All Atwitter

Stephen DeAngelis

March 18, 2009

Anyone with any interest in technology, connectivity, Web 2.0, and similar topics has at least heard of Twitter, a microblogging service that has become the rage for teenagers and young adults. It was even used by the Obama presidential campaign (although the President hasn’t tweeted since taking the oath of office). Users can send up to 140 characters of text to let anyone interested know exactly what they are doing at any given moment. If asked about Twitter before it was released, I probably would have said that such a tool was unnecessary and wouldn’t catch on. Of course, I would have been wrong. Twitter has started to change some people’s lives in the same ways that Google and Facebook did. I’m not alone when it comes having doubts about the popularity of Twitter [“The Tedium Is the Message,” by Jeanne McManus, Washington Post, 3 February 2009]. McManus writes:

“If I can’t stand reading about the banalities of my own daily life, why would anyone else want to? And yet the air is filled with blogging, social-network chitchat and, even worse, Twittering. In bursts of 140 characters or less, armed with nothing more than an electronic device, I can Twitter. I can provide to you, in staccato pulse, a real-time, first-person narration on an incredibly important topic: What I’m Doing Now. Is it just me or isn’t it a bit presumptuous to think that if I’m scrambling an egg, you’ll want to know about it?”

McManus laments that maybe if she had more celebrity, she would think differently. She points to the “handsome and charismatic U.S. senator from Virginia,” Mark Warner, who tweets his interested constituents about his daily activities. For the most part, however, McManus believes that “technology — computers, cellphones, PDAs — has given us the tools to overcommunicate a lot of uninteresting stuff. Just because we have these tools, do we need to yammer and hammer unrelentingly?” New York Times‘ columnist David Pogue provides a different perspective on Twitter [“Twitter? It’s What You Make It,” 11 February 2009]. Pogue writes that his readers had encouraged him to check Twitter out, but he had resisted. “I’d been avoiding it,” he writes, “because it sounded like yet another one of those trendy Internet time drains. E-mail, blogs, chat, RSS, Facebook. … Who has time to tune in to yet another stream of Internet chatter?” Pogue’s first impression of Twitter was that it was another way for the Network Generation to stroke its own ego (“Your profile displays how many followers you have, as if it’s some kind of worthiness tally”). Pogue changed his mind about the value of Twitter when he saw it put to an unusual use. He writes:

“One day, I saw Twitter in action. I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)”

I’ve always insisted that people never know how a particular technology can change people’s lives until they actually put it into their hands. Even the inventors of particular technologies cannot imagine how their ideas will be used by others — for good or ill. Pogue signed up for Twitter but indicates he had a difficult time trying to understand all the rules and how it could best be used. He reports that he ran into Twitter snobs — self-appointed Twitter experts — and others, like him, who were still trying to figure out whether the tool could be useful. While still in this confused state, Pogue met Evan Williams, chief executive and co-founder of Twitter.

“I told him about all the rules, all the advice, all the ‘you’re not doing it right’ gripers. I told him that the technology was exciting, but that all the naysayers and rule-makers were dampening my enthusiasm. He shook his head apologetically — clearly, he’s heard all this before — and told me the truth about Twitter: that they’re all wrong. Or, put another way, that they’re all right. Twitter, in other words, is precisely what you want it to be. It can be a business tool, a teenage time-killer, a research assistant, a news source — whatever. There are no rules, or at least none that apply equally well to everyone.”

In the end, Pogue was ambivalent about the technology. It can be useful for some people and for others it’s not. He concludes: “When you’re trying to get real work done, it’s also O.K. to close Twitter. It may be powerful, useful, addictive and fascinating — but in the end, it’s still an Internet time drain.” If you want to know whether Twitter is here to stay, consider the fact that a new vocabulary has started to emerge within the Twitter community. A Twitter message, for example, is called a Tweet. Another indication that Twitter may be around for a while is that businesses and governments have started to use the system [“Firms Take to The Tweetable Business Model,” by Kim Hart, Washington Post, 9 March 2009]. Hart reports that “some companies are realizing that a more effective use of Twitter is to mine it for clients, recruit employees and answer customer service questions.” Hart goes on to write:

“Twitter is an easy way to create buzz for a new product launch or to alert customers to a service outage. Earlier this week, the Skittles Web site directed visitors to a Twitter search for the term ‘skittle’ to see what people were saying about the candy. Attendees at conferences and other business-related gatherings already use the service to relate details on an unusually interesting session or to share news announcements. … Fairfax County government is also experimenting with Twitter, sending out announcements about snow-induced school closings and county board meetings.”

The most interesting use of Twitter I’ve read about involves the head of a non-profit group who has used Twitter and other social media to help him win money from contests so that his organization can remain afloat [“Value Added: The Nonprofit Entrepreneur,” by Thomas Heath, Washington Post, 15 March 2009]. Heath tells how Scott Beale used Twitter, Facebook, Craigslist and a number of other Web sites to win money from online contests to fund his startup.

“Beale has entered and won a series of online contests such as AOL mogul Steve Case’s America’s Giving Challenge and IdeaBlob, which brought in more than $100,000 last year. The goal of the contests varies, but typically involves amassing the most donations of a certain size or encouraging people to register at a specific site. To win, Beale contacts old friends from Georgetown and elsewhere, asking them to become captains and contact other friends. The viral network is just like political bundling, where every person you contact in turn contacts five others, and they contact five others, et cetera. To beat the big colleges at the contests, Beale timed his big push for the Christmas break, when students were home relaxing.”

I’m still not very interested in reading about the daily activities of other people’s lives (and I don’t think they should be too interested in mine either). I do see, however, how Twitter could be a useful customer relations tool and an important component of a public warning system (like on a college campus). I’m sure that as more people and companies experiment with the technology they will find other uses as well. Still I’m unlikely to get all atwitter over using it for following the mundane activities of other peoples’ lives.