There’s been a lot of twaddle written and spoken about Twitter recently. Casual observers can’t seem to grasp what it is or why it’s important. I’ve seen it described as a microblogging service, a social networking site, a glorified chat room, a geek crossover fad, the latest security nightmare and an addictive waste of time. Most of which may be partially true – but only in the same way it’s partially true to describe the Internet as a playground for geeks, the latest business battleground or a den of vice. Because, like the Internet, Twitter’s very simplicity and openness has supported the rapid, organic, and community-driven development of many different uses - some pointless and mundane, others anything but.
What is it?
Ostensibly, Twitter is an online service where people can post messages (usually called tweets or twits) of up to 140 characters, as well as sending public or private messages to specific users. These tweets vary wildly in nature – among other things they may contain life-streaming, sales pitches, links, conversation… breaking news, bot-spam or wild speculation… questions, solutions, announcements and jobs… insight and wisdom, or swearing and sobs. Sometimes they even contain impromptu poetry. A smattering of celebrities and a lot of technical, media and freelance creative types use Twitter. So do many, many people calling themselves SEOs or social marketing consultants (most of whom seem to be to 2009 what a lot of so-called web designers were to 1996 – the “fake it and hope you make it” brigade). You can peruse intimate details of the lives of people you don’t really know. All in all, not exactly Earth-shattering, as much of the uninformed coverage has pointed out. And if that were the end of the story of Twitter, the coverage would be right. But it isn’t.
Amid the hyping and sniping of the past month, another message has also been getting through, quietly but consistently. It is coming from the growing community that is regularly using the service, learning what it can do and building on it. Our message is that Twitter isn’t just another Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, and offers benefits beyond all these and other such services on all levels – personal, professional and social. I’ve seen and responded to a lot of tweets in the past few weeks by decidedly non-geeky, non-celebrity-obsessed folk (among them quite a few senior business types), dipping their toes in the water and wondering out loud what all the fuss is about. It seems more primitive and less functional than some of the other online social networks you’re already familiar with, you say. First, don’t give up yet – most of us felt like that when we first signed up. But I want to tell you why that common first impression is wrong and what you need to do to realise the real benefits of Twitter.
Facebook and LinkedIn: Behind closed doors
Most other social networks are like private castles, with walls of varying height and thickness. Once you gain entry, you are free to explore the castle’s rooms, corridors and gardens, seeking out, befriending or connecting with individuals and groups you feel some affinity with.
Facebook and LinkedIn - the two social networks most familiar to business folk – both operate in this way. You build a core set of mutual connections and once connected you can see what those people are up to via your personal news feed. Then there are special interest groups you can join as an adjunct to your core connections - such as campaign groups, professional groups or personal interest/activity groups. By and large, Facebook tends to be used mainly (though not exclusively) for personal connections – far-flung family, long lost friends, former colleagues or new dating/gaming partners – while LinkedIn is geared up specifically for professional networking.
Generally on these networks, interactions take place behind virtual closed doors. There are often ways to open windows onto the wider Internet, but the default position is usually to leave them shut. The result is these communities also tend to be fairly closed. For example, say someone was interested in fishing, like my father-in-law. He might search LinkedIn or Facebook and find dozens of groups that look like they might be relevant, each with a number of members. To reach all the people who might share his interest, he’d have to join each of these groups and duplicate information among them. Even then, he’ll only be reaching people inside the castle walls. In addition, many groups on Facebook and LinkedIn are used more as a public declaration of people’s interests, rather than being vibrant mini-communities in and of themselves.
Why is Twitter different?
Twitter is different because the default position is one of openness and diversity. This is no castle – it’s a bustling town square. Unless users specify otherwise, their messages appear on what’s known as the public timeline – a constant stream of every user’s tweets. You don’t need to be a Twitter user to view these messages – Twitter has its own search function, and public tweets will also show up on standard web searches. The system has also been designed to integrate openly with the wider Internet and mobile phones. Other third-party services like Twitterfone and SpinVox extend Twitter’s use to the voice telephone network too, transcribing short calls and tweeting them on your behalf.
As a result of this openness and ease of integration with other services, it’s convenient for people to tweet wherever they are and whatever device they’re carrying. It’s easy to get information into Twitter and out again using standard web file formats, whatever device or network connection you’re using. Because of this, people like it and use it more often. You can even use it as a sort of ‘glue’ to stick together other online services, media and information. As a result, Twitter’s tentacles have extended into just about every corner of the converged, connected infocomms landscape - websites and blogs, other social networks, web applications, SMS and instant messaging systems, mobile and fixed voice networks.
Twitter also has an open API (application programming interface), which for the non-technical among you means that third parties – be they individuals, community-driven collaborations or commercial ventures – can hook into certain parts of its system freely and develop their own applications or add-ons, for example to tailor access for particular user preferences or devices (such as iPhones or Blackberrys) or to extend Twitter’s functionality in new and interesting ways. And there’s potential for much more to be built. (One development I’m particularly looking forward to is some really powerful real-time visualisations of public opinion built by tracking the content of tweets – something that could prove both enlightening and disconcerting for politicians and businesses.) And since it’s fairly quick and easy (and often low cost) to build applications and add-ons, developers can respond rapidly to what people want (and are probably already tweeting about). There are already hundreds of apps and add-ons, (some of which can be found here, here, here and here). In essence, the raggle-taggle development community surrounding Twitter represents customer responsiveness at it’s most agile. This stuff is at the cutting edge of the new game, and Twitter is seeing the results in the speed of its own community-driven evolution.
Fuelling the flow of information and the formation of ad-hoc communities
Twitter has no walls or rooms. You can follow or be followed by anyone. Connections do not have to be mutual. You could follow 100 people and be followed by 100 entirely different people (although most users find mutual connections to be the most beneficial). (There are the usual privacy features to block undesirable followers, although if you’re on the public timeline they can still see your tweets.) People can only send private messages to mutual connections, but an ‘@message’ - which is what most people use most of the time unless they need to say something genuinely private - can be directed at any other user (by starting your message with ‘@username’), whether you’re following them, being followed by them or neither. These @messages also show up on the public timeline, in searches and to all your followers.
This simple, open structure has given rise – organically – to a very complex system that is still evolving. Essentially, Twitter massively accelerates flows of information among a diverse range of intersecting individuals, groups and organisations. It allows important (and not so important) information to percolate quickly and reach vast numbers of disparate people to whom it might be of interest or relevance.
It allows people to form ad hoc connections and communities with like-minded individuals and groups quickly and easily, in a way that seems far more fluid and natural than the walled rooms of Facebook and LinkedIn. It lets people build meaningful relationships of both a business and personal nature, with the one often leading surprisingly to the other. Some people still maintain it’s better to separate personal and professional identities online, but on Twitter the two seem to coexist fairly happily, bar the odd comical mishap.
Interfacing with the real world
Many physical meetings and events have been initiated, organised, publicised or otherwise helped by Twitter, including the global Twestival earlier this month, which raised over $250,000 for charity and catapulted the Twitter community into the news, and yesterday’s Amplified 09 ‘Network of Networks’ meeting in London, where Twitterers and other online social networkers from diverse fields and sub-networks met to share ideas about ways collaborative and social media could help individuals, organisations, people and the planet. More grassroots collaborations like this will happen as social media becomes even more widely adopted. Businesses could benefit enormously from getting involved, but they’ll only do that if they become part of the community. And increasingly that community uses and revolves around Twitter.
But as well-as facilitating real-world meetings, Twitter is also becoming the de facto virtual doorway to any event on the planet in real time (or close to it). For example, if you track the name of any conference, meeting, sports or newsworthy event, chances are there’ll be somebody there (often a few people) tweeting interesting points, developments or observations.
At Amplified, for instance, all attendees are encouraged to tweet after every session they attend, giving a snapshot of the event from many different perspectives. And, increasingly, people may also be streaming live video from their mobile phones from such an event using a service like QIK (announcing and hashtagging the livestream on Twitter first, so those interested can find out about it). Such technologies are only going to become better integrated, higher quality and easier to use – there’s really already nothing to stop someone developing a one-button smartphone application that knows where you are (either from your calendar or via a location service), sends a tagged tweet to announce you’re streaming from the XYZ conference and then launches your QIK or similar streaming video application. Soon a lot more people, not just technically-savvy types, are going to be doing this sort of thing.
Essentially, Twitter is the first popular social network (or, more accurately, open social networking *platform*) that allows anyone to converse with anyone else about anything and from almost anywhere, to quickly find others with similar interests or concerns, and to tune in to what everyone is saying (or seeing) at particular times. Plenty of applications track the most popular ‘trending topics’ on Twitter in various categories, too, so you can keep your finger on the pulse.
How does it work in practice?
At the moment, Twitter provides its services at no charge to either users or developers, a major reason for its rapid, organic growth. If it makes a ham-fisted job of “monetizing” (it’s in the process now) , or its technology infrastructure is unable to keep up with growth (it has a history here), there may yet be a mass community exodus to one of the open-source Twitter clones that are starting to spring up, such as identi.ca. That said, there’s room for other players following an open model – since they should be able to integrate fairly seamlessly with one another. However, I suspect Twitter will be a stayer because there is great loyalty and patience among its long-standing community (which I count myself among). This is almost entirely due to the fact that it was users – more than Twitter itself – that built the service into what it has become. Twitter’s openness enabled open community, and the open community responded with innovation.
Valuable information spreads quickly thanks to the concept of the retweet (RT). That’s where you pass on a link, question or piece of information that you’ve seen somebody else tweet about, because you think it may be valuable or interesting to others. People may also see one of your tweets and retweet it themselves. Information of value therefore spreads rapidly and exponentially.
Another key concept is tracking. There are no ‘groups’ as such on Twitter, at least not in the way you might understand them. You can set up an ongoing Twitter search to ensure you know whenever any public messages are posted that contain a particular term or terms that interest you, such as ‘fishing’. You will then start to see tweets from users who share your interest and you may decide to follow them. (Twitter has its own search function, but many of the third-party applications you can use to access Twitter also have tracking and searching built in.)
But Twitterers found that just searching for words often brought up irrelevant results (e.g. tweets talking about ‘fishing for compliments’). To filter out such irrelevancies, and index certain tweets, the community evolved a convention known as hashtags whereby people prepend a ‘#’ to a word or words that categorise the tweet. For example:
Here’s a crow using bait to catch a fish. http://tw0.us/ie [video] #fishing
A friend of mine just posted a site for his #fishing invention: A power bait mold. Check it out… http://troutberry.com/
In a business context, though, you could, for example, track what people are saying about your company in real-time, as well as tracking topics or technologies you’re investigating or researching. Indeed, this process can be fully automated with very little effort (including redirecting specific tweets to the relevant people in your organisation via email if they’re not using the service). But while tracking offers benefits in itself (and you don’t even need to be signed up to Twitter to do it), you won’t realise the overall benefits of the service unless you join in the conversation.
Building your network
So how should you build your network on Twitter? There are many different answers. Some rush to get as many followers as they can with no heed to who they are. Others prefer to limit theirs to a few mutual connections. Fewer, high-quality connections means you can build closer relationships, but lacks reach. Larger, less discriminate collections of followers means you have more reach, but you also have to put up with a lot of noise. (One of my Twitter contacts Lee Stacey [@lstacey] is currently conducting an experiment under the alias @tweepl to gauge the value or otherwise of large indiscriminate followings.) But the best way to build a valuable network on Twitter seems to be organically and steadily.
The key is variety. It’s perfectly possible to form a clique of people who share your profession, your opinions or your interests, but doing so would simply be replicating the familiar model of existing chatrooms and forums. Most people find following a more diverse range of people is better. And the way Twitter works makes this happen quite naturally. You might start off just connecting to people you already know, and perhaps a few news feeds. But then you’ll start seeing snippets of interesting conversations that your contacts are having with other of their contacts (because you’ll see their @messages to others), and so you begin to follow those people as well.
Let’s say you’re also tracking a few hashtags or keywords – you’ll see tweets from other people who share a personal or professional interest. You may decide to extend your network further by following them. As long as you are posting tweets regularly and engaging with other people openly, you are likely to get followed or followed back by quite a few people. (There are a fair few bots and spammers on Twitter, though – as a general rule check the Twitter home page of anyone following you and look at their ratio of following to followers. If it’s suspiciously high and/or tweets don’t seem genuine or are obviously spammy, you probably won’t want to follow back, and you may even want to block them. Certainly don’t be tempted to click on any hyperlink in their bio, or shortened URL in any of their tweets – which may be some sort of malware.) On the other hand, if you follow a lot more people than you’re followed by, but rarely engage with people or tweet anything of interest, then you’re likely to struggle to find people of interest to follow you back.
Engage openly and reap rewards
Twitter will only yield its most valuable benefits if you use it in a spirit of openness and collaboration - that is, if you participate in a way that will earn the respect of other followers, which is essentially by contributing openly and honestly with a fair balance of give and take. No one minds a bit of self-promotion here and there, but giving it the hard sell tweet after tweet is a no-no, and shows you don’t understand the medium. If you’re following a large number of people, it’s impractical to engage with everyone all the time. But even if you only check a few recent tweets on your friends’ timeline, there will be one or two from people that you can probably offer some help or advice to, or maybe just chip in a bit of friendly banter. And doing so can result in some fruitful professional and personal connections.
Building your network steadily and engaging with people openly pays big dividends. Once you have a reasonably large and diverse network of followers then you can fruitfully ask questions of your network, tapping into what James Surowiecki famously calls “The Wisdom of Crowds”. You might, for example, ask for information, sources of inspiration, people to help with a particular project or job, or your network’s views on a specific issue, idea or proposal. And since your questions will also appear on the public timeline, you may find you receive useful answers from beyond your existing network, helping to extend it even further. Hashtagging them will make that even more likely. In other words, Twitter enables the kind of speedy, ad hoc collaboration across a large, diverse pool of knowledgeable and talented people that many businesses and individuals are crying out for.
Chance is a fine thing…
Even more important, I believe, is the fact that Twitter encourages serendipitous connections in a way that just doesn’t happen very much on other networks, because of their fundamentally walled nature. When you’ve been closely involved in a particular environment for a long period of time, you tend to network among people who are essentially very similar in outlook and/or background to yourself. The nature of Twitter encourages plenty of chance encounters, so you meet interesting people with valuable ideas and opinions outside your usual circles. Engaging in conversation with these people broadens your network, your perspectives and your pool of ideas, inspiration, knowledge, talent and friends. That’s something all of us need to do, particularly in tough times like these.