Thinking about Twitter: a submarine in the ocean of the Web

I like Twitter, particularly because of its publish-subscribe nature. A few weeks ago, I described Twitter as:

a newspaper. a bulletin board. a club. an “adda”. a telephone network.

Twitter is all these things. It brings me the news. It is a place where people publish notices. It’s a place where I meet my friends, and where we talk to each other. It is many things to many people. But. And it is a humdinger of a but. It’s a lot more than that.

To me, Twitter is fast becoming my personal submarine and periscope to the ocean of the World Wide Web, the personal areas I want to go to defined by my relationships to people and ideas. It doesn’t mean that I don’t use the rest of the web:  Twitter is an adjunct to the web, a very important adjunct, but an adjunct nevertheless. The way I use Twitter teaches me something, something about the way things may be going. Let me explain what I mean.

  1. Twitter is my feed aggregator. One of the ways I interact with the web is through RSS, and over the years I’ve tried to find better and better ways to filter the firehose. Inspecting blogrolls. Shared OPMLs. You name it. I’ve used a number of different aggregators, now I use Twitter as a pseudo-aggregator.
  2. Twitter is my attention enhancer. One of the ways I interact with the web is through collaborative filtering and voting, some way of getting the right stories to the surface, stories from people I don’t know, stories about people I don’t know. Again, over the years, I’ve tried to find better and better ways to let other people filter the firehose for me, using tools ranging from StumbleUpon to Digg and a whole lot in between. Now I use Twitter to surface the stories that matter, particularly with the growth of retweeting.
  3. Twitter is my bookmarking service. One of the ways I interact with the web is through the use of bookmarking services, some way of identifying stories I want to get back to later. The use of tags has helped in this regard, particularly when combined with search engines. The ability to save bookmarks at browser level has also helped, but caused its own problems for a while, when the bookmarks used to be locked into the specific machine. Now those problems have been solved with bookmarking services, but I find I’ve tended more and more to discover the stories via Twitter. So now I “favourite” the tweet instead.
  4. Twitter is my emergent searchable web and engine. One of the ways I interact with the web is through the use of search engines, particularly Google. So to some extent I am reliant on how sites and pages are tagged, spidered, indexed. But now something else is happening. Instead of metatags embedded in sites, I have tweets. 140 characters of description written by someone, 140 characters of freeform searchable text available via Twitter Search (I still think of it as Summize, I’m old that way). So when I look for something, one of the places I go to first is Twitter Search.

There are also many things Twitter is not, and these are also important to note.

Ads: I enjoy the fact that it is ad-free; the way I look at it, if it becomes ad-full then someone else will build something that is ad-free. Because one of the reasons I like Twitter is its ad-free-ness. It’s important to me. And I would probably stop using it overnight if that changed.

E-commerce: Twitter is not where I go to in order to buy and sell things. I have the whole of the web for that. Twitter is a personalised place, a private place, a segment of the web where I am in conversation with my friends. No place for multi-level-marketing, no place for people to Makoff with my money (assuming, of course, that the past tense of Makoff is Madoff).

Stories: the Web is the library where my stories are located, stories cast in video and audio and text. Twitter is the catalogue for my personal interests, defined in two ways: my personal profiles and preferences, along with the ambient influences of my friends and associates. I was particularly taken with the description of Twitter in Clay Spinuzzi’s blog recently, where he spoke about Twitter as a means of assessing ambient status. I had the opportunity of meeting Clay in Austin over the summer (we take our summer vacation every year in Austin, I love that city); he is a very clever man with some real insights into the way human networks work.

Twitter is not a replacement for the web, nor will it ever be. Its publish-subscribe nature helps us have capillary conversations, (aso written about here and here) and this is very important. The tweet, the @friend message and the DM replicate human conversation more realistically than many prior forms of communication, that and the pub-sub nature gives its capillarity. The ability to compress context via snurls and bit.lys and tinyurls is not intrinsically part of Twitter, but I see it more used in Twitter than anywhere else. The asymmetric follow helps us improve our capacity to sense ambient status, which also helps us in many ways.

When you come down to it, a social network offers you six things.

  • A directory of people, a subset of which you know.
  • Some way of grouping or classifying those people in overlapping subsets of group or network or interest or whatever.
  • A way of communicating with those people, two-way, multi-way, broadcast.
  • A way of scheduling events where you meet those people.
  • A way of sharing status across a whole slew of things.
  • A way of keeping track of changes to all those things.

Early telephones came with directories, gave you opportunities to group and classify, let you communicate. Event scheduling and ambient status sharing were absent, as was the ability to share information about change.

The ability to connect directories with scheduling became available in early office productivity environments like PROFS or CEO, and reached critical mass with Microsoft Office, Outlook and Exchange.

Ambient status sharing became possible when “chat” and IM became popular, and Bloomberg, ostensibly accidentally, saw the value of connecting communities with chat facilities.

We had to wait till Facebook came along before someone saw the value of alerting the community to changes in each of these areas: joining or leaving the directory; forming or re-forming relationships and groupings; adding or subtracting ways of communicating; signalling attendance or non-attendance at events and meetings; sharing status. So the News Feed came along.

Twitter is a news feed, but with a difference. With many differences. Which is why I think of it as a submarine with a periscope.

And I think one of the most important things about Twitter is its size. There are 140 good reasons to like Twitter. Which makes it a submarine, fast, fleet, agile.

12 thoughts on “Thinking about Twitter: a submarine in the ocean of the Web”

  1. This is by far the most astute and well rounded view of twitter that i have come across. It is very insightful.

    I agree with the four points your raise, these are also really key areas for me also, and the main reason why twitter has become such a cornerstone in my day to day interaction with internet and my social network.

    Am also very happy to see that everything you mention are part of a project I am building to enhance and enrich the conversations from Twitter.

    Am sure I will break into that conversation later next week, when we catch up for breakfast :)


  2. Twitter is the contemporary of – the telephone pole on which we post ads – it is graffiti without the messy spray can – it is the water cooler – it is the dark corner – it is the billboard – it is the neon sign – it is the rabbit hole….

  3. Hey JP

    Great to see you at DLD. I agree with you about the ambience. And the ambience becomes powerful but possibly overwhelming.

  4. Well said. To me, Twitter is an interactive filter put on top of the web. Using social connections and peer recommendations, we’re able to find the best information on the web without having to search through thousands of results on Google. It’s important that people understand what Twitter is and isn’t and you’ve done a great job of outlining them here.

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