“17 Things we Used to Do”

Twitter grew by 131% in March alone, and Oprah started tweeting last week (and already has about 175,000 followers), so it seemed like the right time to discuss this technology/service/phenomenon/whatever-it-is in my MBA course. Laura Fitton came to class on Thursday the 16th (thanks, @pistachio!), and we spent more time today talking Twitter.

These were classes when I could really sense that students were grappling with the material in a positive way. They shared both what they knew and what they did not, and worked together to increase their understanding of a complex, unfolding phenomenon.

I started off class today by asking if Twitter really was something new under the sun, or if it was instead largely similar to previous collaboration technologies. After some back and forth, the class decided that while Twitter contained no single revolutionary technology, it was in aggregate pretty novel. This was because of its combination of attributes. Tweets and Twitter, we concluded, are:

  • Concise. The 140 character limit constrains “how boring you can be,” in the words of one student.
  • Hyperlinked. Tweets can include links to pages and pictures.
  • Persistent. Tweets are not evanescent; they stick around over time and are easy to locate and point to.
  • Searchable. Persistent tweets mean that Twitter as a whole is searchable
  • Asynchronous. Users can dive into the Tweetstream whenever they wish, and can catch up on what they missed. This makes it feel different than a Web-based chat room, where you need to be present during a conversation to participate in it and benefit from it.
  • Asymmetric. As Laura emphasized, Twitter’s publish-and-subscribe architecture is fundamentally different than Facebook’s friending mechanism. My Facebook friends by default send information to me about what they’re up to. My Twitter followers do not —  only the people I’m following pipe information to me. I perceive myself to be part of a single network of friends on Facebook, but I’m part of two very different networks on Twitter: the people I follow (I select these people because I want to get information from them), and those who follow me (these people select me because they want to get information from me).
  • Largely public, but with a private option. Users can send private tweets (called ‘direct messages,’ or DMs) to each other, but all others are part of the public record; they persist in a user’s profile and can be found via search.
  • Categorizable. Tweets can be categorized with hashtags (for example, this is how people identify themselves as answering my daily #andyasks question). This is a pretty weak mechanism, but it is useful.
  • Open. users can contribute to Twitter from a wide variety of clients and devices, a phenomenon Laura refers to as “multi-facing”
  • Universal. Anyone can sign up and start tweeting for free; the technology is open to anyone with Internet access.
  • Monolithic. There are a huge number of email systems, bulletin boards, chatrooms, discussion groups, etc. in the world. And many of them are closed to outsiders, making them mutually inaccessible walled gardens. This fragmentation means that all these environments don’t “add up to anything;” they can’t be queried as a whole by any single user, and the beneficial interactions in one have difficulty spilling over into others. Twitter, in sharp contrast, is a single pool of digital content. It’s generated by a legion of people using a cohort of devices, but it all winds up in one place.

We spent a fair bit of time in the two classes trying to understand what this strange combination of characteristics meant —  what it added up to and what it was useful for. My favorite comment on this topic came in today’s class: a student said “Twitter’s not a substitute for anything we used to do.  It’s a combination of about 17 things we used to do.”

We jotted down some of these in class, and I added to the list afterward. I don’t have 17 items on it yet, but here’s what I came up with. These are Twitter use cases; things we’re doing with Twitter that we used to do (and still do) with other technologies:

  • Chat
  • Discussion boards
  • Email
  • Identifying trending topics
  • Broadcasting breaking news
  • Marketing and brand building
  • Mining consumer sentiment
  • Providing status updates to friends and family
  • Communicating location, activity, mood, and other personal information
  • Engaging in customer service
  • Finding information on topics of interest
  • Finding people who share an interest

So that’s twelve off the top of my head, and I’m sure we could come up with at least five more.

And I think that’s what intrigues me so much about this technology. Maybe it’s not that, as some people say, the use cases for Twitter haven’t yet settled down. Maybe it’s that they’re not going to —  that this is going to be a generally useful technology instead of a flash in the pan, or one-trick pony.  We’ll have to stay tuned and observe its progression.

What do you think?  Will Twitter settle down?  If so, to what?  Or will it fade away as we get tired of it and move on to something else, or as the spammers show up and destroy value? 50% of my students thought that they were going to walk away from Twitter after completing their class assignments; 50% thought they’d continue using it. Which group are you in, and why? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

One last thought on the topic. Because Twitter is so open and frictionless, it has greatly lowered the barrier to contribution; people can and do fire off a tweet in a matter of seconds. I’ve written previously about some of the drawbacks associated with this, but I recently got firsthand evidence of the strong benefits of frictionlessness.

This past weekend I came back to my rental car to find that I couldn’t turn the ignition key at all. I tried the key while yanking on the steering wheel and the gear shift, but no luck. I was at a loss, and turned to Twitter to see if anyone knew anything about this undocumented feature of the Pontiac G5 (Detroit’s woes are easier for me to understand after this experience). I tweetedIgnition key won’t turn at all in rented Pontiac G5. Anyone got any ideas – help!”

Within a few minutes I got 16 responses back. They all told me essentially the same thing —  that there was no trick specific to that car, and that the key was to keep cranking on the steering wheel while turning the key. I did so, and eventally got the damned thing to start.

My point with this story is not just to bust on GM, but also to highlight that I got 16 shots of altruism from people, most of whom I didn’t know, at a time when I could really use them.

They were willing to help me out not because I’m such a good friend of theirs (not the case) or such an obviously great guy (depends heavily on who you talk to), but because we humans like being altruistic, and Twitter makes altruism the work of a few seconds. The help I got cost each each sender virtually nothing, yet added up to a highly valuable resource for me. I think it’s important not to lose sight of that, and to keep in mind that not all exchanges are governed by incentives, mutual benefit, or economic rationality. Sometimes they’re governed by simple neighborliness, and Twitter is an awfully big neighborhood.