Okay, I confess. I’ve been Twittering over the holiday period. As part of my social computing beat for Freeform Dynamics, it’s up to me to try and understand what the heck’s going on, even if it isn’t (yet?) mainstream.
Like blogging, Second Life, instant messaging, Facebook and all the other social computing activities before it, at first glance Twitter looks a bit mad and potentially very disruptive. It is, essentially, mini-blogging. 140 characters to say what you like when you like. Your posts appear on your followers’ screens or on their phones.
You can be certain that companies like IBM and Microsoft are watching with interest. And, no doubt, many of their staff will be participating enthusiastically. As with all the previous social activities, they’ll mine value out of it, if there’s any value to be mined. Then they’ll try to either replicate it within their own collaboration suites or, if they have to, make sure that this stuff can be surfaced within their own offerings.
The early adopters of social media tools are a fickle bunch. They swarm. Because they are so connected, ideas spread rapidly and they find themselves flitting to the next new thing. And, presumably because there are only so many hours in the day, marginalise whatever social computing activity they previously indulged in.
Facebook was de rigeur among these people and now they’re Twittering. I have no doubt that they will be on to the next good thing very soon. But they leave a trail. I was going to say like animal spoor, but that sounds rather negative. First of all the creators of these tools have probably worked for nothing and shared their tools freely. If they end up with a ‘hit’ on their hands, then they have masses of beta testers, also working for ‘nothing’. (In actual fact, they disclose a lot about themselves.) They will have identified value in the offering, even if they subsequently move on. For the Microsofts and IBMs of this world, this amounts to free research.
When blogging first caught on, it seemed to comprise mainly of people wittering on about nothing in particular to an audience that largely couldn’t give a toss. Some bloggers, though, actually made sense and started to attract followers. Just like journalism, some educated, some informed and some entertained. It didn’t really matter. By writing authoritatively about their interests, they started to attract those who were interested in similar things. Communities started to form, through adding comments and including links from their own blogs. This often led to other more conventional forms of contact. Beside this undeniably valuable human aggregation, a massive pool of permanently stored information is there for anyone to explore in the future.
So what about Twitter? Time-wasting nonsense was my predominant reaction to it for several months. I made the same mistake that I did with blogging, predominantly that I thought I had to keep up with everything. It’s not possible. I thought the posts were largely pointless. Many of them are. Just like blogging, some are silly, some are irritating while some deliver direct value. Some Twitterers do all three, depending on their mood. The best ones are of the ‘hey look at this’ variety. If someone you respect enough to follow says this, then you’re probably going to welcome such a tip-off.
But then you get the "I am in a sushi bar in Times Square, yum yum". Most of us couldn’t care less, unless we happen to be in New York, in which case it’s an opportunity to make contact. If you’re thinking of calling someone and they’re on Twitter, you could look at their stream and see what they’re up to. Frankly, I think there are dangers in giving too much away. If I wanted to burgle someone, all I’d need to do was follow their Twitter stream to find out when they’re away. Okay – a bit silly maybe, but it is a reminder of how much we give away, wittingly or not.
But, behind this, values emerge. Sign up and find some people or entities (Twitterers are all people, but some go by their company name or their interest – ‘predictions08’ or ‘FTtechnews’ for example) that you know and see who they follow. This is a useful way of finding who’s out there who might be of interest to you. Watch out for the current courtesy of reciprocating ‘follows’. If you look at the list of people I follow, don’t assume I have the faintest idea who many of them are. I’ve just added them because they added me. (Unlike Facebook where I’m very fussy who I accept as a ‘friend’. ‘Follower’ is a much more sensible term.)
Conversations emerge on Twitter, but it’s not a good way to converse, any more than blogging would be. Do you track comments on your comments on someone’s blog post? So Twitter provides messaging as well. You can’t assume that anyone’s aware of anything you’ve posted. Twitter is just a stream of jumbled stuff into which you can dip to ‘catch the mood’ perhaps or pick up tips, links and like-minded (or not) souls. And, of course, it’s always a good idea to reciprocate with links to good stuff that you’ve stumbled across.
The very worst thing you can do is to try and catch up on everything that’s been said since the last time you were on. Accept that you’ll miss stuff. Or, if there are people whose every utterance you must follow, get them sent to your mobile or log in to their page when you have a moment.
I can’t predict whether Twitter will prove to be a fad or whether it will go mainstream. What I do know is that the entrails are being studied and if there’s anything of value there, it will surface in some form in the offerings of major software companies.