Why all the fuss about Twitter?

I have just got back from a few days at the annual Communication Directors’ Forum. At the event I got to speak to many key communications professionals from some of the UK’s most well known brands. The common questions that I was asked were about how the online world was changing and why all the fuss about Twitter?

Apart from the obvious celebrity focus, Twitter’s success, in my view, is down to a number of factors, the three primary ones being:

- speed,
- permission;
- and relevance.

It is these three characteristics that I see as being key to the further development of online communications in the future.

Speed  

When the Internet first appeared speed of communications was a key area everyone focussed on. We were all now “surfing the information superhighway”. No more relying on snail mail or faxes, a message could be sent by email or online messenger within minutes. With the advent of blogs and low cost publishing platforms this ability to communicate at speed was then increased in reach with individuals being able to tell their stories to a much wider audience, again within minutes.

Now Twitter has taken the reach of blogs and increased the speed to another level.  News can be written in the time it takes to write 140 characters and passed from person to person via “retweeting” in a matter of a couple of seconds. This means news travels at a much greater speed than even blogs can achieve.

Permission

In a “traditional” social networking environment, like Facebook for instance, there needs to be two sided permission. I have to want to be your friend and you have to want to be mine for communication to occur. So I have two choices – to be, or not to be, your friend.

In Twitter’s case if you start to follow me I have three choices. I can say no and block you. I can say yes and follow you back. Both basically the same options as with social networking. But I also have a third option. I can let you follow me, but not follow you back. This allows people who want to know more about a person and what they have to say to listen in without the person you are following having to follow you back. This partially explains the growth in celebrity tweeters. This gives huge amounts of flexibility in the nature of the relationships that participants in the Twitter community can enjoy.

Relevance  

This is crucial in any form of communication as it is only through being relevant to someone that you can ever achieve any form of influence.

The permission choices above allow participants to also have much greater control over the relevance of the information and relationships they have. If I decide that someone I have been following is irrelevant to me I can just stop following them. If I see that someone is talking about a topic that is relevant to me, e.g. a search in Twitter for my company name, I can choose to start following them and listen to what they say and finally I can potentially start a conversation with them about that topic if they want to talk back to me.

But again the other participants also have all of these choices so we are all able to decide who is relevant to us. It is this choice, our own personal relevance filter, which makes for a more efficient dialogue.

What do others think? What characteristic/s of Twitter do others think explain its adoption?

8 thoughts on “Why all the fuss about Twitter?

  1. Three excellent points. How about adding ‘reliability’ in there too?

    I blogged a while back about crowdsourcing info on Twitter, and how it’s much more reliable than search engines when looking for recommendations on products or services. It helps us connect directly to each other, and cut out the influence of the middle man. I think you blogged a few weeks ago on how Google is a heavily-biased algorithm and not people, and this is going to be an important distinction in the future of search.

    I suppose we’ve already had this through Technorati and other blog search engines in the past, but I think Twitter has a much more powerful search capability – probably due to the speed, permission and relevance factors – and it’s going to get better.

    But all this comes at a cost – which is the time and effort it takes to build a network organically, and develop relationships with your followers. There aren’t really any shortcuts to this, and I think this is one of Twitter’s greatest virtues.

  2. Thanks for the comment Dan. Where getting answers is concerned is the cost with Twitter a virtue? I think it is one of its downsides. I think your point about reliability is valid if you have invested the time in building up a relevant and responsive follower base. However investing time is not something that most people generally want to do in the fast paced world we now live in. If there is a quick and easy way of getting the answer they need i.e. Google I think most people are more inclined to go this route. With Google starting to add tools like Search Options so people can filter their results as well I suspect their hegemony is pretty safe. Still its early days. Tom Foremski is apparently about to post http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2009/05/does_anyone_hav.php about the next big thing this week so perhaps we will be talking about something else in a few days!

  3. Good point. I think it depends on how you look at it. The idealist in my says that having to put the groundwork in and develop a follower base organically is a good thing – emphasising the importance of relationships and all that – but like you say, it’s an unrealistic expectation in the fast-paced world.

    I was out running with Dave Coxon yesterday and he was telling me all about the latest craic in search. I just asked stupid questions and wished I knew what he was talking about… Sounds like some big changes are coming though! Thanks for the Foremski link, I’ll keep an eye out.

  4. How does Twitter make money for themselves to keep this great social media activity a viable business?

  5. This is a great post and you both make excellent points. Twitter is indeed fast (by which you mean real-time i guess), permission based, relevant (sometimes) and finally reliable (of late anyway). .

    But i think its popularity is far more basic than this, its to do with community and society. Of course people use social networks for different reasons, some simply want to hang with the cool kids, others like the attention, or it could be the peer praise, the status of having more followers that your friends or you may you genuinely just like to help people out.

    But twitter is different to most social networks, for a start with most social networks you know most of your friends in the real world before letting them into your network, with twitter the opposite applies most users didn’t know the followers before finding them on twitter. Because of the way twitter works you can quickly find, like minded people regardless to who there age, background, location and participate in conversations with them.

    You very quickly become connected to many different circles of friends of link those communities forming super communities, which means that information travels very quickly, in ways that have never been seen before, you get the news before it can even be reported on tv.

    Once you’ve been going a while, your likely to have followers from around the world not just where you live,this means that whenever you go on line your likely to be able to talk to someone online – it may be 4 in the morning where you are its 2pm somewhere in the world.

    Also on the time issue, because twitter conversations are open collaborative conversations, they are collaborative and participatory, so you often find yourself being drawn into them.

    In someways twitter is a bit like the coffee bar in friends or your local bar, you can just pop any time of the day or night have a quick chat and to catch up with friends and if you need a bit of advice there’s sure to be someone there that can help you out.

    Then there is the structure, it incredibly open, and people often post very personal experiences, again this makes bonds with those people incredibly strong.

    Then there is the technical stuff, it is open, so people are free to create fun ways to manipulate the data like the snow maps, or the emotion steams, it is also structure (all be it informally people using hash tags) this means its easy to manipulate and can be incorporated into searches, blog, discussions etc.

    As an application Twitter is yet to make money, and it may well be replaced by something else, possibly something based on the new google wave technology, but as a concept this sort of lite open social network is probably going to grow from strength to strength.

    Sorry this ended up being a very long comment and not a very structured one at that, but its sort of the nature of titter, it babbles on and on in the background going this way and that an occasionally you find a truely serendipitous conversation. (Adam feel free to edit it down before posting)

    Ps. Thanks for the name drop Dan, and Adam for linking to my new(ish)blog . Hope to continue the conversation over a beer some time soon.

  6. This is what I love about Twitter and the blogosphere: a massive stream of conversations that continue to develop, and more people can join in, bringing new knowledge and ideas to the table. So when people ask ‘why all the fuss about Twitter?’ they’re really asking ‘why all the fuss about communities and conversation?’.

    Like Dave says, it’s not about the platform, it’s about the medium. We’re communicating in a brilliant new way that’s both in real-time and archived, and anyone can join in, whether to contribute or just observe. I bloody love it :>)

  7. Interesting how the internet changes everything and just when you thing you have got a grip on communicating with things like twitter the next technology comes along. On thursday/friday at the google io 09 developer conferenece google showed us something that may just change the way we think about communications in the future. Here’s a link to a blog post about Google Wave and why it might just wave goodbye to twitter http://worldofitblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/could-google-wave-goodbye-to-twitter/
    .

  8. Thanks for the comments David and definitely don’t worry about the length I would never edit what someone said and appreciate you taking the time. In fact anyone who knows me would tell you that I have the ability to go on and on and on…. so I certainly couldn’t criticise anyone else for lengthy comments :-)

    I agree with all your points about community, dipping in and out and collaboration. I suppose I was just looking to focus on the structural things about Twitter that enables these things but wholeheartedly agree that it is how real people than embrace and use these tools that is what it is ulimately all about. I need to spend longer getting to grips with Wave and when I have a spare hour and 20 will watch the vid on your blog.

    Cheers Adam

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