Musing about things I can do with Twitter that I couldn’t easily do before Twitter

Whenever I come across a new social media tool, I don’t tend to jump in just to be cool, I’m way too old for that. [Sometimes I have to wait anyway, because the thing is in private beta and for some reason private betas find it hard to cross the Atlantic, even in the 21st century.] Most of the time, I sign up and then watch. I try and see what people do with the tool. Which is not necessarily the same thing as what the tool was originally designed for. [I guess that comes from having children, and observing them as they develop, flower and come to maturity. A wonderful experience… ]

When I watch, there is some method to my madness. Once I get the hang of what people are doing with the tool, I start playing with it myself. And then I place three gates in the way, gates that must be passed before I really get engaged with the tool:

Gate 1: Is it a Martini thing, anytime anyplace anywhere?

Gate 2: Are the barriers to entry and participation sufficiently low?

Gate 3: Is there at least one thing I can do with this new thing, one thing I couldn’t do before with anything else?

This post is about Twitter’s Gate 3.

Someone started following me a few days ago, can’t remember who it was. I did the usual thing, a quick check on the person’s Twitter profile, a flit through to that person’s blog, a scan of the people being followed, a minds-eye snapshot of recent tweets and a courtesy “Return of the Follow“.

While doing that, I noticed a tweet from someone I hadn’t connected with for a while, Halley Suitt. Yes, a Suitt Tweet.  [Try saying that quickly after a few drinks.]

What Halley said was interesting. She said “Best thing I’ve read all week”, while describing an article in the New Yorker. [And thank you, New Yorker, for not sticking the article behind a paywall”.]

Now that’s useful.

Blog Friends and equivalents let me know what a person’s surfing, Facebook mini feeds show me what someone’s sharing, there are many social bookmarking tools and RSS readers available, there are even shared readers available.

But so far none of them gives me this kind of information as succinctly as Twitter. Now of course the value didn’t come directly from Twitter, it came from Halley. I know Halley. I know she reads a lot. And I trust her opinions, without having to agree with all of them. And when she says “Best thing I’ve read all week” I sit up and take notice. I take a look. I wander over to where she points.

And boy was I glad I did. This is the article she pointed me towards: Twilight of The Books: A Critic At Large.

Fascinating article. There’s a lot I want to say/ask/share about it, but I’ll leave it for a separate post. Tomorrow.

In the meantime, maybe some of you out there have similar examples of stuff you can do with Twitter you couldn’t do before. In this particular instance what got me excited was how person A could let others (others who were interested in Person A’s opinions on a particular subject) know about an object and its rating simply and efficiently.

Comments and views?

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.