Friday, June 19, 2009
"What is Twitter and why would I want it?", I hear many ask dully. "One more thing to check?" "Something for nerds like you?" "Why do I care if you are drinking coffee?" Yes, all good questions, I asked them myself, I was once a twitter hater too. But I converted. I've changed my mind after using it. I don't think it's just for weirdos anymore, It's actually a lot of fun. Want to know why I like it? Check this out...
A Brief History
In order to fully appreciate Twitter, you have to understand why it's growing so fast. Twitter is meeting a need. Each communications revolution grows out of a need. We want to connect to other people and if the current technology does not evolve and allows us to connect faster, easier and from anywhere in the world, we get bored with it and wait for the next technology to emerge. The next technology is here. But before I get ahead of myself, let's put this whole thing into context.
mail was the first communications revolution of my lifetime. No more 2 week wait at the mailbox, no more envelopes, no more buying stamps. Just communication as fast as you could send it. Pretty cool stuff for us old school Windows 3.1/Eudora/Dial-up people.
Next came Instant Messaging. A little green icon changed everything. Using a little status icon, not only could you send communication instantly, you could actually see if the other person was standing at the mailbox so to speak. MSN Messenger took the lead here, teenagers invented new lingo (lol, brb, ttyl, etc...) and the rest is history.
The third and most recent communication revolution was logs and RSS. You may know about blogs, but not as many people know about RSS. Blogs enable regular people like you and me to express ourselves to the world without knowing how to write HTML. Suddenly everyone started making blogs and writing posts and everyone knew what everyone else was up to and it was great. When the blogging honeymoon ended, people remembered that they don't have time to blog. Oh maybe they updated their blog once every couple months, but it was too little too late, bloggerland was stale and people stopped checking other people's blogs.
In the midst of all this the idea of RSS caught on, it was the idea that you could have an inbox for blogs, just like your email inbox. You could "follow" certain blogs and it would notify you when someone put a new post up so that you don't have to go checking all the time. But this never really seemed to take off. Maybe it was the name (RSS?), maybe it was too complicated, maybe people didn't want something else to check (it's hard enough to empty your email inbox). For whatever reason though, it failed and it's still failing (if you don't believe me, walk down the street and ask people what a feed reader is...).
Then came acebook. It attempted to pick up where blogs and RSS left off. In fact Facebook is actually just one giant RSS feed. You get pushed information about your friends whenever they put something new up and people who are never on Facebook just kinda fall off the edge of the earth. There is something missing from Facebook though, it's not quite the same as blogging...
And that is the hole that witter is growing up through. Twitter is now well on it's way to becoming the next hottest thing and this was recently confirmed when Facebook reportedly attempted to buy Twitter for 500 million dollars (of it's own stock, not cash, but whatever, that's a lot of moulah). Twitter is the answer to the Blogs/RSS problem and much much more. Simply put, it is a revolution in communication.
What is Twitter?
But you are probably still wondering what Twitter is : ) No worries, check out this video...
Here's the summary on Twitter:
-Answer the question "What are you doing?" at random times of the day (140 characters max)
-You follow your family, friends and other people you are interested in
-You see what people are doing
-People start following you
-People know what you are doing
So you saw the video, but your not convinced. We are back to you not caring if I'm drinking coffee. That's ok. So now you know what Twitter is, but you don't "get it". Why are people using this? What is so "revolutionary" about Twitter?
"Why Should I Use Twitter?"
In order to understand Twitter, you have to try it. But with that said, I am going to try to help you understand it without trying it. I'm going to give you 4 big reasons why twitter rocks.
*Remember, if at anytime you get bored, you can just go sign up and try it yourself ; )
1 - Microblogging
My wife and I are hardcore bloggers and we find that it's a great way to communicate with our family and friends. After our first year of marriage, Katie got an internship at the hospital and we started having less and less time to blog. So instead of 2-3 updates a week, we started Megablogging. What a nightmare. We would compile several months worth of stories and pictures into one giant blog post that people weren't ready for because they weren't visiting the site anymore, and the posts were too long to read!
So if you're like us and want to blog, but have no time to blog, Twitter is for you. You can only type 140 characters max and you can update twitter from literally anywhere (Twitter.com, desktop programs, iPhones, iTouchs, firefox add-ons, facebook apps, blackberrys, etc, etc....). You can express yourself, your excitement (like when I won a $500 gas card the other day!), sadness, frustrations, or whatever, and post it once for everyone to see, in a "less time-intensive way than starting a blog"[L].
Plus, you don't have to worry about checking people's Twitter pages for new stuff. RSS feeds are built right into the fabric of Twitter, so you just start following other people and they start following you. The tweets from people you follow show up right on your twitter homepage. The Blog/RSS problem is solved.
Another cool part of Microblogging is that it's not based on a friendship exchange (like most social networking sites, ie Facebook), so you can follow famous people too! You can see everything that really influential people are saying, and they don't have to follow you. You can also follow subject matter experts and harvest their wealth of knowledge. Very powerful stuff. More like blogging, less like friendship bubbles.
1a - Openness Rocks
"But Micah", you might say, "seriously, how can I fully express myself in 14o characters?" You're right, that is pretty limiting, but that's where nerds who make free stuff come in!
You see Twitter has something else built into it's fabric that is really neat. It's called Openness. Nerds like to call it an open API (Application Programming Interface). It's sort of like they've built this really neat robot, but the robot doesn't really do anything cool.....yet. They don't really have time to make it do cool stuff, so they write a very detailed instruction manual on how to make it talk and walk and stuff like that. Then a bunch of nerdy guys who do have time, come along and use the instruction manual to make the robot do the robot dance, amongst other things. That's what an Open API is like.
What does that mean to you? It means that when you get Twitter, you don't just get Twitter, you get Twitter with all the bells and whistles. You get desktop applications (apps), browser extensions, phone apps, blackberry apps, marketing tools, tools to link twitter to facebook status, tools to tweet automatically when you put up a new blog, see how influential you are, trending topics and just about anything else you can think of.
Twitpic - allows you to easily upload pictures, then link to that picture from your Twitter updates.
TinyUrl - allows you to take a really long website links and tinyfi them - great for 140 character updates!
Not only are all these services available to you for free, but they are being built into other Twitter applications too! So for example both twitpic and tinyurl are built right into a Twitter desktop app called Twhirl.
Another really cool example is Twinkle for the iPhone. Take a picture with the IPhone built-in camera, then instantly create a tweet with a link to the picture! If a picture is worth 1000 words then that is some seriously fast communication!
So openness means you get cool free stuff that allow you to fully express yourself, just like blogging, in a tiny little window that only lets you type 14o characters. We're not just talking about coffee anymore...
2 - Conversating
One of the cool things about Twitter is that you don't just say what you are doing, you comment on what other people are doing. You reply to people and publicly give them congrats and kudos! These aren't necessarily new ideas, but what makes Twitter unique is that you don't just write their name out, you use their Twitter username. Put an @ symbol in front (like @micah63) and it creates a hyperlink to that person's profile in Twitter.
There are two main ways of conversating. The first way is a simple mention. If you just put @username somewhere in your tweet besides the front, it will be a mention that everyone following you can see. This is great for congrats and kudos. Like say I want to praise my wife's good cookin', I could say: "The spaghetti tonight was awesome! Thx @kateprd". Now everyone following me can see how much I love my wife's cooking!
The second way of conversating is called replies. If you put the @username in front of your tweet, it is like an email reply... only not at all like an email reply. Although the reply does get directed to the intended person, everyone following both you and that person sees the reply too! So there are invisible groups within Twitter which is awesome! You're not just having a conversation with one person, but with everyone who knows the two of you, like mutual friends chatting at a table.
So in essence there are many layers of conversation, with little invisible groups are all chatting away, each oblivious to the other groups around them. I love it! In so many other application you have to manually create groups and try to get the right people in the group and get people to post to the group, etc... Now groups just happen once friend circles collide! Mutual friends automatically become a group.
This Reply functionality also lends itself very well to asking questions and getting answers fast. It is very common to see someone ask a question and then moments later thank someone for the answer. In fact just the other day I was working on this Twitter blog and was getting very frustrated with the blogger user interface. I vented about it on Twitter and asked if there was a good desktop blogging tool that would upload to blogger. Shortly thereafter I received two great answers and I am seriously thinking of using Windows Live Writer (thx @derekhat!). Great answers from people you trust. I really believe that this kind of human response could someday rival the likes of Google itself. Humans understand questions... but that's a thought for another day!
And finally, there is also a third level of conversation that happens in Twitter called directs. Say you want to meet up with a friend for lunch, but you don't want to bother anyone about that information (or give your phone number away). In that case you can just use a direct. At the front of the tweet, if you put d username, only that person will get the tweet. Very useful for taking conversations offline.
3 - Retweeting
News travels on Twitter. Big news travels fast and far. It's like a chain reaction, like in the movie WALL-E when EVA gets frustrated and blows up an old oil tanker, then it falls onto another oil tanker, then another, blowing them all up like dominoes, each explosion triggering the next (if you haven't seen the movie, I highly recommend). In Twitter, when important news explodes onto the scene, it can travel through the invisible friends groups like a chain reaction. Here's an example:
-There is a big fire in your city
-@markanto is close to the fire and tweets about it
-You don't follow @markanto, but your friend @joe does
-@joe retweets the news about the fire
-You find out about the fire
That may or may not be a dumb example (depending on how much you care about fire), but that principle is PO-TANT. Think about how fast news could travel in that context! I'm telling you news on Twitter travels like the flu man.
Retweets basically have 3 components:
1 - either the word "retweet" or something like it (RT, RTW, etc...)
2 - a mention of the person who originally posted it , a pat on the back (the first time someone retweets one of your tweets, you feel the love, it's like a drug : )
3 - and the message itself
Retweets don't always come in this form though and sometimes you just get a lot of people talking about the same thing. This isn't really retweeting per say, but it is something worth talking about. I have two things to say about this.
The first thing is that because people often put links in their tweets, Twitter is quickly becoming a powerful force in directing where eyeballs are going on the Internet. The Internet is just a bunch of webpages, you can search it with Google, but you don't really know what's good out there and often it's hard to find good stuff. When your trusted friends, family and subject matter experts start telling you what's good out there, it makes the Internet a much smaller place.
Twitter is like the new Digg.com. Digg.com started the job of collecting what is cool out there and making it more accessible to you. It does this by getting votes from everyone on the Internet. If everybody thinks something is cool, it gets thumbs up and bubbles to the top where more people can see it. Stupid stuff gets boooed all the way to the bottom. Twitter is a million times more powerful than Digg.com votes because it's automatic. It just magically picks up what everybody is talking about and whatever gets talked about the most must be the coolest. For instance, check out Twitturly to see most twittered links. Once I visited Twitturly and saw a Spider eating a bird, crazy.
Secondly, using data analysis, programmers are finding trends around the topics people are twittering about the most, and this turns out to be kind of interesting. Check out the search.twitter.com homepage to see the top 10 trending topics. Trend monitoring is made possible because Twitter is public, just like blogging. You can't analyze private social networking sites like Facebook because it's well.... private. Another big win for Twitter.
These kinds of sites are like tools for measuring the power of retweeting explosions! Be sure that you will see more of these kinds of tools in the future and it's only going to get more interesting.
4 - Save It For Later
See something cool on Twitter and don't want to forget it? No worries, it's got bookmarks built right in. They are called favorites and with the click of a button, you can save it for later.
"Wait, Isn't This The Same As Facebook?"
This is kind of an obvious question. Many of these listed benefits sound eerily like features from another web app we are all familiar with. Although Facebook's features are very similar, fundamentally I think Twitter and Facebook are two totally different things. Facebook is for privately sharing thoughts and pics with friends and family, Twitter is like Facebook with the top blown off. It's public. It is because of the public nature of Twitter that the above benefits of microblogging, conversating, retweeting and an army of cool tools are made possible.
The user community is also different in Twitter. In facebook it is fairly normal to just say that you are having coffee or doing something rather mundane, but in Twitter it's cool to get lots of followers, or get retweeted and in order to do that, you have to post interesting stuff. People generally seem to tweet less as well, which is much easier on your brain. So in conclusion, you have more interesting information and less stuff to look at. *As a general rule, I don't usually follow anyone who tweets more than 10 times a day (excluding replies).
Twitter is ultimately about your interests. This is one of my favorite quotes on the subject:
"I’ll add you as a Facebook friend just because we went to elementary school together, even if we don’t really have anything to talk about anymore.
I’ll add you as a Twitter friend just because we have something to talk about, even if I have no idea where you went to elementary school."[L]
Again, I think they are two different tools and I use both.
Conclusion - The Twitter Collective
For an outsider, all this chatter just seems like a bunch of noise, but connectedness is probably one of the most important parts of being human. Connectedness means that I care about what you are doing and you care about what I am doing. Social networking thrives on this fact. I want to know what my friends and family are up to, when they are in town, their hobbies and interests, their highs and lows, likes and dislikes and where all the fun is happening. Likewise, I want them to know these things about me. It may sound a bit sappy, but that really what it boils down to. That is why Twitter is growing and why it will continue to grow and why more and more people will be "assimilated". We want to be connected!!
Want to check it out? Go to Twitter and sign up. If you are on a computer all the time, I would recommend a desktop application like Twhirl, Seesmic Desktop, or Tweetdeck. Find some cool people to follow and join the conversation!
Hope you enjoyed the post! @micah63