Twitter interests me more for what it foreshadows than for what it does. This micro-blogging system is currently little more than an electronic water cooler, where information workers and students can socialize and blow off steam. But it also has aspects of a social network — a very open social network. And that means it has the potential for some exciting innovation.
I look at Twitter as a VisiCalc of this era. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet program for the personal computer. Primitive by modern standards, its greatest feat was setting a new paradigm. Spreadsheet progams look odd to those who have never used one, but for adopters, it is a powerhouse– something that many couldn’t imagine working without.
Of course, that’s the magic of the paradigm, not VisiCalc specifically, which was usurped by competitors within a few years of its release.
Sooner rather than later, a Twitter competitor will take the new behaviors of microblogging and deliver something extraordinary. This will be something we would not want to live without. Similar to Excel, this competitor will arrive with bigger, smarter features and scoop up market share.
Or maybe I’m wrong and Twitter will do the impossible. Perhaps it will be able to hold onto and expand its base of users as it morphs from networked toy to networking tool. Here is one ray of hope for Twitter that they will have a better chance than VisiCalc did: Twitter courts and encourages third party developers.
May I Buy You a Beer?
Which brings me to the latest Twitter-affiliated innovation: Along with Foamee, Twitter users can now publicly proclaim their intentions to buy someone a beer. Foamee then tracks the IOU, and even allows for scores to be settled and ledgers closed. Good work, Dan Cederholm of SimpleBits Design, for this fun Twitter add-on. Here’s a screen cap showing my IOU (middle posting) from this morning:
Twitter continues to innovate by opening up to the creative community at large (another fun example is this mashup: TwitterVision). How incredibly smart. This week at ad:tech New York, Google announced it has organized several major social network sites to back an open source way of building and sharing widgets. It’s called OpenSocial.
The folks behind Google (and its own social network, Orkut), wisely recognize that innovation can only be accelerated through the “network effect.” And innovation is, after all, a key to survival. They might have even been inspired by watching Twitter.
It’s been called a micro-blogging platform, an electronic water cooler and a wonderful way to keep tabs on friends and family. It’s Twitter, and all I wanted to know is: Is this something marketers should be tracking? Here’s my answer.
You should track Twitter. But do it on your own terms. Or simply keep tabs on someone who is on the Twitter network. This concept will definitely morph, but it is not going away.
As promised in the footnote to my dismissive blog entry about this technology, I will recount my 14 days in Twitterland. For those who need a grounding in what Twitter is, I suggest you click on the link above. It loads in a new browser window, so you won’t lose your place. Are you back? Okay, let’s do this thing.
The first thing I discovered was that the people who would never, ever get a blog, or comment on other people’s blogs, have willingly signed up for Twitter. They have eagerly posted their 140 characters of news, weather and sports. I joke, but these posts do often resemble what contemporary television news has devolved into: The most superficial look at important headlines, plus trivia and human interest. And in saying that, I do not mean to disparage, because, like local news, this is very addictive.
Especially when you’re a friend or relative of the fellow “newscasters.”
When you’re part of this micro-blogosphere, all other activity you’re engaged in at that moment comes to a brief halt while you check your computer screen, IM window, or cell phone text messages to learn such tidbits as: “Man, that soup was hot. It scalded my mouth!” I’m making this one up, but it’s the type of flotsam and jetsam that comes drifting your way when you dip your oar in the vast Twitter Ocean.
Below is a sample I grabbed just now from the Twitter Public Timeline, a real-time stock ticker of global “Tweets” from those willing to share their tidbits with the world.
Again, I must assure you that I am not dismissing this type of information exchange. Just as the real definition of flotsam and jetsam is “potentially valuable goods jettisoned from a ship,” there are many gems that are shared with the friends, family and co-workers that one lets into one’s network. These gems slide into view suddenly and quietly, along with the detritus. It’s all disposable, but at the same time riveting.
In my 14 days on a small Twitter network (less than 10 participants), I’ve learned things. Oh, yes. I’ve learned quite a bit.
I’ve been sent links to interesting sites and videos. I’ve gotten to know more about distant friends’ lives. I’ve even discovered that I’ve missed an important appointment. And none of this was in my email box, which is crammed enough as it is. This is good on a micro level. And this is potentially important on a macro level.
I suspect that when the next Twin Towers catastrophe occurs, those on a Twitter network will get important and potentially life-saving alerts (“A plane just hit the second tower!”). Remember: On 9/11/01, when the voice lines of cell phones were jammed and inaccessible, and the electricity was off, the last goodbyes were sent to loved ones via cell phone SMS text messages. Grimly, this form of communication was still available, for brief, real-time expressions of fear, resignation and undying love.
If my suggestion of Twitter having that kind of utility shocks you, I must say it shocked me too. But it is also something that follows a clear path. Anthropologist Danah Boyd stated recently that initial web sites — we’ll call them Web 1.0 — were about ideas. With web sites and simple emails, people who didn’t know each other before became acquainted around shared interests and passions. Web 2.0 is all about people. Since the web has become ubiquitous (at least with the majority of the young, and 100% of the world’s information workers), you could keep connected with nearly everyone you know, and even have them broker introductions to those you don’t know (the magic of MySpace and Facebook “friends” and LinkedIn “connections”).
So what is the coming Web 3.0 about? Place.
Or, more importantly, place and time. Who is where I am right now? Other systems like Dodgeball hinted at this promise of a real-world / virtual network. Twitter expands on that promise. It is about place in a big way.
If you want to spend some mindless computer time, check out this Google mash-up of the Twitter public timeline. That will remind you of how quickly this world is shrinking … and help to demonstrate the global, and univeral, appeal of Twitter.
Finally, I offer this challenge. I want to see if Twitter can help me get acquainted with some interesting, like-minded marketing types. So I’m going to do a little experiment: I’m posting my Twitter posts to the world for the next week, and see who might want to add me to their Twitter Friends list. Specifically, I want to know how many people I could get to know. Can I connect with individuals whose flotsam and jetsam would make for an interesting and instructive complement to the Tweets I’m receiving now? And can some real business conversations come of it?
Twitter is a way to broadcast via your cell phone or computer. What do you broadcast? Whatever is immediate and local. You disclose your thoughts, observations and whereabouts — and anything else you can fit within a 140-character limit text message. Here’s an unofficial Twitter wiki. Its Press and Media section has links to some of the latest buzz on this social media app.
Twitter appeared quickly and will, in my opinion, flame out just as fast. Once it has died back down to a glowing ember, I suspect it will reside where it seems most suited: with younger students and others with plenty of time, a big friends list, and a high opinion of their own text-messaged voices.
Because your cell phone can get deluged with “Tweets” (one attendee of the SXSW conference in Austin reported receiving 3,000 of them during her time there), it appears that most people finally turn the mobile feature off. Who of us, after all, has an unlimited text message plan and a high tolerance for deleting messages as fast as they arrive?
But turning off the ability to receive these messages on my cell phone takes away one of Twitter’s major appeals: The ability to “microblog” from anywhere, and read other people’s insights dashed off from whatever house party or night club you weren’t able to get to.
I’m always looking at these phenomena for how they might bubble up into the generations of working stiffs who are hoping technology can aid their productivity — or ease their workday the way a smoke break used to when more people smoked.
This technology has me curious, but unless there is some improved way to filter the spamming effect I don’t see Twitter as surviving the battle for mainstream relevance.
April 17, 2007 — An update:This weekend I succumbed. I needed to experience Twitter for myself, especially since I was reading intriguing comments on other people’s blogs, including this one. Keeping the mobile component turned off, I created this account: http://twitter.com/TheLarch (yes, I dropped my name’s trailing “e” — it’s a silly Monty Python joke).
I’ll do a new entry soon with my thoughts.
Marketing Technology Musings and Tips by Jeff Larche