So What the Heck is Twitter?

I’ve been using Twitter now for 2.5 years.  Honestly, I’m still grappling with the question: what the heck is Twitter?

Wikipedia, never short for answers has this:

Twitter is a social networking and microblogging service, owned and operated by Twitter Inc., that enables its users to send and read other user messages called tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the author’s profile page.

That’s not really what I’m looking for.  You see, I certainly know what it is, in terms of that dry level of description.  What I’m looking for is more of a contextual view of where it fits, and that is where we go down the rabbit hole…

I’ve always hung my hat on “it’s a tool in the web/community developer’s toolbox”.  That’s true, but what kind of tool?  Obviously there’s a gulf of difference between a sledgehammer and a micrometer, and in Social Media, there is probably even more of a divide between some of the tools.

In order to put it into a little more context, perhaps a history of the general trends I’ve seen in Twitter might be of use:

  • 2.5 years ago, it seemed to be mostly people tweeting about social media, cup cakes and bacon.
  • 2 years ago, the hash tag began to appear in greater prominence.  It had been around since almost the beginning, allowing us to work our way around the obvious failing of the system in its lack of categorization.
  • 1.5 years ago it was all about the fail whale.  Twitter’s down, oh my God…the world is ending.
  • 1 year ago, the anti-Social Media backlash started to play in.  Too many wannabes, posting information that was wrong, self serving, or outright plagiarized.
  • .5 years ago – the rise of accounts on auto pilot.  They randomly tweet quotes, but strangely never engage with anyone.  And somehow they get right around 54k followers in couple months.  Spam spam spam spam…

In that time, many of the folks I used Twitter to converse with have come and gone.  The burn out rate must be staggering…I really would love to see some stats on that. From my point of view, the folks that stick with it tend to be the folks with a common interest, such as my friends from the Red Sox hash tag.  Simply being on Twitter to be there doesn’t seem to be enough to really engage users long term.

Having watched over the years at the open rates on the links I can share, I can definitely say a couple things:

  • The open rates on links are way down.
  • That may be due to me posting more information that is arcane or of interest to a very limited audience.
  • I suspect it really as to do with a fundamental change – I think Twitter is becoming even more of an echo chamber and most users are more interested in the outwards flow of information.  They’re here to lecture, not converse…

The whole idea of brands on Twitter has been a failure for me.  I go to Twitter for conversation.  I don’t want to talk to a #$%@ing brand, I want to talk to people.  If I want to buy something I Google it and go get it.  Period.

Content brands are a different story. I do like getting news alerts from sites via Twitter.  For me, the pitch has to be right.  CNN does a good job, so does Drudge, but I found I had to drop TechCrunch and several others who simply flooded the stream with stuff of little to know value for me.  I can’t tell you what is right for you, but I can certainly tell you when you’ve crossed the line.

So, what the heck is Twitter?

  • A good back channel communication stream
  • A great way to open discussion on formerly closed communication streams like TV, sports and events
  • A lump of clay that maybe you might mold into something useful
  • A system in search of a reason raison d’être

That I’m still asking the question, this far in, is in part the answer.  It is, at least in part, a failure, in that it hasn’t managed to truly define itself after several years of existence.

So I ask you all, what is Twitter to you?  Fill the comments with wisdom…

2 Replies to “So What the Heck is Twitter?”

  1. In my opinion twitter is the testing ground for future communication on the Internet. More importantly the mobile Internet. I have followed twitter’s humble beginnings from geek tool to marketing tool for large companies and mom and pop shops alike. I personally didn’t see any need to join twitter until I purchased my first smartphone. Then it became a place to stay connected with geek culture even when I was away from my computer. I never bothered to try to seek my fifteen minutes of fame in the twittersphere and only use it as a way to find interesting information posted by people much smarter than me. I can still see twitter’s value even if the popularity and fame it has gained has attracted the undesirable “bad half” of the anonymous Internet. This of course is the spammers, hackers, link baiters, phishing scammers, and trolls. This is unfortunately a normal part of the Internet’s evolution. All social sites have had to deal with these issues so why would twitter be any different.

    I believe twitter can have many different uses. It is a social tool for people that wish to stay connected with friends, family, and coworkers. It is a news aggregator for people who want to stay informed. It is a marketing tool. It is a way to meet new people with the same interests, or a way to waste a few minutes while you wait for the next train. Most importantly, it is a stepping stone for future technologies. Friendster paved the way for MySpace, MySpace paved the way for Facebook, and Facebook will pave the way for future social networks on the Internet. I think twitter is the beginning of the real-time social and mobile Internet. It will pave the way for future mobile communication but not before it takes its share of bumps and bruises. I look forward to finding out where this rabbit hole leads, because with each evolutionary step we take, the world becomes a better place. Today I read a blog by a designer in the UK because he sent out a tweet that caught my attention. This type of interaction by people from different countries would be unheard of 20 years ago. Technology is helping to connect people all over the world. This is incredibly powerful and important. So you use twitter to show your support for the Sox and I use it to follow interesting people that post content on the Web. Is it bad if that is all we get out of it? I still think it is pretty cool. I found your post and then read your blog because of twitter. Twenty years ago I would have been mindlessly sitting in front of the TV absorbing the garbage information the Networks decided was best for me. Alas, there is no need to worry about the use of twitter because by the time we figure it out, something bigger and better will come along and take its place. Then we can spend two years figuring out what the heck this new thing is good for.

    Great post thanks for sharing.

    1. Love it…indeed, it will be replaced with “something bigger and better.”

      I think you hit on the point that had me…the experimental nature. It’s really a laboratory, and the next great thing will most likely answer most of my questions.

      I too use twitter mostly from my smartphone now. I occasionally will post from my computer, but normally, I’m using the phone.

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