Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Finally, my thoughts on Twitter.

I'm not in love with Twitter, but I've been thinking about it a lot over the last few days. Why? Because, unlike some critics, I think there's a big difference between the prevalent use of Twitter ("I'm waking up now!" "I'm having breakfast!") and the potential uses for this sort of medium. That is, I see Twitter and similar services as a medium rather than a genre; it's a launching point for possible new and hybrid genres.

Because of that, I'm not terribly worried that Twitter use is seeing a precipitous drop in the UK and a leveling after the SXSWi peak. There's plenty of room for stabilization and diversification of use:
From this totally ad hoc and uncontrolled experiment - and this is not a criticism of Twitter - it appears that relatively speaking, Twitter is more a channel for annotating one's daily activities than it is to express opinions (at least, if we take politics as an example of a space in which people could express opinion). That is going to change. There are a number of institutions which are starting to use Twitter to channel hooks to their content - e.g. news sites either by themselves or via some third party mashing are starting to publish content to Twitter. This will likely impact the topical space of Twitter content.
Certainly we're seeing applications in lifestreaming, auto-event notification, and professional work as well as more mundane uses. I agree with Peter Merholtz that those uses could be radically expanded if Twitter were to include event handling (think conferences) as well as differential permissions. One of the reasons it was such a big hit at SXSWi was that conferencegoers could silently share messages with each other. Those messages were occasionally egocentric, but more often contributed to a larger understanding of the conference. If you have Twitter sending texts to your phone, or you're monitoring it on your laptop, you find out what's going on in the other conference sessions as they happen -- what's interesting, what's lame. You also find out when and where freebies are being passed out, if you're into that sort of thing. (I have enough T-shirts, so I passed on that.)

The killer app for Twitter at conferences, though, was in the evening. Whose party is currently heating up, and whose is cooling down? Does the Lifehacker party really have an open bar? (Yes.) Does the PayPal party require preregistration like they said? (Yes, but they are currently bending the rules.)

Keeping all this in mind, here's a quick set of uses for Twitter or similar services. If you're at Twitter, think hard about these; if you're not, think about creating a similar service that meshes SMS, IM, and WWW.

Private (cohort) uses:
  • Collaborative time logging. See what's going on with others working on the same project. Could contribute to overall awareness in a more fine-grained way than Basecamp or other collaborative project management systems do.
  • Events management. So you're coordinating SIGDOC 2007 and you want to keep apprised of important occurrences while you're in a session? Put your phone on vibrate and enable Twitter.
  • Swarming. The WTO protests in Seattle were coordinated by cell phone. Similar street-level political action could be coordinated more effectively, and awareness could be more distributed, by something like Twitter.
Public uses:
  • Workstreaming. Not just for ego, but to communicate work and work habits to potential clients. Important especially for contractors and small businesses.
  • Clubbing, church, or other activities in which it's hard to coordinate due to noise and distance constraints.
  • Conference-going.

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