What is the Purpose of Twitter?

Twitter: Love it or Hate it?
Twitter: Love it or Hate it?

A friend of mine and I have had a running argument on this blog and on Facebook for a while now, regarding whether Twitter and other microblog sites are actually useful. His words were something along the lines of “high noise to signal ratio”.

I started with all the usual rehashed arguments again, before realizing that he possibly has a strong case that bears investigation.

Bear with me for a second.

I still think Twitter is incredibly useful – what I am realizing is that it has specific utility for specific people.

If you look at websites like Facebook and MySpace, their audience is on the order of magnitude of one hundred million people. Sites like Yahoo might even have a billion regular users. I’m not talking power users – that’s probably only a fraction of the overall total – what I am saying though it that those sites have a broad, overarching purpose to the general public. Give it enough time and everyone on the planet will have a Facebook account.

If you compare this to Twitter – with supposedly 10 million users (yes, I know, it is new and growing fast) – you see one, possibly two orders of magnitude difference in user base.

I have a number of theories why that is, but basically it indicates that the concept of microblogging is taking a very strong hold within a very specific segment of the market.

It also – based on my friend’s reaction – has a long way to go before it gains wide market acceptance.

The utility of a site like LinkedIn is immediately obvious to most people. You post up your resume, and then you do the same kind of networking activity that you might otherwise do at a BNI meeting.

Same goes for Facebook – you probably don’t have enough time to spend with friends, but you still want to see what is going on in their world.

When a newbie first logs into Twitter, chances are that what they see is a neverending stream of disjointed partial conversations, the vast majority of which are utterly incomprehensible to somebody not part of the original conversation. Its like having your head thrust into a gigantic undertow inducing stream of inside jokes and non sequiturs.

So why the disparity between my position that the website is so useful, and his that it is a not particularly funny, running gag-line? Is it just a matter of Twitter having a steep learning curve?

I’m not so sure.

What I suspect is that there is something deeper, and possibly more interesting going on. The usefulness of Twitter is actually highly, specifically targeted at a few core audiences. I don’t have a complete list, but they probably include:

  • Marketers – whether offline (ad people, cool hunters etc) or online (SEO types), Twitter is THE place to catch the most current memes in circulation. If you want to know what the world is thinking right now, this is how you find out. I frequently am alerted to breaking news via Twitter seconds, minutes, even hours before anyone else gets it.
  • Small business owners – a large chunk of the conversations that I personally engage in with other Twitter users basically amount to an exchange of experience or news or technical information that used to be the domain of card exchanges. Yes, you can get a better feel for the big picture of what somebody is about on LinkedIn. For pure immediacy though, this is the closest you’re going to get to actually pressing the flesh with a bunch of similarly-minded individuals. SMS doesn’t cut it – how would you find people like that in the first place. Its easy on Twitter, particularly if you use some of the other websites in its ecosystem.
  • Not-for-profits and social activists – I have more than a little suspicion that heavy Twitter usage played a part in the phenomenon that carried Mr Obama to the White House. The ability for information to quickly disseminate from a broadcaster to a large number of followers – through a process similar to broken telephone – without losing the sense that it is a personal conversation, is unrivalled elsewhere. You can’t get that with television. Yahoo news? Never. A room full of people can only fit a few hundred or maybe thousand people, and you can’t ever talk to all of them. With Twitter, by the time a strong message has been “retweeted” to all ten million users, they’re all actively taking part in that conversation. And those ten million users are influential. For politics or chariities, or anyone trying to change the world, Twitter matters.
  • Bored people. Yes, my friend has a point. There are a large number of people tweeting inanities for every person who has something useful and interesting to say. But if it makes them happy, what the heck is wrong with that?

Got some other ideas about what is happening here? Please let me know!

5 responses on “What is the Purpose of Twitter?

  1. sol

    Response:

    You have a valid point w.r.t. the specific groups you name. I’d be wary of marketers who rely TOO heavily on Twitter to feel the pulse of memes in the blahgosphere (I feel sick just for thinking that phrase, and deleting it won’t help at all – so I’ll leave it in ๐Ÿ˜‰ will only catch the memes that other twits are Twittering about – it ignores the vast segment of the population not connected at all. It would be like concluding that more computer users prefer Linux over Windows by taking a poll of just slashdot users. Do the things going on in Twitter really reflect what is going on in the rest of the world? Or just the subset of the world inhabited by the twits?

    Social Activism is an interesting one. I have heard about police confiscating (and destroying) camera phones at protests and such [Needs references – too tired, find them yourself;)]. It would be interesting to post a live message and photo of police brutality to the world. See them try to supress that! ๐Ÿ˜‰ …And they probably would try, but not after the pictures/videos of it got out. You’d have to host the server somewhere out of the trouble spots though. And eventually, police would include jamming devices in their anti-riot gear and the cat and mice would continue to chase each other…

    Ultimately, I don’t think Twitter will grow too much futher beyond its market segment. I don’t think it offers enough utility to enough people to really take over the world. Yet. People may have said the same about telegraphs and telephones and fax and email, but I’m just skeptical that Twitter is really that revolutionary.

    1. admin Post author

      They look ok to me now. ๐Ÿ™‚

      There is a fairly obvious selection bias involved with Twitter, as you point out.

      I think my point addresses that though – the people who are involved with Twitter fill a similar niche to the LinkedIn Open Networkers on that site – they tend to be more influential than the average person, more in obsessed with what is going on in the world, more likely to rebroadcast any information that interests them, and also more likely to try and persuade other people of their viewpoint. In other words they’re essentially a small group of movers and shakers (look up Guy Kawasaki if you aren’t familiar with him) with a lot of clout outside of the internet.

      The camera phone thing is interesting though: Twitter isn’t really designed for broadcasting images, although some of its competitors are. I’m fairly sure that images on Flickr are safe from a legal standpoint (there are only a few things that won’t fly in the US), and anyhow there’s always the Wayback Machine to silence the heavy handed censor. I know for a fact that the camera phone to internet broadcast has played a big role in forcing political cleanups in Eastern Europe and other places. Its pretty hard to stop a large crowd of people with tiny cameras from getting at least some footage out.

      I agree with you regarding the size of the niche for Twitter. They’ll definitely get bigger than they currently are – most of their growth has been in the past 4 or 5 months, and it appear to be accelerating. They’ll lose a bit of the cool factor once they get larger, and I think that they’ll eventually level out at maybe 2 to 3 times their current size.

  2. admin

    They look ok to me now. ๐Ÿ™‚

    There is a fairly obvious selection bias involved with Twitter, as you point out.

    I think my point addresses that though – the people who are involved with Twitter fill a similar niche to the LinkedIn Open Networkers on that site – they tend to be more influential than the average person, more in obsessed with what is going on in the world, more likely to rebroadcast any information that interests them, and also more likely to try and persuade other people of their viewpoint. In other words they're essentially a small group of movers and shakers (look up Guy Kawasaki if you aren't familiar with him) with a lot of clout outside of the internet.

    The camera phone thing is interesting though: Twitter isn't really designed for broadcasting images, although some of its competitors are. I'm fairly sure that images on Flickr are safe from a legal standpoint (there are only a few things that won't fly in the US), and anyhow there's always the Wayback Machine to silence the heavy handed censor. I know for a fact that the camera phone to internet broadcast has played a big role in forcing political cleanups in Eastern Europe and other places. Its pretty hard to stop a large crowd of people with tiny cameras from getting at least some footage out.

    I agree with you regarding the size of the niche for Twitter. They'll definitely get bigger than they currently are – most of their growth has been in the past 4 or 5 months, and it appear to be accelerating. They'll lose a bit of the cool factor once they get larger, and I think that they'll eventually level out at maybe 2 to 3 times their current size.