“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

What is twitter anyway?

So just this week Dr. Linda Ciroco (@lindaciroco), the Director if Innovative Teaching & Learning asked me to speak to a great of faculty here at the Savannah College of Art & Design (@scaddotedu; and many more!).

When confronted with this invitation, of course, I jumped at the opportunity. I mean I am starting this Twitter client project (@tweet101_org), and any opportunity to be considered an expert Twitterer among my peers can’t be a bad thing. But then I felt overwhelmed. I just realized that for almost all of my peers, the first thing I’m going to have to do is well “define the damn thing!”. What the heck is Twitter? So I have no idea when I’m giving this talk, but I thought I might as well start putting some ideas out there into the cloud and see how it responds.

So, what the heck is Twitter?

Some consider twitter to be part of the class of web applications called micro-blogs. Of course, attempting to define hype with hype isn’t going to help anyone. But seeing is believing.  As I see it there are 2 classes of micro-blogs. The first are like twitter. Short message text only systems which are optimized not just for the web, but for Short Message Service (SMS: 160 char limit). These are Twitter, Plurk and Identi.ca. How these are considered the same as micro-blogs like Tumblr and Posterous kills me. The latter being a mixture of short concept (no real limit) blog posting, link sharing w/ commentary, and media sharing also with commentary. They almost all have the same features as full on blogs like Blogger, WordPress and Moveable Type, except that they are usually focused on sharing existing material instead of complex content management (though they have been evolving). This is to say that I don’t really think that these are really micro-blogs any longer. Oh! and full blogs have established options focused on sharing as well. So there really isn’t much difference any longer.

So … What is Twitter? (take 2)

Well we established that it is about short messages and that mobile phone text messaging is at the core of Twitter (and other nano-blogs–heh heh heh!). While people would love to have more characters to type their messages, there has been an amazing effect created by this limitation. There is a release of pressure associated with long message composition, an instant gratification, and a succinctness to the messages. Lastly, there is a pervasive repetition of messages that make up not a collection of statuses and thoughts, but can be connected together to represent an ambient intimacy between those that post and those that read those posts.

Soooo …. Tell me!!! What is Twitter?

It is a social network. What is a social network? Well, I’m sure if you google it you will find tons, but here is my basic take on it. Social networks all start with a basic concept of targetting two sides of the conversation. For the most part Twitter is about focusing a conversation on who you “listen” to. Other social networks focus on who you talk to. Now, Twitter does let you control who is listening to you, but that is not the focus of the tool.

But that isn’t much of a network, right? Where the network comes in is in the systems ability to introduce you to the connections of other people. There are a few ways that Twitter does this, but the main way is that you can look at the incoming and outgoing connections of those whom you are connected with. The presumption is that if your connection is insterested in that person, maybe I should be. Or! its just a collection of connections you didn’t remember. The other way is through the messages and this gets a little complex (and will be discussed below). The short version is that people reference their connections in their own messages. If those connections allows others to view their profiles then you can learn about them.

Ok, Ok, are you ever going to tell me what Twitter is?

Twitter’s initial intent was to be a place where you can let people in your network know what you are up to. Where you are. What you’re eating. What movies you are watching, etc. etc. But then something happened. Someone would say, “Hey! I’m headed to this bar.” and someone would say “@johndoe, I’m headed to the same bar! See ya there!”. So just like in email, where we use the @ symbol as part of the address we send emails to someone, the concept of using an @ as a form of code or markup to tell someone that a message while public (as there are ways of sending private messages within the Twitter application) is intended for whoever uses the Twitter ID, johndoe.

The back and forth didn’t end with simple one-offs though. People have used this system of responses as a means to hold full in the public’s eye conversations. [Oh! did I mention that the vast majority of people on Twitter allow their messages to be seen by anyone in the world? Not quite there yet.]

I still don’t know what Twitter is. A public conversation?

Well, no, or should I say, yes, but not just yes. That same @[id here] method was not just used to create “replies” to people’s posts, but also became a way to mention someone. As in, “I’m in the bar with @johndoe and he is totally …” Or! it became a way to give credit to someone: “@johndoe sent me this link to a youtube video you have to see. You’ll be LOL in no time [shortened link here].”

This became known in Twitter-land as a mention. I’m sure I’m forgetting other uses for an ID, but they basically are all the ways you might virtually address directly or indirectly another human being by name. This concept of using an @ symbol became so prevalent within the system and so well understood that Twitter itself created internal modules to take advantage of the markup. For example you can hit a key next to a person’s post that will autopopulate the post input text box with the @[twitterID] so you don’t have to type it yourself. AND! if you use a method like this instead of typing directly, it will even tag that reply as connected to the message you are replying to. I can go into more detail about all the new “@” has been made to function, but this going into more detail I can spare here.

Argh! I still don’t know what Twitter is? conversation? reference sharing? …

… There is so much going on how do I keep track? Well, there are systems in place on twitter, some of which that grew out of the user base before being assimilated into Twitter itself that help users manager all this data. The first is the hash tag. Hash or pound symbol (#) like @ has been used to markup the messages being sent through twitter. They work in tandem with special Twitter clients (more on this below) and with search engines. If you put a #-tag in front of a text string, you are in essence tagging the message so that it can be found (and re-found) by anyone very easily.

This has led to a few amazing scenarios:

The first of these is event management. Ya see everyone at an event can post messages about that event all using the same tag. Then for people who are interested, instead of viewing a stream that is generic, they can view a stream of all the messages using that tag. Try this one! So whether you are attending the event or want to read other people’s tweets from the event, or want to see what everyone is doing, you can do that search. What’s better s that doing that search will expose you to everyone who has allowed their tweets to be seen by the public who uses that same tag. So you just aren’t limited by whom you normally connect to. and THUS can learn to connect to new people.

Another scenario that in some ways is more basic centers around special topics. There have been 3 historical events in the last 12 months that have demonstrated the amazing power behind Twitter as a service:

1) The Presidential Election. Besides all the hype around the @BarackObama campaign’s use of social networking, the conversation hit new levels in the last month of the election. Twitter.com itself created a special interface for people to connect around the political discussion. It required the use of a hashtag like the ones mentioned above so that it can search against a thesaurus of strings and add them to the conversation thread at http://election.twitter.com/ . But this wasn’t so much a conversation as it was part brawl and part affirmation echo-chamber. Some TV networks started using either Facebook or Twitter to add a personal connection to their coverage. CurrentTV in particular added people’s tweets that had the tag #current on them (after going through editorial) to the bottom of the screen during the presidential and vice-presidential debates. (It took me to the last debate to get my 140 characters of fame up on TV and I had to rewind to catch it after a twitter friend told me it went up some 10 minutes after I sent it.)

2) The Mumbai terrorist attacks was a horrifying event. But many people didn’t sit in front of the TV watching on CNN, but instead were getting primary source witness messages from the ground and knew much of the information in intimate detail way before the standard news channels. In fact, the standard news channels started reporting on what Twitterers were saying more than their own journalists.

3) This same theme exploded during the resistance to the Iranian elections in 3 directions. For the first time we saw a power try to shut down access to the social networks (especially twitter, facebook, flickr and youtube) and we saw that these same networks were the most invaluable source for information gathering by anyone. They were not just a source of getting information, but of sending information. So many of these messages were cries for help (thus the first part). And of course there was the dialog going on about it. The other thing that started happening was a huge show of support from the international community for the protestors. People would use colors and ribbons (green) to show their support. This has since inspired less altruistic photo manipulations and avatar styles.

People have created other markup systems. For example if you put a “$” in front of a string the system thinks that it is something related to a stock. So if you were to post something about microsoft that you think investors would be interested in you might do something like this, “#microsoft $msft is reported to cut pricing of Windows 7.”

Because the system has to work on the most simple text entry system in the world–mobile phone SMS–it is basically a glorified command line interface, which affords the possibility for the user based to keep on innovating new uses and encode new management tools without having to wait for the owners of the software to do anything about it first.

Ok this is getting intense, but I still feel like I don’t know what Twitter is completely?

That’s right, you don’t. It is sorta a “blue pill” thing. (“I can’t tell you what the Matrix is, I have to show you.” -Morpheus)

And this is where it gets techie, complicated, but oh so interesting. I would put a wager down that most people do not use twitter.com for most of their interactions with Twitter. Twitter from the ground up is first and foremost an application interfacing program (API). What this means is that Twitter has made available to anyone who wants to a collection of methods for extracting and inputing data into their system. In this way, other vendors can create software on a host of platforms to take on any number of focused tasks or points of view for user experiences. Many charge for these special applications (especially iPhone apps) and some make money by displaying advertising. I use the latter type of tool.

Image from Tweetie--A MacOS Twitter Client

Image from Tweetie--A MacOS Twitter Client--with an advert in between the messages.

Now some use these APIs not just to Tweet, but they also create other types of tools that either utilize Twitter as a connection process, login ID, or a  host of other ways.

Is this really all there is? Doesn’t sound helpful, or productive?

As mentioned before there is searching around tags, but also just around generic strings. Many people and organizations use this capability to their advantage by constantly searching strings (or getting a feed that auto-updates based on a search criteria. Post a message with the string of “comcast” or “whole foods” in the message and you are bound to get a reply eventually from someone who’s tasked with monitoring the Twittersphere for those strings to see if you need “help”.

Besides customer service others are mining the text of the messages to discover trends. In fact, trending has become such a big deal that Twitter itself gives trending topics a primary place in their home page and the twitter stream view itself.

Tools that utilize the above mentioned APIs allow users to manage their own trend interests, connections. Many manage multiple twitter IDs that supposedly focus on different types of messaging like email discussion lists or newsletters.

There are better people than I who can address the business side of Twitter. For me it has been a mechanism to reach out on a more regular basis to people in my community of practice and expand my exposure of my personal brand as a thought leader in my chosen field of interaction design.

Deep breath … There can’t be more to something that only sends 140 characters per message, can there?

So going back to the original intention of Twitter as a means of expressing what you are doing now, or where you are or what not. Leisa Reichtl (@leisa) was the first to coin the phrase “Ambient Intimacy“. My interpretation of it is the feeling we get by being exposed to these small seemingly inconsequential 140 character blips. In fact, this piece also by Leisa is even better. I just love the title, “Why I care what you had for lunch.

My own experience of this is due to the fact that I’m a global person with colleagues turned friends alll over the world. Through the quips, reports, and discussions, I get these faux moments of intimacy through the reporting of the mundane, but it is in the mundane that we learn so much about each other.

Of course, there are other channels for the same thing. The status messages on Facebook have the same effect, not doubt. But the rest of it is just slightly skewed that it all feels different on Twitter than on Facebook.

Ok, Ok … even if there is more, I can’t take it …

And I’m sure I’m forgetting something to, but at 2500+ words, I’m sure I lost a ton of people already. And at 1:30a I don’t think I can cognitively deliver anything useful any longer.

The most important thing I think I want people to know is that Twitter cannot be summed up as a “conversation” or as a “broadcast”. It is that, but it is also a combination of so many other things that make it hard to peg (thus the now 2600 words).

A link to this will go out on Twitter, Facebook and Google within a couple of hours of the posting and I hope all the other experts out there, chime in, in the comments, and help me complete the picture. I just hope i did Twitter justice.

I look forward to people adding their own take to my attempt here.

Oh! I am currently researching an open source design project for designing a next generation twitter client and open education initiative called Tweet101. On Twitter it is located at @twitter101_org and on the web it is http://tweet101.pbworks.com/

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  • http://www.gravity7.com Adrian Chan


    My take on this is not to try to define social media as “things.” I prefer to view them from the user perspective, which requires that one approach from the perspective of experience. Social practices cannot be captured as stable “things” because they happen over time and are experienced differently by each person involved. An abstraction can define it in the abstract (the game of football) but cannot describe a particular game being played (which is a unique event, in time).

    Twitter is, to me, a technology the facilitates mediated talk by means of text and using asynchronous connectivity. It is unique in that each user experiences a stream of updates based on followers s/he has selected to subscribe to. By design, it provides a bit of an illusion that this is a conversation space in which the user’s own messages appear threaded with those s/he follows, not those who in fact should in theory see the messages (those who follow him/her). It compresses time into an artificial continuity, such that each user sees messages in present time, regardless of when they were posted (hence it’s false sense of real-time).

    But that’s a description of How it Works. From a social perspective, it enables a new set of interactions that include self-talk (diaristic posts), direct talk (replies), indirect talk (talking to X in front of everyone), and public talk. In talk, there is saying, saying something, and addressing it to somebody. So twitter obfuscates talk by producing ambiguity of what is said, what is meant, and to whom it is addressed (if anyone). Not to mention presence ambiguity: is the “speaker” available to talk (more).

    As a social and cultural phenomenon, twitter remediates interpersonal interactions and could be said to make new relationships possible. It creates a public of sorts in that one is aware there is a public. It permits many kinds of expression but is nonetheless very limited. It can handle some symbolic interaction and limited linguistic interaction. But most fundamentally, it divorces the act of talking from the artefact produced, and thus separates the user from the time-binding and intersubjective presence that belong to face to face talk.

    Insofar as all social media are built on the initial separation of a person from the performance of his or her expressions and interactions, it becomes remarkably interesting — for this separation raises the question of who is talking, saying what, meaning what, and for whom. In short, twitter then is not a tool but is a form of communication.


  • dave

    Nice! I think i was thinking more layperson … As in “Mr. Bossman, here is what Twitter is and why it can be valuable to you and why you shouldn’t consider it a time sync but rather a valuable tool for your employees.” and “Mom, here’s why I’m on twitter and why it means so much to me and why you would like it, too.” I like yours too!


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