A sideways look at Twitter in the Enterprise

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?”


Twitter. Still haven’t got my drift? Then take a look at this definition in Wikipedia, or, if you want to get a real and fresh taste, this recent post by Ed Yourdon.

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.

17 thoughts on “A sideways look at Twitter in the Enterprise”

  1. I very much like the side by side analogy (and not just because I support the installation of bars in workplaces) even if I’m not convinced it’s entirely applicable to Twitter per se.

    In an ideal world , your prescription would be spot-on but over the year I’ve seen Twitter evolve from ambient distraction in a very positive connective sense to something that is infected by a worrying amount of sermonising, pimping and spamming.

    Yes we can block such people but I worry that the behaviours are shaping what later adopters think Twitter is for – rather than taking your view of seeing what it is and adapting that to positive purposes within an enterprise, social group or network.

    I tried to capture this some time ago in (an allegedly poetic) post comparing twittering to blogging http://makemarketinghistory.blogspot.com/2007/10/to-twitter-or-to-blog.html

    Let me take this opportunity to wish a very happy Christmas and a stimulating 2008 tothe intimidatingly smart and ever provocative side-by-side community that orbits this blog .

  2. Thanks JP – I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs help explaining Twitter to skeptical family members this Christmas! So far I’ve stuck with analogies, either calling it ‘an analogue version of The Borg’ (or ‘opt-in Borg’, as Jon Lister prefers), or using Clive Thompson’s wonderful comparison with proprioception:


    On a related matter, another interesting aspect for me is how Twitter (and Facebook status, to a lesser extent) is banging another nail into the old school marketing coffin. Blogging took back the conversation for the people – but at least it’s easy for companies to find blog postings and post comments on them. It’s almost impossible to find and engage in conversations on Twitter involving your products or services.

    Anyway, I’ve very much enjoyed reading your blog and the comments this year – here’s to some more stimulating debate in 2008!

  3. John, Phil, thanks for your comments. John, I too have been briefly frustrated by some of the things I see people using Twitter for. Yet, over the years, I guess I’ve become more pragmatic and chacun-a-son-gout about things, so it doesn’t bother me.

    I just tune them out. Spam. Noise. Advertising. Pimping. Pumping and Dumping. Call it what you will.

    The best filter I know is the brain. Yours, mine, ours. Collective brains are fantastic filters and not herd instinct or groupthink at all.

  4. I think your bang on about the huge benefits of the pub/sub model of information. In fact it’s the main reason why I’m using Twitter to publish football scores so I can receive them however I like. More on that here: http://blog.iclutton.com/2007/12/twitter-as-messaging-platform.html

    I love the simple to publish, simple to subscribe, only read what you care about mechanism that Twitter provides. I’m also a big fan of lots of small applications doing one thing really well, providing an API to hook into that and building the plumbing that’s relevant to you and your team.

  5. I am looking for a bulletin board on which I can post a question in order to receive replies to my research question. At present I am looking for information from people in India, or from Indian descent, who could tell me about their values and beliefs about work. What their goals are in the job market, how family features in working careers, and what place work takes in their social lives. Does work take priority over family life, or is it merely a means to an end to provide the family with all it needs to survive? I would like to have genuine comments on this question

Let me know what you think

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