Making sense of twitter

Following my last post, where I likened Twitter to shouting out the window of a moving truck, I’ve been giving the matter some more thought and dug up some different perspectives on Twitter. Web 2.0 entrepreneur Ross Mayfield even asked his Twitter followers how they would describe Twitter to new-comers.

It’s public but focused on individuals. It’s both asynchronous and real-time. It’s searchable and cumulative. It’s not necessarily shouting.

As this presentation by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams illustrates, Twitter is also quite a lot like passing notes or whispering in a classroom. The difference being that the presenter can check out all the comments afterwards:

Williams’ main point is that Twitter has proven to be much more versatile than they expected, and they’ve been working hard to keep up with the cognitive surplus being invested in defining the etiquette and uses of twitter. David Pogue makes a similar point in his insightful write-up of Twitter in the New York Times:Twitter can be whatever you want it to be: An ego boost, a discussion tool, a research tool, a waste of time, a running dialogue during a presentation. It is the openness of the tool that creates the magic. It is still a complete mess, fragmented and incoherent precisely because all of the users are still in the process of figuring out how best to use it.

I can’t help comparing it to IRC, which I used a lot as part of my fieldwork. IRC is real-time chat channels focused on topics rather than on individuals. It requires you to be online through an IRC client in order to follow the conversation (though some IRC channels do log the conversations), but it can also be asynchronous. People can direct comments to specific individuals or just ask an open question to everybody present. It has many of the same features as Twitter – an allows for much better conversation. But it is limited to channels. You need to get all of your friends together in the same few channels in order to be able to talk with them.

Twitter has a much, much lower barrier to entry: It’s on the web. Sign-up is easy. You don’t have to decide which topics you’re interested in, or try to get your friends involved – you immediately connect with your friends already on Twitter. You can use it on your mobile phone. And perhaps most importantly: You’re limited to 140 characters.

But all of this comes at a high price: There is a massive loss of context: It is much more difficult to make sense of the conversation once you’re there. People are trying to help this by using acronyms.

I find Twitter to be a fascinating example of a technology that has been shaped by use rather than by design. Its greatest advantage is the fact that so many people are using it – not any inherent quality of the design itself. The result is a fairly unaesthetic mess, but it makes it clear just how much potential there is for such easy discussion and access to expert knowledge. Twitter has begun to tap this potential in form a Web 2.0 service. But there is a long way to go, still.

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