Consider Twitter


The sign of success in social software is when your community does something you didn’t expect.

It’s easy to be cynical about new sites, especially when one is trying to maintain some healthy skepticism. But sometimes you have to let that critical impulse down just long enough to be optimistic. That brings me to Twitter.

I was all set to hate, or at least scoff at, Twitter when it launched, especially because it was called “twttr” and it just seemed to me like “West Coast Dodgeball”. (Dodgeball started here in New York City, and at least for me, caught on with my New York friends in a way that never quite happened on the west coast, even after Google acquired the company.) In a way, it’s unfortunate that I have ended up liking Twitter, because I had a bunch of better titles in mind for this post if i hadn’t. (See the table below.)

twttr's old logo

If you haven’t tried it, Twitter is a simple service that lets you send simple status update messages to your friends via SMS, IM, or a very basic web interface. Those messages are then sent to everyone who follows your updates, using any of the communications methods available. Simply put, it’s a buddy list or reply-to-all form of group communication for media which didn’t really have them. And Twitter lowers the threshold of participation to being just a straightforward prompted text area. That simplicity echoes the updating interface for some of the best applications, such as the original (circa 2000) Blogger posting box. A lot of my favorite sites today have similar features that prompt for participation, like Vox‘s Question of the Day or the similar feature on Serious Eats.

Twitter messages are also persistent. The persistence of casual conversations has been key to the adoption of blogging. It’s a response to the frustrating sense of impermanence that permeates most communication that takes place via email, IM, or SMS, and Twitter honors that need for a sense of history in the things we say to each other.

Plus, Twitter lets you use whatever medium is most convenient, like all good social apps. I’ve learned a bit about connecting the web, SMS and IM from LiveJournal’s experience with LJ Talk, and the djabberd platform that powers it. Put simply, if your social network doesn’t work when you’re not sitting in front of your computer, your social network doesn’t work.

This idea of adding persistence to instant messaging and status messages is extremely powerful, whether it’s LiveJournal’s celebrated “current mood” status, or the BuddyGopher service, which was an extraordinarily prescient service that provided a bot which would log all of your buddies’ away messages. The service became a casualty of AOL’s (now largely remedied) closed IM platform., but today, AOL itself even provides some views of this kind of IM status data on the AIM site.

That sort of platform or media flexibility pays dividends; I still never use Twitter via SMS, only via IM and the web, but it works seamlessly for me and all my friends who are on SMS. I wouldn’t have become a user if the technology had limited me to texting on my phone. That’s part of the measure of Twitter’s success: An unexpected use.

And I think we’ll see more of that kind of unanticipated creativity going forward. Already, lots of people on my friends list are using “@username” to direct personal Twitter messages to one another — essentially sending individual IMs over a public medium to someone who might well be using IM on the other end. I wouldn’t have predicted that, and I bet it’s only a matter of time until Twitter lets you convert @username messages into its own D USERNAME syntax.

If I hadn’t liked Twitter:

  • Wither Twitter?
  • Reconsider Twitter
  • I’m a Twitter quitter
  • Twitter, Please.

And this highlights a key point — good social media platforms are profoundly adaptive. The platform behind the technology was originally built for a different purpose. That’s true of many of the greatest social network applications; Just as Pyra begat Blogger and Game Neverending begat Flickr, a lot of the infrastructure for Odeo helped create Twitter.

Finally, Twitter seems like it’s a product borne of passion, and I can see all day every day it’s made by a team that actually uses the service extensively. That’s important, and helped inspire some of my fondness for the service. It definitely helped me overcome my initial skepticism. Fortunately, I had the chance to tell Ev and some of members of his team in person that their site is one of the few new services to come along that actually feels new.

And of course, as we’ve progressed from updating entire web pages to just updating blog posts to now entering one-line updates on Twitter, the only logical next step is for us to move on to just updating emoticons. 🙂

Some related posts:

In this case I’m referring back to wanting meaningful technology because I know the criticism of Twitter is “I don’t need more random messages popping up on my phone.” But I use Twitter like I use Vox, to keep track of friends and family whom I can’t check in with constantly, to give me a sense of shared placed with people who are geographically distant. And that’s something I alluded to in my earlier post:

[T]he most important things are the things that we arrogantly want to dismiss as trivia. In every aspect of life, the most profound things are so common that if they don’t affect someone you love or care about, they can seem meaningless.
What I’d like to see is technology being used in service of helping me share and record those moments. And I’d like to see technology be used to help create those moments.

Still sounds like a good goal to me.