Thinking about Push and Pull and Twitter in the Enterprise

There have been a number of comments on my recent posts re Twitter and the Enterprise; I thought it would be worth while spending a little time answering them in some detail. First, let’s take a look at the questions:

  • How can a system that uses messages restricted to no more than 140 characters be useful?
  • What’s in it for a Tweet consumer?
  • As the network grows, won’t the noise cancel out any worthwhile signal?
  • In a corporate environment, what’s wrong with e-mail and BlackBerry?

I’m going to answer them in a roundabout way, as part of a narrative rather than in some specific request-response manner. If you feel I have failed to answer the questions, do feel free to comment vociferously. [And no, I will not be restricting myself to 140 characters. This is a blog and not a TweetStream].

Let me start with terms like “Push Technology” and “Pull Technology“. They may mean a lot to many people, but for me they’re dangerous terms, helping to cloud the issue. Other than the architects of the systems in question, who cares whether a request for information originates from the client or from the server? Most people don’t know that the device in their hands (or on their desktops) is referred to as a client, and most people neither know nor care where the servers they use are located.  Yet, for some reason, every time the conversation moves to different forms of communication, we start arguing about push and pull.

I think we would be far better off considering Twitter as neither Pull nor Push, but instead as Pub-Sub, as Publish-Subscribe. The first and most beautiful thing about Twitter, as far as I am concerned, is that I only see the tweets of people I follow, people whose tweets I subscribe to. It is up to me to decide how many people I can follow. For some people this may be a Dunbar number, stabilising around 150, perhaps finding a Twitter adjustment to that number and raising it. Others may be Scoblesque in their reach, dissatisfied unless they push the 5000 limit (as in Facebook; I must admit I have no idea what the Twitter limit is).

So one way of avoiding increasing noise levels is to avoid increasing the network beyond one’s capacity. I can choose to “follow” (or subscribe to tweets from) just as many people as I am able to cope with. This is not something you can do easily with BlackBerry or with e-mail in general. There is a second way as well. I can choose whose tweets get sent to my mobile device of choice. For every person I  “follow”, I have a further choice I can make. Do I want to “turn notifications ON” for that person? What this means is this: Would I like to receive tweets from this person in SMS alert form as well? So again I can throttle the messages precisely.

And there’s something else about all this stuff. It’s easy to do. A child could choose to “follow” someone, to stop “following” someone, to turn notifications on or off for someone. Try it for yourself. Stop “following” me, I won’t be offended.  Add me and then subtract me, no problemo. The point is, managing your twitterspace is easy. When you compare it with the effort you have to make in order to create mail filters, it’s apples and oranges time.

Actually, when you compare e-mail with Twitter, there is also something quite different about the mode of communication. You send e-mail to a person or a group of people. You send a tweet to Twitter, not to a person or people. It’s less intrusive, less in-your-face. The recipient always chooses. It’s side-by-side rather than confrontational.

As in the case of Push and Pull versus Pub-Sub, memes matter. I think we risk losing some of the value of Twitter when we use terms like “consumer”. Twitter is part of a different mindset, an altogether different paradigm. A paradigm of creation-participation, not production-consumption, democratised and not elitist. In Twitter everyone’s a participant, everyone follows and is followed. Everyone tweets. No one forces you to tweet, but once you get used to what is going on, you’ll find yourself tweeting away.

And don’t worry if it doesn’t come easily. Think of every one of the new communications vehicles as if it was a new musical instrument: you’re not going to be able to pick it up and play straightaway, you need to experiment, you need to learn, and you need to practise.

Some people try and answer the twitter-defining question “what are you doing?”. Some will use twitter to alert people to other things they’re doing, such as posts on their blog. Some will use the facility to push their wares, their opinions, their ideas, even their urls. There is no right or wrong. If you like what someone is tweeting, then maybe you turn notifications on for them. If you don’t, then maybe you stop following them. It’s up to you.

If I’m a participant rather than a consumer or producer of tweets, I still need to answer the question “What’s in it for me?”. If I don’t want to share, then I don’t need to share, and what I will get is precisely nothing. There is nothing in it for me unless I share.

Once I choose to share, a number of potentially valuable things can happen, depending on what I share. Let me try and classify them simply:

I can share what I intend to do, as in: I am about to take a cab from Midtown to Upper West Side. Other participants can then comment by saying “Avoid Broadway, the traffic’s awful around 72nd St, best to take West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway“. Or by asking “Let me know how the traffic is, I need to go uptown later.” So when I share what I intend to do, people can share their relevant experience, or ask that I share mine. So in an enterprise context I could say “Planning to get a bunch of people together to discuss identity” and others could comment, write directly, offer advice, signal their interest,  commit to participating, and so on.

In similar fashion, I can share what I am doing; I can share what I have just finished doing; I can share what I am thinking of doing. In each case the value propositions for the enterprise are simple:

  • people who are interested in the same things as you can reach out to you
  • people who have information that may be germane to what you are doing can give you that information
  • people who have experience in what you are doing can share that experience with you
  • people who can learn from what you are doing can “watch” you

All this happens in process haikus, restricted to 140 characters. All this happens in “real time”. All this happens in a pub-sub way.

As David Weinberger said, hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. Assembly-line thinking was never meant to enter the knowledge-worker industry. Tools like Twitter will help us define the new enterprise.

All we need is to keep our minds open and be willing to experiment. I am constantly amazed by the enterprise’s immune system in this context: too often, there is a clamour for change from the grassroots and from senior management, but it can be resisted all too easily by a large and fundamentally moribund midsection.

25 thoughts on “Thinking about Push and Pull and Twitter in the Enterprise”

  1. Don’t we have distribution list in the enteprise email system that serves the same purpose as twitter? this is the same publish/subscribe model only limited to email , not sms. But maybe more efficient because I’m subscribing to a specific topic, not to a person, therefore eliminating many of the noise I see in twitter

  2. Twitter indeed subverts THE hierarchy, yet it creates hierarchy of its own. For instance, @susanrenoylds and PEA outpouring you mentioned, is primarily a ‘on the know’/insider joke club activity that overflowed beyond the club. It is one off, and absolutely not repeatable. Whereas, in an enterprise context, the value comes from converting barely repeatable into repeatable. Twitter and such tools will encourage hierarchies around antics mavericks. Will not the creativity directed towards ‘doing new and interesting antics’ divert attention/creativity from solving problem in hand?

  3. Isn’t the point of twitter to present a unified messaging model so that people can communicate asynchronously (ie. without ‘bugging’ each other, or hassling recipients into a reply). The twitter service is just a very simple intermediary to aggregate, transform and filter messages. Blogs are cool but imply human intermediation as well as forcing a ‘post/comment’ assymmetry that is unnatural. Because communication is symmetric, messaging is much more natural.

  4. I don’t think that blogs are “unnatural”, neither do I believe that messaging is “much more natural”. I prefer to believe that we all have a plethora of ways to communicate: some broadcast, some narrowcast, some point-to-point, some synchronous, some asynchronous, some audio, some video, some text, some snailmail, some e-mail, some SMS, some device agnostic, some location agnostic. Whatever.

    Some even live and face to face and synchronous.

    The advantages of newer forms of communication lie in persistence, in searchability, in taggability, in rating-ability. These are not things we had in prior forms of communication, but then we didn’t have volume to deal with either. So I look at the new tools to see if they can help us learn as well as prevent overload.

  5. Value propositions of Twitter for the enterprise : it is striking how similar these are to the functions we had from running Usenet inside HP, in the 1980s.

    Persistence, somewhat searchable, asynchronous, arranged into topics. No tagging nor ratability; there was a substantial volume. Very little moderation was required – occasionally one of the non-technical groups would get a little out of hand. It certainly did subvert the hierarchy. Seen from the perspective of the first outpost of HPLabs, in the UK, it was very effective at creating shared context with the people in the US, both product divisions and Labs.

    Shared context is undervalued. Creating and maintaining that is the great value in Tweets; other geographies, where the billing model is different, do it with SMS messages.

  6. I agree with you, Anne, shared context is critical. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve tended to feel that shared context and reduced switching costs are not just valuable in twitter, but in all modern “web 2.0″ communications methods.

  7. I couldn’t agree more about the issue of shared context.
    Twitter is a great help in attaining that, and it’s perfect for what others have called “ambient intimacy” – which might roughly be described as a sense of being included and in the know (maybe even “situational awareness”), rather than feeling out of the loop.

  8. Persistence – absolutely. Social apps tend to be ‘persistent public media’, where the social graph can mediate what ‘public’ means. I suppose that the advantage of persistence, other than not losing things, is to create context. I am not sure that twitter is any better at creating context than any other social app, whatever tech it is based on (messagging, tagging, caching, etc).

    ‘Ambient intimacy’ sounds fun, where can I try some? I’d worry about how all this scales. How do you do Twittergeist for the ‘welt geist’ as well as for your local group of friends, colleagues, …? Presumably you need to weight by social distance (i.e. degrees of Bacon separation), so for example a direct contact’s twitter gets 2x more value than a FOAF, and 4x more than a FOAFOAF, … When there is a global social graph, someone will implement this I’m sure.

    On being ‘natural’. Well, admittedly I could have avoided the N word. Certainly communication and conversation work through many channels and technologies and in that sense no one implementation is more natural than any other, provided that it works. My moan about blogs is only that comments (like this one) belong to the blog post. I don’t have a way to retain the URI of this comment (qua microcontent) whereas with messaging, I keep a copy of everything I say.

  9. > My moan about blogs is only that comments (like this one) belong to
    > the blog post. I don’t have a way to retain the URI of this comment
    > (qua microcontent) whereas with messaging, I keep a copy of
    > everything I say.

    Tis is something that worries me as well; I’d also like to keep track of everything (not out of vanity, but to keep an externalized memory). But with all those different platforms now, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do that.
    What I’d like to see is some sort of unified messaging model, where my e-mail client also stores blog comments, Twitter updates, instant messaging conversations etc.
    (Thanks to RSS feeds, this is already possible – but only to some limited extent.)

  10. Ok. You know I’m a sucker for pub-sub. I’ll try to give Twitter more of a go. But it is going to have to be easy…

    btw like the phrase ‘ambient intimacy’ flagged in one of the comments; neatly reflects some of the value that accrues by using online social networks to broaden one’s community…

Let me know what you think