Why Twitter Matters

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by Rob Morris

Part 1: Making Twitter work
A couple of weeks ago, Oprah began using Twitter. Some saw her adoption of the service as a milestone that Twitter had gone mainstream. Others decried it as a sure sign that the Twitter fad was about to flame out.

Why all the fuss about Twitter?

I have to admit that I just didn’t get it. At first. In this part of the post, I’ll talk about how I learned to love Twitter. In Part 2, I’ll explain why Twitter matters. If you feel like a Twitter pro, then skip on down to Part 2.

How Twitter works
Twitter is a microblogging service which allows users to post messages of 140 characters or less. These messages – called ‘tweets’ – chronicle what the user is doing / reading / thinking in that moment. You can follow other users, and they can follow you as well. [Note: There are privacy settings in Twitter which allow you to protect who sees your tweets.]

Because the messages are limited to 140 characters, a kind of Twitter shorthand code has developed to convey key concepts. Responses to other users contain an ‘at’ sign (@) before their user name – so, for instance, other Twitter users respond to my posts with an ‘@robmorris2‘.’

When discussing a particular topic, users often apply a hashtag (a pound sign – #) to their post. Right now, there are a lot of #swineflu hashtags in the twitterverse as people tweet about the current flu outbreak in Mexico, the US, and New Zealand.

Many users want to share interesting stories or blog posts with their followers. But because regular web addresses (URL’s) can run 60 or 70 characters, many people use URL ‘shorteners’ to compress a web address to just 16 or so characters. So many of Twitter’s addresses are from the bit.ly, is.gd, tr.im, or similar odd-looking domains.

When users want to share someone else’s tweet with their followers, they often ‘re-tweet it’. They do so with ‘RT’ and the user’s @name. So, when I saw a Dave Winer tweet that I thought was worth sharing, I shared it this way: “RT @davewiner: Why NPR is Thriving (They’re Not Afraid of Digital Media). http://tr.im/jH5o.

Critical Mass
Twitter gives you some basic tools to help you find and add other friends who use the service. When I first started using Twitter, I added a few close friends. I twittered something about what I was doing, careful to use my 140 character allotment.

And nothing happened. I really wondered what this Twitter fuss was all about…

Only one of my friends really used the service more than a few times a month. And he (@billder – well worth following) was in Portland, used a bewildering array of #’s and @’s, was talking with folks I didn’t know, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

I posted to Twitter once or twice a week through January. And then I drifted away until April.

After listening to an audiobook of What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis on Twitter), the prominent blogger of the BuzzMachine blog, I decided to give Twitter another try.

I followed many more folks the second time around: local and national news sites; favorite authors, bloggers, and personalities; technology sites; interesting companies and their executives; and whatever else I found interesting.

When I got up to about 50 people, Twitter started to get really intriguing. With more and more interesting people sharing more and more interesting thoughts, links, and re-tweets, Twitter suddenly became much more vibrant.

Going Real-time
But there was something which still didn’t work for me: the Twitter web page. As a static page with maybe 20 tweets on it, I had to keep reloading. If a lot of folks were tweeting, I often missed important tweets from friends in the flurry of tweets from other, more prolific users.

It was (and is) all a bit chaotic.

But there are solutions. Twitter has allowed software developers to graft their products onto the Twitter platform. There are a bevy of such products out there: Seesmic, Twhirl, TweetFon, Tweetie, and many others. Each has different features and functions.

My current favorite is desktop software called TweetDeck. With TweetDeck, Twitter finally came alive and started making sense for me. In other words, I finally ‘got’ Twitter.

There are four key features of TweetDeck which make it work for me.

First, TweetDeck auto-refreshes. This means that I get nearly-live updates as soon as they happen. For me, it transforms Twitter from a static web page into a real-time social messaging system.

Second, TweetDeck lets me create groups of people that I can follow. This means that I can group folks according to how important they are to me or by which parts of my life they belong to. By default, TweetDeck has an ‘All Friends’ column which contains live tweets from everyone I follow. But I created another column which has tweets from folks that I really want to pay attention to. The ‘groups’ feature let me create some order out of Twitter’s chaos, and helped ensure that I didn’t miss important local or topical or personal tweets.

Third, the software made tweeting easier. TweetDeck has a lot of built in stuff to respond to (@) or re-tweet (RT) other users. It lets me shorten a URL right inside the interface.

Fourth, TweetDeck has a search function which allows me to monitor what anyone in the twitterverse is saying about a particular topic (like, say, “Toyota”) live. So I can get a sense of what is happening with things that are important to me right now.

These four features of TweetDeck (some of the other Twitter software has them too) brought Twitter to life for me. They allowed me to connect with new people and have new conversations that would otherwise never have happened.

Making Twitter Work
What made Twitter ‘work’ for me was 1) making sense of its shorthand, 2) following a critical mass of other users to make things interesting, and 3) using a ‘live’ interface (for me, TweetDeck) which catapulted the service from a website into a many-to-many conversation.

Part 2: Why Twitter matters
It took me a while to understand Twitter, as documented above. I’m certainly not the most prolific or most informed user, but I’ve come to gain some insights about Twitter that I haven’t seen a lot of other commentators pick up on. These are by no means exclusive to Twitter, but I think it is the platform which most embodies these characteristics today:

  1. New kinds of connection. More than any other medium I’ve come across, Twitter enables new kinds of social interactions. Conversations become multilateral public events, instead of one-way or two-way forms of communication. And those conversations can coalesce around personal, local, or topical interests. I can dip in and out of many different conversations happening simultaneously. If I have nothing interesting to say about an interesting topic, I can just observe while others contribute.
  2. The new news. As a news junkie, I used to troll blogs and websites for the latest information on what was happening in business, in technology, in Lexington, and in the world-at-large. Now, Twitter serves as my news station. I can easily ignore tweets which I don’t find interesting, but follow links which are of interest. What is best is that this news is already vetted by folks I respect and trust.

    Further, Twitter’s hashtag convention allows me to follow what topics are ‘hot’ through tools like TwitScoop, which is enabled by default in TweetDeck. The news on Twitter often unfolds long before mainstream media picks it up. Kakie Urch (@ProfKakie) put together an excellent analysis of how Twitter acted as the new news in the #amazonfail case, including how long it took traditional media to even notice, while the twitterverse was exploding in outrage. (As I write this, a friend of mine, @JasonOney, is mounting a campaign to save the NBC series Chuck, using the #savechuck tag. And he’s got friends marching with him. Look out NBC.)

  3. Twitizenship. What the #amazonfail and #savechuck cases (among many thousands more) demonstrate is a new form of online citizenship, characterized by immediacy, openness, and cause-centered organization. This ‘twitizenship’ can create what some call ‘flash mobs': groups which form nearly instantly in either the virtual or physical worlds. Twitizens expect speed, transparency, and action from both businesses and civic leaders.

    My favorite recent example: Kickeball at CentrePointe Parque. Where? Let me explain. Using Twitter and Facebook, a flash mob formed around the idea of playing a kickball game on the pit of rubble in Lexington where CentrePointe is not being built. So, last Friday at 5:30 PM, they had a game – and a wonderful bit of public theater and civil disobedience. It was quick. And you can read the best account here (Thanks, @KeeganFrank) and see the best video here (Thanks, Mick Jeffries). You should check out these accounts, because the local media completely whiffed on coverage over the ensuing 24 hours. I left work to go to the pit and witness the game (but not to participate – I was chicken, and didn’t want to get arrested).

    This is a fun example, but I hope my main point shines through: Twitter allows citizens to form into and disband from interest groups at lightning speed. These groups have higher expectations of their leaders and of businesses, who must respond with greater speed and openness. Those who fail to respond will surely #fail.

Twitter’s platform allows for new social formations which are important, and will be changing the way we interact, the way we get our news, and the way we create a better city, state, nation, and planet. Governments, businesses, and citizens must adapt to this changed world, or they will be left behind.

Those are just my thoughts on why Twitter matters. What are yours?

  • Anonymous

    Rob- this is very good. I was just asking Rhonda what the heck Twitter is- don’t even have a cell phone so… thanks. Bruce Burris

  • Ace

    Ace is an advocate of Twitter for two reasons:
    1. Speed.
    “Fast is the new big” (@ProfKakie quoting DDB Worldwide CEO Chuck Brymer at a recent UK talk).
    2. Transparency.
    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All LFUCG and UK officials should maintain Twitter accounts and update them. If @UKCoachCalipari isn’t too big to Tweet, the rest of them aren’t either.
    Read more in upcoming issues of Ace — online AND print.

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