to have found a significant niche in the ecosystem.

@ · When you create an instantly-recognizable, simple, Internet-wide addressing mode and it shows signs of sticking, well, that’s a big deal. “@timbray” has become a significant part of my identity.

Business? · At the moment, it seems irrelevant that Twitter doesn’t actually have what you’d call a business model. I suspect that they could exit in about fifteen minutes if they felt like selling out, but the smart thing to do, I’d say, is ride this rocket for a while until someone figures out which way it’s heading.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Parveen Kaler (Apr 02 2008, at 23:56)

Hi Tim,

I follow you. Mostly because I'm also a Vancouverite in the tech community.

Twitter could use some location-awareness. I wish I could find more Vancouverites that use Twitter.

Anyway, I'm wrestling with the same issues that you seem to be wrestling with. How do I actually provide value through Twitter?

I'd like to think that I provide at least some valuable content through my blog. (Which is down at the moment because Dreamhost has been going through HUGE problems the last 2 weeks.)

If any of my Tweets are valuable, it is to gather my friends for brunch or at a coffee shop. I just can't seem to figure out how to provide value to people that don't actually know me personally.

I do find Twitter valuable for live-blogging of events.

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From: James Cox (Apr 03 2008, at 00:24)

It's kinda about being able to see the ebb and flow of conversation - if you squint, you can see patterns and areas of conversation - sorta that coffee shop model.

But it's also nice to use it to quickly find people - to find meetup locations etc.

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From: Josh Schairbaum (Apr 03 2008, at 05:34)

Twitter is becoming my _most_ vital communication channel. In fact, I've pretty much stopped ready RSS/Atom feeds altogether. There's just too much information in a feed entry, whereas the constraints of a Tweet mean more signal, less noise. I can decide what I want to chase after and I don't need to feel the guilt of unread items.

I'm a telecommuter and I don't have co-workers, per se. Twitter is the best way for me to pick up what's hot in my tech community of choice. It's part IM, part blog, part text message, and always on in an emacs buffer.

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From: ben (Apr 03 2008, at 05:56)

The thoughts about Twitter's value that came immediately to my (still sleepy-groggy) head are:

<strong>Content niche.</strong> Good blog posts typically need to say, link to, or embed something substantive, while simultaneously providing ample context. Twitter posts, meanwhile, are the single-thought pings (often out of context) that would otherwise go into a sideblog or go unwritten altogether. On a traditional blog they would be crap as content goes. But on Twitter you can post things like 'I believe {x} because of {y}' all day long, and not violate visitor expectations for content quality.

<strong>Delivery media.</strong> If I want to know what somebody is doing, and they post to Twitter frequently, the combination of HTTP, IM, and SMS delivery methods make it impossible NOT to get my desired information from a channel that suits my needs. If they wanted to spend the cycles, they could throw e-mail into the mix (presumably in a digest format) as well, with little personal effort.

<strong>Unobtrusiveness.</strong> There's little in the way of administrative nonsense to deal with on the social networking side, and meanwhile I'm required to opt in (an easy process) if I want to have easy access to other folks' verbiage. Nobody else need mess with my signal-to-noise ratio.

<strong>Zeitgeist mining.</strong> The constraints of Twitter make it a perfect place to spot the meme du jour. I'm really interested to see what's done with this over time. (Closely related Semantic Web spiel deliberately omitted.)

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From: len (Apr 03 2008, at 06:36)

I'm not sure I want Twitter in my kit because I need more holes in my music space and fewer notes. But IMO, I think that's an age thing. We value our time as it decreases.

On communication: some say the web wants to be open, that it resists walled gardens. I think that is false. Walled gardens, hierarchies, elites seem to be a natural human preference. People want to be distinguishable from the background noise.

What the web prefers is enablers. It resists disablers.

Twitter is an enabler. What you want to know is if what is enabled has a value relative to follow on behaviors.

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From: John Cowan (Apr 03 2008, at 06:56)

Oh, so *that* is where the irritating "@foo" in responses to blog comments comes from? Well, when I respond to foo's comment, I am not *at* foo, I am talking *to* foo, and I will continue to write "foo:" just as God intended. So there.

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From: Peter Smith (Apr 03 2008, at 07:32)

Twitter seems to me to be the perfect online social network. It's a mostly unwalled garden with none of the annoying clutter that the typical social networking site forces on you.

Most importantly, the twitterverse would appear to be free of the "selling eyeballs to advertisers" subtext, which I really appreciate.

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From: bruce (Apr 03 2008, at 09:00)

I think you've nailed it, Tim.

One other point: Posting to Twitter relieves my blogfade guilt.

Now if only I could figure out Facebook...

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From: James (Apr 03 2008, at 09:24)

I daren't get involved with Twitter - it's hard enough getting quality time and resist the temptation to blog or read blogs as it is. The last thing I need is a background hum.

I probably miss out on a few interesting links and the odd spot of humour but I suspect most of those I recieve eventually via a blog.

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From: Michael Croft (Apr 03 2008, at 10:48)

I have to suggest Ethan Zuckerman's Cute Cat Theory, especially the Hypothesis on slide 7:

Sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract porn and activists.

If there's no porn, the tool doesn't work.

If there are no activists, it doesn't work well.

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From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Apr 03 2008, at 12:07)

John:

I don’t know about the English web, but for some reason in German forums in particular (but also the German blogosphere to a lesser extent), the “@foo” convention has been quite common since long before Twitter existed. Note too that Twitter didn’t have this syntax at the start – it developed as user convention that was acknowledged by Twitter once it was well established. So I don’t think Twitter is the reason for this phenomenon, although the service might have been catalytical in its wide-spread adoption.

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From: kmore (Apr 03 2008, at 13:04)

I echo the first comment, it would be nice to find more people in my local market, which is also Vancouver, but otherwise I find myself getting more and more involved with all things twitter.

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From: James Breeze (Apr 03 2008, at 13:53)

Great post. I have been fighting with Twitter for a year! On - off, on - off. Last night I cracked it!

The reason that Twitter is popular is that, when used to ask questions of people online, it is a Synchronous and Public way of tapping your collective consciousness. You get better answers because people opt in to reply, they are global and share things in common with you (relevant channel). It's like talk back radio but more powerful because it's on the web and you're in control not some announcer.

I'm a psychologist and wrote some psychobabble on my blog that helped me understand it.

It's here http://snurl.com/23efx

Twit @jamesbreeze

I follow you now too!

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From: DEckoff (Apr 03 2008, at 18:26)

Great post, and I totally agree: Twitter has become an important part of my day. And is the start of something big for communication and collaboration.

A couple of thoughts: it is one thing to have 1,000 people following you, but what happens when you are following 1,000 people? Or 5,000 people? Or 10,000 people?

To me, at some point you can have too many people to keep up with, and following multi-thousands becomes more of an artificial status thing than anything else.

What do you think is the maximum number of people a perseon can follow on Twitter before there are so many that it becomes unmanageable?

I'm pretty far off from that maximum whatever number it is and invite you to pint me via Twitter at http://www.davideckoff.com/twitter

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From: Sarah (Apr 04 2008, at 11:37)

This is my favorite definition of Twitter (appropriately posted on Twitter): "Twitter gives a person authorship over their present moment." http://twitter.com/mattmorrisfeed/statuses/569485412

It gives you a little soapbox to stand on where your thoughts help define you. As you said, it becomes a significant part of your identity. It's empowering.

On how many a person can follow and still actually "follow" - I'm personally wary of anyone following more than a couple hundred people. They're not looking at Twitter if they're following 23,000 people. There's actually a "supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships," according to Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number) called Dunbar's number, which theorizes that 150 is about the limit of people we can really "know" and keep track of.

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From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Apr 05 2008, at 06:08)

Sarah:

That is a great way to put it. It’s very good explanation of a tendency of mine I observed recently, whose motivation I could sense but not quite figure out, much less verbalise. It’s also a great explanation of how I describe the Twitter experience (at least mine): “mumbling to oneself in the presence of others doing the same, who occasionally mumble back.”

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From: Kent Brewster (Apr 06 2008, at 07:20)

Best part about Twitter: it doesn't tell you how many unread messages you have.

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From: =M= (Apr 08 2008, at 05:48)

I think the biz model of Twitter is a revenue share of the cost of text message sent to the app.

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From: SirPavlova (Apr 11 2008, at 00:35)

John Cowran: The @foo addressing has been around a lot longer than Twitter; I was using it back in 2001, '02 - probably even back in the nineties (my memory's a little hazy). I didn't see it much in the intervening years, but it was common on a lot of forums back then. Twitter *has* caused a resurgence in its use, though, I've got to admit.

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