Explaining Twitter - One of Three Places for People

March 22, 2009 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd


Last week a friend who just signed up on Twitter said: "... just like Jon Stewart, I can't figure out how it works or why anyone would want to tweet or get anyone else's twitter. I had no idea what grunt and stalker is but I am assuming that is reality too. I put this all in the pocket with second life (stupid bulky awkward and totally useless)." So I reluctantly joined the crowd attempting to explain why people who have a job and have a life might be interested in Twitter. I decided to describe Twitter as one of three distinct places on the Web where I socialize every day: the public commons. The others two are my neighborhood and my workplace.

The mechanics of Twitter aren't hard describe: you can post short messages of up 140 characters ("tweets") with a name you choose on Twitter's site. There you can: read tweets made by people you choose to follow (as one merged stream); reply directly to any tweet with one of your own; let people follow whatever you tweet; see the profile of anyone including: recent tweets, who that person follows, and who follows them. You can also search for people by name, search the content of tweets, or use a variety of applications built over Twitter to see what's going on and how topics or people are connected in many neat ways that evolve very quickly. For an explanation in pictures see Twitter in Plain English.

One problem with Twitter in Plain English is that it explains Twitter just as a way to keep in touch with your friends, which is just one use - and relies on the assumption that your friends are either already using Twitter or you can convince them to do so.

I'll call this the "I just picked up more cat food" use - and yes I believe than many people do have friends and family from whom a stream of these tiny updates is enjoyable and valuable even when the content is as mundane as the dullest blog in the world. Tweets are very short and don't demand a lot of attention. The background chatter of friends or family - like the chatter of children playing - is comforting, enjoyable and entertaining especially when you're physically separated. You should note that Twitter currently allows you to either make your account public (anyone can read) or private (only followers you OK can read what you tweet) so using Twitter for private "friends and family only" tweets become awkward at best and precludes use of the same account for public conversation on Twitter.

Rafe WTF of the day: @Josh comes back from lunch... "I got some cat food, do you want it?" Twitter.com 4:13PM 15 Apr 2009 ... much funnier than my example, but QED.
April 15, 2009 | # | Greg Lloyd

At the opposite extreme, Twitter becomes a platform for individual or corporate brand promotion. I'll call this the How to promote yourself as a branded channel for fun and profit use. If you post to Twitter you'll automatically pick up promotional followers who hope you'll automatically follow them back to increase the reach of their channel. If this bothers you - or you pick up followers who look really dubious - Twitter allows you to block followers to remove them from your profile. Celebrities, pundits, experts, brand managers and just plain folk with something interesting to say can build a large following to create or extend their brand.

For me, the most interesting use of Twitter is as host of the world's largest collection of personal channels: you can find, follow or reply to people adept at the 140 character tweet. For example, I enjoy David Pogue (pogue) and Steven Fry (stephenfry) for their ability to mix notes, quips and links. I also follow a sampling of folk interested in hypertext, social software and technology - at least those who don't just repeat what I scan in more detail from their RSS feeds. I'll occasionally reply or rebroadcast a tweet ("retweet"), but I also don't feel bad about un-following folk whose posts I'd rather read in RSS, or tune out as the only way to keep the signal-to-noise ratio of what I read under control. If you attempt to follow a very large number of people, you'll end up reading a random sample or facing a signal to noise problem:

Venkatesh Rao (vgr): 9:44AM Mar 21: Twitter needs a 'more like this'/'less like this' reinforcement learning to lower my SNR :(. Fave tweet types, not people.

My reply (roundtrip) about 12 hours later: @vgr agree. There's a great difference between following friends & family where everything counts & topics you care about x everyone.

I'll call this use of Twitter the world's largest floating cocktail party, coffee break, and trade show happy hour, where you're free to tune in to what anyone is saying to the world - and talk back if you wish. Just like any party the roof is an introduction, but you can also just step back and enjoy the flow. It's a fragmented, freewheeling and noisy place - but you choose channels you want to listen to and change channels any time. It's like tuning dials on a hypertext radio until the sum of social chatter, news, business, fun, and off the wall discovery makes you happy. You can't do that at a real party.

People aren't the only ones invited to the party. As Jeremiah Owyang astutely points out, mining Twitter gives CRM vendors, advertising agencies and market analysts valuable analytic insights and opportunities for engagement. If the government does this it would be a privacy scandal; if vendors do this it's called a business model for Twitter.

So if you don't keep in close contact with friends and family using Twitter, promote your brand, understand your market or enjoy the opportunity to mix, mingle and listen to the flow in Twitter's world-wide public commons I guess you don't have a good reason to become a Twitter enthusiast. But Twitter one of many competing and complementary places for socialization on the Web.

Is there a Doctor of Sociology in the House?

I believe the most interesting point is that Twitter defines a place that escapes the scaling limits of the physical places we're all used to, but invites social creatures like us to build social norms and expectations over the public commons and specific affordances that Twitter created.

Great architects of physical places know that people bring expectations and norms about the kind of behavior that's appropriate and enjoyable to any physical space. Architects are skillful in designing spaces to match their clients desires and expectations by providing cues that are easy to perceive and appropriate for the intended purpose, but a lot of the norms of the same physical space become clear only from social context.

If you walk into a conference room with a group of people you don't know talking quietly around a table - and someone closes the door behind you - you'll likely speak and act differently than if you walk into the same room with people you know laughing, eating and drinking. If you walk into a theater you'll probably seat yourself quietly in the audience rather than striding onto the stage (see the Re-Placing Space reference).

What fascinates me about social software is how we're learning to create places with perceived affordances - features and user models - that seem natural for different purposes and intentions. I use Facebook, Traction Software's TeamPage server, and Twitter as three separate places: my neighborhood, my workplace, and the public commons I like to use.

Facebook: To me this place is a neighborhood where you can choose your own friends and neighbors. I use Facebook mainly for informal friend, family, alumni keep in touch posts and links. Because Facebook friending automatically builds a two-way follows relationship versus Twitter's one-way user model, it's easy to build and maintain a neighborly feel by default. I enjoy status updates and posts (like tweets with structure for videos, web links and Facebook apps) from "friends" and keep my posts open to members of my college's Facebook Network. The Facebook posts I write and read are generally for smile value or status updates that would only be of interest to folks who know one another and find the chatter comforting rather than noise. Although it's possible to turn down the volume of posts from folk who tend to update a lot, signal to noise is not really a problem with a neighborhood of tens to hundreds of folk. Just like in real life you know how to act and what to expect in your Facebook neighborhood.

Update Dec 17, 2009: Facebook's controversial ex-post facto revision of member privacy settings along with the revenue driven rise of apps like Farmville (as well as sleezy internal promotion) lead me to revisit this, see Blog1232: Facebook: A Carnival Midway not a Neighborhood?
December 17, 2009 | # | Greg Lloyd

Traction Software's TeamPage server: It's the place I work - along with other employees of Traction Software, customers, reseller partners, technology partners, Board members, consultants, advisors, friends of Traction, contractors, and our legal and PR firms. TeamPage makes it easy to support many different spaces (or places) on the same Traction server with different membership rules. Like Facebook each individual on a TeamPage server has their own profile page whose content can be customized - by default it shows the set of most recent posts and comments by that individual which you have permission to read. Like Twitter you can use TeamPage's LiveBlog skin to share brief notes, comments and replies - within a space shared by a group with access to that space. Traction has over three hundred spaces on our corporate TeamPage server - including spaces for all customers, product development, support, each technical and reseller partner, each major account, board of directors, our PR firm etc. Boundaries separating spaces you have permission to read automatically slide down so you can link, search, or syndicate content using spaces just to group content for navigation. Your rss feeds, tag clouds and search results reflect only the content you have permission to read. See Michael Sampson's Traction TeamPage: the One System to Rule It All.

Twitter: For me it's ultimate mashup of technical conference coffee breaks and trade show happy hours. I enjoy listening, meeting new people, and just shooting the breeze. I think of Twitter a place for listening and conversing with an ever changing cast of characters rather than a neighborhood where I live or a place where I get work done. The fact that Twitter is a hot, popular public place is more significant that its technology particularly as Facebook adds public and fan permissions to its walled garden privacy rules (which might complicate or sacrifice Facebook's "neighborhood" feel). If I want to "tweet" among friends and neighbors I do it in Facebook; If I want to "tweet" to get work done, I use TeamPage.

I like the idea of having three recognizable places corresponding to: neighborhood, workplace, and commons and want to keep then clearly separated in a social if not technical sense.

Metaphorically, if I want to talk to the neighborhood I'll go outside and speak with the expectation that anyone in the neighborhood can hear me (if they want) and I can shout out to anyone by name. If I want privacy I can walk inside and close the door. When I go to work I can speak in my office so that other TSI folk can overhear me (if they want), or walk into a conference room that's clearly marked for the Board, a specific technology partner, a specific customer, or an all customer commons and know that everyone in the room has the same expectation of place and privacy. When I want to join (my own) selection from the global commons, I'll walk into a bubble of babble (the converse of a cone of silence) and pay attention and respond in a different way that I would to the chatter of friends, internal collaboration at work, or conversations with external clients who expect - and demand - privacy and security for many working conversations.

Just like a good architect knows how the to use the affordances and relationships of physical spaces to help cue behavior, architects of social software should aim to use software affordances to make socializing in the neighborhood, workplace, and commons as natural as possible. I think this will require cues to signal and differentiate as well as connect places. The goal should be to help people read context and act comfortably in different places whose norms they can quickly learn, understand and trust. As Harrison and Dourish write:

"A conference hall and a theatre share many similar spatial features (such as lighting and orientation); and yet we rarely sing or dance when presenting conference papers, and to do so would be regarded as at least slightly odd (or would need to be explained). We wouldn't describe this behaviour as 'out of space'; but it would most certainly be 'out of place' and this feeling is so strong that we might try quite hard to interpret a song or a dance as part of a presentation, if faced with it suddenly. It is a sense of place, not space, which makes it appropriate to dance at a Grateful Dead concert, but not at a Cambridge college high table; to be naked in the bedroom, but not in the street; and to sit at our windows, peering out, rather than at other people's windows, peering in. Place, not space, frames appropriate behaviour." - Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems

I look forward to the day when identity, syndication, security and search standards are robust enough to allow me to search, link and communicate across many different places for my own convenience, preserving sensible boundaries as well as appropriate expectations of privacy. I believe that's how the Web will evolve in the not too distant future.

If you don't like my explanation of Twitter, try one of these:

Why I use Twitter Mar 1, 2009 George Millington replies to his friend's similar questions and objections.

Explaining Twitter to Eggheads Jan 4, 2009 - Jay Rosen asks readers to help him write an essay on why he's on Twitter - to be published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (print edition and Chronicle Review web site). I think this is the outline of a really good article and provoked a rich stream of comments. I guess I fit Jay's target audience, and will happily add a link to the essay when Jay publishes it.

"Facebook is for those you used to know, Twitter is for those who you will know".

Ask Twitter! - The Newest Q&A Source Mar 20, 2009 Aaron Asay blogged: "I've heard more than once: “Facebook is for those you used to know, Twitter is for those who you will know.” " which was quoted by mjasay in Twitter Mar 21, 2009 about 8:15AM and retweeted (RT'd) by windley about 8:18AM, which I noticed about 9:20AM and replied as roundtrip (me) "... and E2.0 is for those you work with" about 10:20AM.

For the hopelessly pedantic: A Google search finds that Andreas Ringdal suggested - in a comment on Steven Arnold's Mar 3, 2009 Twitter Facebook Analogy post - that this quote "as someone brilliantly put it" might be identified by reading Ivor Tossal's Dec 25, 2008 Globe and Mail 903 word story: Teeny-tiny Twitter was the year's big story which I'm too cheap to purchase for $4.95 plus tax and find out - thank you very much GlobeAndMail.com

and finally ...

Twitter Sucks, so change your friends Mar 16, 2009 Steve Lawson. His analysis and examples are even better than the title.

Update: Steve Buttry Information Content Conductor of Gazette Communications posted an excellent tip sheet: Leading your staff into the Twitterverse for a workshop he'll be leading for the American Society of Newpaper Editors. It's an great introduction to Twitter which covers linking, following, tools and ethics. I believe Steve's advice is just as valuable for neighborhood (Facebook) and workplace (Enterprise 2.0) microblogging. Steve writes:

Journalists need to use Twitter. Even if you don’t understand its value or usefulness immediately and even if some of the content is frivolous, journalists can use Twitter for a variety of uses:

  • You can monitor the activities and discussions of people in your community or on your beat.
  • You can connect with colleagues and share ideas with them.
  • You can “crowdsource” stories by asking your followers for story ideas or information.
  • You can quickly find people who witnessed or experienced an event.
  • You can drive traffic to your content.
  • You can improve your writing as you learn to make points directly in just 140 characters. (I tell my staff that if a lead doesn’t fit in a tweet, it’s probably too long. It really helps me write better leads on my blog and columns.)

For top editors, using Twitter has added value:

  • It can help change your newsroom culture.
  • You communicate to your staff that you are changing and trying new things.
April 3, 2009 | # | Greg Lloyd

Feeling pretty meta about this post, and deciding that's not bad

You can find me on Twitter as roundtrip, and follow Traction Software as TractionTeam. Follow Traction-software for a list of all Traction Software team members, customers, and friends. Please tweet back! Cheers! For live @roundtrip Twitter updates see Where's Greg?

See also
The Future of Work Platforms: Like Jazz
Ask an Engineer: What do you think of the Facebook Terms of Service Flap?
Reinventing the Web
Who's on Your Team ?
Borders, Spaces, and Places
Connections
Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems (.pdf)
by Steve Harrison (Xerox PARC) and Paul Dourish (EuroPARC), online draft of paper presented at CSCW '96.