It’s been one of those truly lazy days, so I think I’ll start seriously sideways.
Twitter. Hmmm. The first time that I can remember coming across the word “twitter” was when I was reading Wordsworth as a boy. [Yes, I know, I have been Confused a looong time]. Here’s the first stanza of the poem in question, Written in March While resting on the Bridge on the foot of Brother’s Water
THE COCK is crowing,
The stream is flowing,
The small birds twitter,
The lake doth glitter,
The green field sleeps in the sun;
The oldest and youngest
Are at work with the strongest;
The cattle are grazing,
Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!
Twitter. A phenomenon. Just over a year old. If you don’t know what it is, you should. You could do worse start with the Wordsworth poem. Think about some cocks crowing. A flowing stream. Some birds twittering. A glittering lake. Some quiet, some peace and harmony. A diverse group, young and old, weak and strong. Some herd instinct behaviour. And the ability for forty to feed like one.
Twitter. “A service for friends, family and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”
I’ve been watching Twitter almost since it started; initially, that’s all I did, watch. Some of my friends were early adopters, and I thought I could learn by watching them. [It was unusual to be learning fof my friends rather than off my kids, I’ve become so used to the latter]. Earlier this year I started playing with Twitter, but not seriously. It was only a month or two ago that I really got involved, as I sought to understand more about the beast.
I think of Twitter very simply:
First and foremost it’s a bulletin board with a difference, with many differences.
For one thing, the bulletin board has a publish-subscribe capability built into it. Anyone who joins can publish to it, but publishing alone means nothing, a tree falling in some Amazonian rain forest. This bulletin board has meaning only when someone reads your tweet, when someone subscribes to the stuff you publish. In Twitter speak, when someone “follows” you.
The first difference, therefore, is that you choose which parts of the bulletin board you read. You choose who (and what) you read.
When you follow someone, you can get that person’s tweets in a number of ways, directly off the web, read into some other application (like Facebook), via SMS to some mobile device or even via some IM system or the other. You can choose to receive an individual’s tweets via mobile or IM or direct through web only.
The second difference, therefore, is that you choose the device and the delivery method. You choose how, when and where you read.
And that’s not all. There is a hard constraint on the size of the message you’re reading, set currently at 140 characters; I have assumed that the remaining 20 characters available to any SMS-based service are being used by Twitter for message-specific information.
Short, brief, to the point. Where you want it, when you want it, how you want it. And limited to messages from the people you choose to “follow”.
Now that’s all very good, but why would this be of any value to the enterprise?
To answer this question, I need to take you on another ramble. Do you remember the days when you visited your parents’ friends, then had to wait miserably while they showed you their holiday photographs and films? Maybe you were even more unlucky, and you had to live through the next generation, when your own friends bored you with their films and photographs? And then surprise surprise, along came Flickr and YouTube, and suddenly you were interested in your friends’ holiday snaps and films.
So what happened? Did the holiday snaps suddenly become more interesting? I don’t think it was that, the change was more fundamental. You chose when you saw the photographs. You chose where and how you saw them. And when you did see them, there was something participative you could do: you could tag them “your way” and share what you’d done.
Twitter’s success, at least in part, is because of this “Martini” effect, anytime anyplace anywhere, augmented by the participative value. But that’s not all. I think there’s something else at work here, something subtler. Sometime ago, when I was tangentially involved in helping design workflows for a new building, we started looking at the best ways of organising coffee-cooler areas, in order to encourage people to chat. Most of the designs suggested were of the Alien Mushroom category….. you know what I mean, where you have these strange not-quite-tables, I guess you would call them pods, sprouting everywhere randomly. Some of the designs, on the other hand, were of the Wild West Bar variety, where instead of a pod you had a long narrow counter.
Gut feel told me that the long narrow counter worked better than the pod. I have no idea whether I was right, I was only peripherally involved in the planning, and soon it became irrelevant, I changed jobs; what I do know is that I’ve thought about it since, and I think I know why my instincts said what they did.
When you see someone standing at a pod, you need to come face-to-face with that someone in order to start a conversation. When you see someone at a bar counter, you only need to come side-by-side. It’s the same at an art gallery, when you stand next to someone and break into conversation. The moral of the story is that side-by-side makes conversation easier, face-to-face can be threatening at the start, especially with strangers.
There is something about Twitter that is side-by-side empathising rather than face-to-face confronting.
So that’s what I think. Let me summarise, having taken you for a wander all over the place. Twitter has a role to play in the Enterprise, because:
1. It allows you to impose a publish-subscribe model on top of a bulletin-board-like system, which reduces noise and improves the signal as it were.
2. It allows you to publish (and to subscribe) in a platform-agnostic device-agnostic way, which keeps the communications process simple.
3. It supports teamwork and participation as a result, in a non-threating not-in-your-face way
As a result, there are many ways to get value out of Twitter in the Enterprise, ranging from problem-solving through to education and training, while improving overall communication and collaboration. Of course there are caveats. As with any other form of communication, Twitter can be misused. As happened with bulletin boards, it is theoretically possible for Twitter to degenerate into idle gossip, pump-and-dump, smut, whatever. But this time around we can stop it, far more easily than we could stop the desecration of bulletin boards. All we have to do is to stop following someone; all we have to do is to block that someone at the next stage.
Publish easily, from any device, anytime anyplace anywhere. Subscribe easily, again device and location and time agnostic. Keep the messages short. Watch each other, learn from each other. That’s what we can do with Twitter in the Enterprise. But we will only do it if we want to share, and if we have the discipline of learning.