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On the value of Twitter

10 October 2008 · Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

About a month ago, I answered a question on LinkedIn about Twitter. Edward R. Gurney asked, “Do you get it?” At the time, I didn’t. Now, I think I do.

I had resisted Twitter, responding with a mocking tone to those who would tout its benefits. It seemed like a waste of time to me, a place for self-obsessed people to tell everyone what they ate for lunch. So, when I saw Edward’s question on LinkedIn, I felt a sense of smugness as I crafted my response.

Here’s the direct link to the question, for members of LinkedIn.

For non-LinkedIn members, here is Edward’s question, and my response, in full: — Do you get it?

I’m not sure I do. I haven’t used it, but I checked out the site, and watched the introductory video. I wanted to see what all the buzz is about. It is interesting that they limit entries to 140 characters. I’m for that. Anything to discourage long-windedness works for me. Am I supposed to write, “I’m drinking coffee now, I’m watching TV now, I’m driving the car now?” Is this targeted at people doing texting? Are any of us using this in a productive manner? In short, do YOU get it?

Clarification added 1 month ago: In web apps, as in popular music, there are “one hit wonders.” Might this be one of them?

My response at the time:

I [sic] with you, Edward. I have an account (to reserve my username, you know, just in case), but I’ve never posted to it. I get how it fills a niche for some people, somewhere between IMing and email and blogging, but I guess I just don’t need that niche filled.

Clarification added 1 month ago: After, reading others’ opinions here, I have decided to conduct an experiment. I will follow the “tweets” (dog, can’t there be a better name for these?) of a select few people who I suspect might say something interesting (e.g., John Gruber). If that goes well, I will use Twitter to build in some micro-blogging into my personal blog. I’ll give it a couple of weeks, then post my thoughts about it. If you’re interested, my URL is below.

Resistance is futile

Remember the first time you got sucked into something so engaging, next thing you knew the sun was coming up? For me, one of my first experiences like that was playing the original SimCity on a dorm-mate’s Mac SE. I was fascinated by that game. Eventually, the thrill wore off, but I loved that feeling of flow the first few times I played.

Twitter didn’t quite give me that feeling. It did suck me in, nonetheless.

It started slowly. I started by following John Gruber (of Daring Fireball fame.) I was pretty sure he’d have some interesting things to say. I was right. He seems sometimes to use it to work out thoughts for upcoming articles, so it’s fun to get a sneak peek.

Next, I signed on to follow MacRumors and a couple of real-life friends.

Soon after, I started following Barack Obama. This one I found interesting because they (meaning the Obama campaign, what? did you think Barack, himself has time to tweet?) appear to have it set up to auto-follow anyone who follows them.

After a couple of weeks of this low-level engagement, I went on a binge of sorts, adding a mess of web-related topics and blogosphere luminaries.

A turning point in my sucked-innedness was when I discovered what I’ve said before is the best thing on Twitter: FakeSarahPalin. Whatever your politics, you have to admit that FakeSarahPalin is clever political satire. At this point, I mentally started to buy-in.

Since then, I have spent a couple of late nights scouring the “following” lists of people I respect for other people I respect. I’ve started following some news outlets and have thoroughly enjoyed Twitter’s feed of U.S. election-related tweets (dog, I hate that word).

In my response to the LinkedIn question, I said, “…I just don’t need that niche filled.” If I were answering today, I would say I had a niche I didn’t know needed filling.

Most sites are a waste of electrons

I’m not big into the social networking sites. I had a Friendster account at one time. I still might, but I haven’t been to it in years. I was on Facebook for a bit, but dropped that when I found out who’s behind it. MySpace sucks. I did get into Fluther for a while, but left in disgust after the level of discourse fell to junior high quality. About the only social networking site I’ve consistently contributed to is LinkedIn. It’s sort of social networking for grown-ups. Mainly, I could clearly see a benefit to my career from having a presence there. (I’ve also recently become a big fan of Stack Overflow, but I wouldn’t call it a social networking site, per se, because there’s no easy way to connect to or contact people through the site.)

In constrast to the profile-centric sites (Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn), Fluther and Twitter are more engaging to me because their raison d’être is to get folks talking to each other. Fluther (and Stack Overflow) do this by facilitating a question/answer format. Twitter does it by allowing you to post a seemingly meager 140 characters about what you’re doing right now.

The value of Twitter

This post is getting a little long-in-the-tooth, so I’ll cut to the chase. Here are the 6 uses of Twitter that I have observed and my comments on their value:

  1. Catharsis: This is, I think, most people’s first impression of Twitter: it’s a place to post self-indulgent tidbits about me, me, me! That is, in fact, what our friend, Edward, implied in his question and the source of my initial skepticism. It is that for a lot of people, but if that’s all it was I would walk away and never look back. I have been impressed with the variety and quality of information flowing through the Twittersphere. That said, I do use Twitter as an outlet for political thoughts (rants?). I like talking politics, but don’t have many people with whom I can, so this is a good fit for me.
  2. Connection: This is an obvious benefit of Twitter, the ability to connect with people of like-mind or like-location (or, unlike-, if that’s your thing.) It took me a while, but I have managed to get followed by a few fellow webbies and New Zealanders. I get a feeling of hopeful expectation when I follow someone and wonder if they’ll follow me back. I also feel a tiny thrill when someone I wouldn’t know from Adam decides to follow me. I’ve yet to have this happen, but I suspect Twitter will add value to my life at some point through a connection I would have otherwise missed.
  3. Discovery: One major benefit of following Twitter has been heaps of links to interesting information. I have my little routine for information foraging (I visit 3 or 4 pet websites, subscribe to a dozen or so RSS feed, and belong to a handful of mailing lists.), so naturally there is plenty I don’t see. Twitter has acted like a filter to point me to some pretty cool stuff without me having to search high and low for it. Twitter’s value goes up vastly when you choose wisely whom to follow.
  4. Keeping current: It’s possible to use Twitter to keep current on things like politics and software releases. To me, it doesn't feel like quite the right medium for that. RSS/Atom already provides me with more than I have time to read on this front. I may stop following at least the news sources and add their RSS equivalents to my feed reader.
  5. Comic relief: I admit, I didn’t see this one coming, but whenever I look at Twitter, a little part of me hopes for another post by FakeSarahPalin. This use feels just right: real-time satire of deserving public figures. It’s the ultimate cultural commentary. It’s like The Simpsons, but happening right now.
  6. Lever for power laws and the network effect: Soon after I started following Guy Kawasaki, former Apple evangelist, I happened to be paying attention when he mentioned “This guy’s tweets are very interesting marketing sources:”. Guy is a minor celebrity among us Macheads, so I (like many others, it turned out) followed that link. Out of curiousity, I reloaded the page a few times to watch his number of followers climb and climb. When I first went there, he had maybe 300 followers. Now, he’s over 500. Many of those new followers were probably from people who saw Guy’s recommendation. Others have written eloquently about power laws and network effects. Guy, due to being both respected and well known, wields disproportionate influence over the behavior of other Twitter users. One little tweet and he drove up another user’s followers by 67%. How do I get the Guy Kawasakis of Twitter to endorse me? Better yet, how do I become a Twitterer with the influence of Guy Kawasaki?

More than the sum of its tweets

A month ago, I would have scoffed at someone who told me I would be a fan of Twitter. Now, I see its value enough to have recommended to a couple of colleagues that they need to have a presence there. Each person will likely find different value in Twitter, but I am fairly confident it has value for most people.

Individual tweets (did I mention that I hate that word?) may or may not contain anything worthwhile. For me, the value of following along is how it helps me cast a slightly wider net both for information and for connecting with colleagues and potential colleagues. The value of participation is part satisfaction of my need to be heard and part construction of one facet of my online identity. My hope is that all of this will augment my “real” life in unexpected ways.

Now, if I can just get recommended by Guy…

Update: Twitter good for something else!

Just minutes ago, 2 Twitterers became “Tweethearts” when @seanbonner proposed to @tarabrown (she said yes). It’s already been picked up by Boing Boing. I guess Twitter might be good for one’s love life, too…