Twitter has been around for a few years now. Its hard to believe, but it was back in 2006 when they were founded and since then, Twitter has gotten big…huge even. It started out being classified as a “micro-blogging” platform along with Facebook, Yammer and a few other services, many of which have gone by the wayside. Now, Twitter seems to be its own thing, a tool to rapidly make status updates and everyone it seems has a Twitter account. Corporations have Twitter accounts (except Apple… Where are you guys?), News items are being Tweeted and the service is increasingly being used to broadcast news and journalism. Astronauts are Tweeting. The President of the United States, Barack Obama has a Twitter account and uses it liberally… Clearly, something substantial has happened in society with Twitter and while for many folks, its a way of living vicariously through ephemeral updates in the lives of who you follow 140 characters or less at a time, Twitter is so much bigger.
The impetus for this post was that I was asked the other day why I used Twitter. ”Why do you spend time there and what was it good for?” was the line of questioning. ”Don’t you find Twitter to be a waste of time?” the questioning continued. My first thought was that “wow, there are people who don’t use the service”, but then I knew that. My wife, along with many other people I know do not engage in any social media whatsoever and tools like Twitter seem foreign to them. So, I tried to be as academic as possible in my response, replying that it was an asynchronous, low intensity discussion forum that has a somewhat open structure that serves as a flexible tool providing an immediacy of news gathering and the ability to keep in touch with people, blah, blah, blah… which were all good answers I thought, but the more I reflected on it, the more important Twitter seemed to me.
Like any tool that becomes critically important to society, the trick is meeting a fundamental need with openness and flexibility. Twitter came on the scene in a manner much like the original Apple ][. There was limited documentation (though to be fair, the Apple ][+ I had came with a complete set of schematics), principally because the people using the tool at the time did not appreciate or necessarily understand its full potential. Yet they continued to explore and do things in creative, new ways.
The Tweet shown at the top was my first ever post to Twitter, date stamped on the 20th of March, 2007. I'd been lurking since Twitter started up in mid to late 2006, before finally signing up and trying it out first hand. I remember thinking about the pros and cons of Twitter, wondering what the deal was and was it going to be worth it. "Oh, *another* social network where you are going to have to re-find all your friends or wait for them to discover the service. What benefit was Twitter going to give me and why should I limit myself to 140 characters? I liked longer form blogging and reading the content of good writers and using Jonesblog to explore and share photography with a wider community, so limiting yourself to 140 characters seemed awkward. More was better, right? What kind of silly service limited itself to 140 characters? But as I thought about it, if you were going to say something, that limit forced one to really consider what and how you said it. Its kind of like the analogy with photographers. Many photographers I know have cameras with lots of lenses or zoom lenses that let them go wide or telephoto to zoom in on the action. But we also have fixed lenses. I have a favorite 50mm lens that often I'll find myself using exclusively even though there are other zoom lenses that are much more flexible because that fixed lens makes me think more about what I'm going to shoot. The same is true with that 140 characters on Twitter. It causes you to really think about what you are going to say.
This is not to say that there is not a ton of noise on Twitter. People posting the minutiae of their lives including meals they are eating create huge load on Twitters servers. I'm quite guilty of posting food Tweets myself and there is a place for that. In one sense, Twitter is kind of like the corner coffee shop where you go to read, visit with friends and take in the sense of conversations in the background washing over you. However, the signal/noise ratio is up to you to tune. You can choose to listen or ignore as much of the noise as you wish. This was not immediately apparent to me back in 2006 and while it seemed that there was a kernel of something in Twitter that was useful, I could not quite identify it. One of the early proponents of Twitter (and a major investor with some skin in the game) was a guy named Chris Sacca (@sacca) who I'd been following since he conned Google into hiring him. He was an interesting dude who had ideas and passion and a willingness to look at things differently. Any time you find that in someone, they are worth paying attention to as its always fun to see what's next. At any rate, one of the comments on a blog entry Chris made, Why I Twitter with respect to Twitter as a service, was the following:
I said: "Hrmmmmm. Signal to noise ratio is pretty low on this one and I cannot really see how this could be terribly useful beyond dedicated journeys and such, but for day to day use, it seems like one more thing to clutter productivity. I could see its application for processes however..." ~BWJones December 6th, 2006.
The next day was this reply:
"BWJones: You're absolutely right. It's not very "useful" in the productivity sense. But then, neither is hanging out with your friends. Or ice cream." ~ev December 7th, 2006.
I'm told that this quote was on the wall at Twitter HQ at least at one point. I'd love to have a photo of that if it exists... Perhaps neither myself nor Evan Williams (@Evan) understood just what Twitter would become. I sure did not at the time and I'd wager that neither did Evan. It has however, been interesting to see just how fundamentally important Twitter has become, not just to me, but to millions of others on the global scale.
So, what is Twitter good for and why is it a useful tool? I'll give you my three reasons that are certainly relevant to me and I suspect others as well. Your milage may vary...
1) Some people are inherently interesting. Not for being famous or how much money they are worth, but something more substantial. They are interesting for what they think or do, or a combination of those two. You know that they are thinking interesting things. You know that if they can make those interesting thoughts coalesce into action through the right timing and teaming with the right associations, then something wonderful will happen. What that wonderful is, you cannot necessarily predict. Nor can you always define the right team to do it as the "wonderful" becomes an emergent phenomenon. Twitter is one of those "wonderful" phenomena and many of those who are involved with it are by default, interesting. But there are a bunch of other very interesting people out there on Twitter and they have things to say. The thing about interesting people is that even if they don't do what you do, they give you insight into the things you are working on, even if they are from completely different backgrounds. Its the process of thinking and being creative that is what is powerful. Out of interesting thoughts and ideas come compelling ideas, and Twitter gives you intimate access to that resource. I like interesting...
My PhD advisor and mentor Robert Marc signed up for a Twitter account (@robertmarc60) a couple of years ago and while the intensity of his posts is low, the signal is high. He is one of the best and clearest thinkers I've ever known and I learn something new with just about anything he posts. This stream of information supplements the other things that we are scheming on in science and outside of science. More on this later... In addition to Robert, there are many others in my Twitter feed who's ideas I like to pay attention to just for that reason. I learn something new from these individuals and that is valuable.
2) Flexible communication tools are compelling resources that can result in "wonderful" phenomena. The amazing thing about Twitter is that in some ways, it fulfills one of the original promises of the Internet much like the early BBS systems. Back when the original BBS systems started, the signal to noise ratio was very high and you would find yourself interacting with some really interesting people (see reason 1). For me, in 1982 as a then 12 year old, those BBS systems were exciting new tools that allowed you to listen to and communicate with people that you'd never otherwise be able to interact with. Some of those people were Russian physicists. Remember, in 1982 it was the height of the Cold War and Russians of any flavor were kind of exotic, especially physicists that were studying radio, optics and nuclear physics. Then there was some guy named Woz (@stevewoz) that hung out who knew an awful lot about that new Apple ][+ I was using till the wee hours of the morning. And there were other folks who worked with government agencies that they'd never talk about who worked with satellites that had *big* cameras on them. That was interesting…
Twitter has been an amazingly powerful tool for connecting people and establishing relationships. Twitter, like the early BBS allowed the ability to connect and communicate with people in an unprecedented new manner with a level of intimacy that was unparalleled by any other tool. We saw some of that with the early BBS services, then sites like Slashdot (@slashdot) and Reddit (@reddit). But we also saw that with Orkut, Facebook and innumerable other web services that have come and gone over the years. It turns out that each of those services had or still have a place, but the power with Twitter is that as a communication tool, they have succeeded by allowing individuals to effortlessly be direct information feeds.
Those information feeds come from real people in many cases (though there are bots on Twitter). And its easy to derive linear relationships between Twitter and some of the activities that I find myself in, like photography and a potential new business. My friend James Duncan Davidson (@duncan) was another one of those interesting and brilliant people who has successfully reinvented himself two or three times, thinks in new and unique ways and is a talented photographer. Duncan was also an early adopter of Twitter and like many in the photography community has used Twitter to their advantage. Duncan and I are working with some other folks, Trent Nelson (@trenthead) (an amazing and brilliant photographer who I first heard of by seeing an amazing 6 page spread in Sports Illustrated), David Kent (@dkentslc) (a PhD molecular biologist who reinvented himself as a lawyer) and Grayson West (@GraysonWest) (a photojournalist with one of the clearest senses of what rocks and what does not rock) on some early stage ideas for something new and exciting. We hope that it will be wonderful. More on this later… The important part of this is that with the exception of David, I met all of these people initially on Twittter.
Speaking of photography and relationships, Twitter was an amazing resource that my good friend Ann Torrence (@anntorrence) and I used to form the nucleus of the Photowalking Utah community, one of the most successful photowalking communities that has since spun off into a myriad of groups in the Western United States. Late in 2007, Ann called me saying that she wanted to form a new photography group… something that was community oriented, non-competitive and was focused on sharing information. We were both wanting to learn more about photography, so I bought into the idea saying that there was this guy that I’d been following on Twitter, Rich Legg (@leggnet) who might be interested in talking. Rich seemed to think it was an interesting idea, then contacted his friends Harley and Diane (@hpebley3) and (@ladypebbles) and then another local photographer, Scott Smith (@ScottoSmith) who joined us forming the nucleus of the first group photography event, ostensibly the first Photowalking Utah event on a rainy day in downtown Salt Lake City. This event resulted in literally thousands of people attending our photowalks and events over the last few years and learning more about photography and then taking that into additional communities and spinning off their own groups. Its been wonderful and fun to watch.
3) Resources that establish new workflows are powerful. People establish workflows in all aspects of their lives. Established workflows are crucial to how we work, communicate, play, live our daily lives, feed our families and make money to do all of the aforementioned. Because of this, its important to reflect from time to time on your workflows and on the things you spend time with. Tools that break established workflows can either enrage and create inefficiencies (ex: Microsoft Windows) or they can enfranchise new, far more efficient ways of doing things (ex: Twitter). If those resources are difficult and awkward to use, but can let you do new things, faster and better then people will still use them…begrudgingly until a better product comes along. Alternatively, if those new resources are simple and elegant while letting you do new things, faster and better, then you have something profound. Useful technologies are flexible and empower people to do something new… Something that fundamentally alters or improves upon workflows, creates new benefits or does something in a new way that just works better.
In addition to the efficiency of finding interesting content and people as well as connecting individuals and groups, Twitter has become my primary news source. I’ll find relevant news and information via the network of sources on Twitter that I pay attention to. Because Twitter is “tunable”, one can quickly and easily find sources tuned to the kind of news you want. For instance, as I type this, Twitter is exploding with links to videos, photographs and information on a meteorite that just entered the atmosphere over the Urals. None of this news is information I am getting from traditional news outlets. Twitter has almost completely supplanted my news gathering workflow.
Twitter has also become a critical resource for my science. Science funding centers like the National Institutes of Health (@NIHforHealth), the National Eye Institute (@NatEyeInstitute) and others have Twitter feeds that they use to broadcast relevant information to followers. I’ve also accumulated a useful list of people I follow and that follow me which I’ve called on to get journal articles that are either unavailable or they have direct reprints. Both general science news and highly specialized news feeds are available on Twitter including one from the very first textbook on the Internet, Webvision (@Webvision1) which got its own Twitter account fairly recently. Science journals too have jumped on the Twitter bandwagon and I am finding that the newest articles of interest are also being published on Twitter by Science (@sciencemagazine), Nature (@NatureNews) and other journals. Twitter has radically altered the way I interact with science.
As more progressive companies have realized the power of Twitter, they are starting to use it to better interact with their customers and in the process, completely altering the normal workflows when things go well and when customers are having problems. Delta Airlines (@Delta) for instance, understood Twitter fairly quickly and as such they have been amazingly useful and responsive with immediate feedback or assistance when travel problems pop up. It is possible for instance, to get near immediate travel assistance through Delta’s Twitter account, @DeltaAssist 24hrs a day, 7 days/week. I have been insanely happy with the assistance provided by that resource and on the one instance where the problems were beyond their control, Delta really did a solid customer service response through their Twitter accounts to make sure we were satisfied customers. Really outstanding service actually, that before Twitter would have had to have been dealt with through courtesy phones once the plane had landed or by trying to access customer service on your cell phone on the tarmac or in the airport. Now, the ability for customers to broadcast problems they are having with companies or products to the entire Internet and have an impact, particularly if they are influential is a substantial complication for companies. But if they are smart, this double edged sword can cut more in the companies favor should they take advantage of problems honorably. In short, Twitter is making it possible for companies to be more open and responsive to their customers, leading to better customer experiences and completely changing the workflow for interacting with customers. As some products or services become fungible, the experience of the customer becomes the differentiator between companies that succeed and fail.
So, Interesting people, flexible communications and new workflows are all pretty compelling reasons to use Twitter. There are many other reasons of course, relevant to innumerable other people, but these are my touchstones. What’s the downside? Dunno… Have not really seen a downside for myself yet. I looked hard for one in the beginning. For the few months in-between when Twitter started and when I signed up (the lurking period), I was trying to figure out what the angle was. How was Twitter making money? Twitter is free to users which is interesting. I remember when people started saying that the Internet would result in free tools, software, services and even hardware. It seemed kinda silly to me, but here we are. Twitter is free (as in beer) to use. So, what’s in it for Twitter? Data. Twitter uses and sells your Tweets and data to corporations and search engines. Twitter sells the rights to republish your Tweets (I think) and also makes it possible for other companies to promote their products and services through promoted Tweets. That sounds like a potential bad, but honestly I’ve found it to be very unobtrusive. Certainly less intrusive than other social media tools (cough, cough, Facebook). As far as social media, Twitter is also one of the best companies in terms of personal privacy policies and management of rights. While Facebook is grabbing rights after rights and bogarting any money made from images and words you post to Facebook without reimbursing you, Twitter is taking the high road. Like any tool, when misused by either the corporations or individuals, there is potential for damage or personal insult. I’ve found that so far, Twitter are the good guys who are building an amazing ecosystem that is largely beneficial to users and corporations alike.
In short, I like Twitter. You don’t have to, but for those that are not using it… Try it. You might like it as much as I do.