The Twit’s Progress

Twitter is a Web 2.0 entity —  a combination of a website, background technical infrastructure, and human community —  founded in late 2006 and already extremely popular. There are over 1.24 million known Twitterers as of today, according to the TwitDir directory service.

Twitter is a free service that lets members broadcast short text updates, known as ‘tweets.’ Tweets may be no longer than 140 characters, and can include links (free services like TinyURL and Snipurl are available to take very long URLs and shorten them so that they can be included within tweets).

Members can broadcast as many tweets as they like using any mixture of mobile phone text messaging, mobile phone client software like Twitterberry, desktop client software like twhirl, or the Twitter website.

And what happens to these tweets?  Where do they go?  Who reads them? Members use Twitter to sign up and receive the tweets of any and all other members who are of interest to them, a process known as ‘following.’ Extremely popular members such as Robert Scoble can have tens of thousands of followers, all of whom will see all of his public tweets. Newcomers to the service might have none, in which case their tweets will vanish into the ether, unconsumed by anyone. So Twitter communities are self-organizing.

And the tweets themselves are entirely freeform. The only restriction is the 140 character maximum; within that limit members are free to tweet away.
The service’s last major wrinkle is its interesting conflation of channels and platforms with person to person and group-level messaging.  As I wrote earlier,

"Twitter currently lets users differentiate between standard public tweets, publicly-visible tweets that are replies to another user, and private replies (ones that are not visible to anyone except the recipient). They do so by prefacing their tweets with special characters: ‘@username‘ for public replies, and ‘d username’ for private ones (standard tweets have no prefacing characters). This is an elegant and lightweight way to differentiate among the three types of tweet; it lets users easily and quickly self-select which kind of message they’re sending."

In short, Twitter lets me send a message to another member in a way that’s visible to all of my followers. Why would I want to do this? At first I had no idea, and thought this was a bizarre and silly feature. But then I remembered learning about Facebook from some Harvard undergrads, and in particular their explanation of a similarly bizarre (to my eyes) feature: the Facebook wall , which is a portion of every member’s profile page where one of their friends can leave them a publicly visible message. The publicly visible part made no sense to me until the undergrads explained that it was the online equivalent of the whiteboards that lots of college students affix to their dorm room doors. As friends walk by they use the whiteboard to give love or give grief, leave updates, communicate meetup times and places, show off how clever they are, and do lots of other things that are person-to-person, but not private.

In my old-school way of looking at things channel technologies like email and SMS were for person-to-person communications, and platforms like blogs were for broadcasts to a group. But the Facebook wall showed me the limitations of that viewpoint, and showed me the benefits of moving non-private person-to-person communications from the channel to the platform, and thereby broadcasting them. These benefits include broadcasting who you know, what kinds of things you talk about with them (and so what kinds of things you’re interested in), what your interests and opinions are, where you’ll be and when (when you don’t mind the world knowing this information) and, in general, what kind of person you are. Private channels aren’t bad, and both Facebook and Twitter allow private communication via person-to-person channels, but both technologies encourage their users to do more publicly. Because of these two Web 2.0 entities, I’ve started to warm up to the idea of doing more (not yet most, but more) of my person-to-person communicating via public technology platforms. I feel that doing so opens up options — possibilities for further connections and interactions with interesting people — in a way that channel communications simply can’t. So while I sincerely doubt I’m ever going to live my whole digital life out in the open, I have come to see the value in living a bit more of it that way. So, evidently, has Scoble; as I look at his Tweetstream I see lots of public person-to-person messages.

As I wrote earlier, I think Twitter is a fantastic technology for enterprise purposes, especially if it lets users categorize their tweets so that they’re not just a single undifferentiated stream (as a number of people pointed out, hashtags are a current means of accomplishing this). An enterprise version of Twitter would let communities of practice, interest groups, and other collaborations quickly and easily self-organize, swap thoughts, and keep each other up to date. I’d expect that these collaborations would be based primarily around topics as opposed to around people, which makes the ability to categorize all the more important.

Imagine active and dynamic environments dedicated to ‘newproducts,’ ‘Q4sales,’ ‘HRpolicies,’ ‘ERPimplementation,’ ‘thecompetition,’ etc. in which employees were zipping their thoughts around to each other in way that was easy to monitor, consult, join, and participate in. Would this be a valuable complement to the other activities and conversations taking place within the enterprise? Your answer to this question, I think, reveals a lot about whether you think people should just keep their heads down and do the job that was assigned to them or lift their heads up once in a while and participate in the broader work of the organization. Do you believe that there’s a substantial ‘cognitive surplus‘ (to use Clay Shirky’ s great phrase) in your enterprise? If so, let the twitting begin.  

I appreciate that this discussion might seem a bit abstract, and that twitting can be a hard thing to get your mind around. It certainly was for me, and for my MBA students.  We had a Web 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 show and tell day this past semester, and one of my geekier (that’s a compliment) students tried to explain and demo Twitter. He was met with a lot of blank stares, even from my technophile class, and a lot of questions of the form "Uh….  why?" His best response was essentially "Look, you just have to try it yourself."
Look, you just have to try it yourself.  I’m amcafee on Twitter, please feel free to follow.  I’m not terribly active, but I do try to practice what I preach and learn about this technology by using it. If you’d like to join in, welcome!

One last reason why you should: it’s a dirt cheap and easy way to get feedback, and to get questions answered.  As I was starting to think about this post, I broadcast the following tweet:

"What should I be sure to include in a blog post explaining Twitter & its biz applications to newbies?"

Among the responses I received were the following:

  •  davidvivero @AMcAfee Boils down to press release whispers: "psst, check this new feature out, or we just hired John D, or go read this review (URL)."
  •  a32b @AMcAfee …maybe mention in your Twitter post the business use of a public congratulation or dressing down.
  • tuttlebn @amcafee Open ended questions to the cloud and expert seeking
  • tuttlebn @amcafee Also good for informal conversations between executives that everyone can hear and respond to, as well as announcing breaking news
  • pennyedwards @amcafee try explaining the value of informal snippets of information which quickly update people and don’t demand a response…
  • smc90 @amcafee [re Twitter 4 newbies] some1 prob already rec’d this, but this my fave: [loove these Common Craft videos!]
  • barrettjf @amcafee the importance of presence information to the enterprise. phys loc, proj status, time availability, means of contact, etc
  • cb2206 @amcafee the best and easiest explanation of twitter is this one:
  • sradick @amcafee (retweet) – does an incredible job of connecting you to people you wouldn’t typically contact directly
  • trib @amcafee my Twitter value story – have direct work and physically met >100 new people in US (I’m in Australia) thanks only to Twitter
  • trib @amcafee seminal posts on Twitter from @pistachio
  •  sunilnagaraj @amcafee allows visibility into organization’s stream of consciousness, ask Twuestion to org to find info/experts
  • ITSinsider @amcafee Twitter unites communities. Teams succeed on collegiality. Collaboration hinges on trust and relevance– Twitter provides both.
  • dshlac @amcafee Describe it as "micro-blogging" or "public IMing" that allows employees to easily tap into the collective wisdom of the enterprise.
  • JoeSchueller @amcafee speed of request/response cycles

Not a bad return for 20 seconds work on my part…

What questions or comments do you have about enterprise use of Twitter? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.