What Twitter is

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On Twitter (where else?) today, I’ve added a few tweets to the teacup tempest taking place over whether or not Google is buying Twitter. (More on that topic in a minute.)

As I have close friends who have no idea what Twitter is and other close friends who are passionate in their beliefs that Twitter’s hegemony should be stopped before it dominates the world, I find myself in a rather odd place of trying to interpret what Twitter is to people who know more than me, and those who know less. No lie, I once spent 45 minutes in a cab trying to explain Twitter to a member of the Federal Communications Commission. And failed. Today, I spent 30 minutes visiting with a business owner friend of mine who started asking about Twitter and, while my explanation has now been honed by hundreds of attempts, I still fear I was a little foggy.

Such experiences have led me to write that Twitter is inexplicable if you attempt to understand (or explain) what it is. Rather, Twitter is something that must be understood or explained by what you can do with it. And because it is impossible for any two people to use Twitter in exactly the same way (if this were a longer post, I’d explain the reason in existential — or if I were smart enough, algebraic — terms), Twitter explanations tend to make it sound ridiculously inane (You tell people what you’re doing) or unbelievably hyped (It’s the most important marketing tool since smoke signals).

But today, among people who actually use Twitter, the possibility of it being purchased by Google led to some interesting observations that I think require me to once more explain what I think Twitter is. What it really is.

First, what Twitter isn’t: It’s not technology. On Twitter today, someone “replied” to me that Google would never purchase Twitter because they didn’t need its technology.

I agree 100% with the “not needing the technology” part, however, Twitter has never been about technology. Its technology sucked for most of its first two years. But don’t take my word on this argument. I’ll point you to a quote from Fred Wilson, the venture capitalist whose firm was the first outside investor in Twitter. Back in January, Fred wrote (in the post linked above), “Twitter has never been about technology….Twitter, like all social media, is about the people who use it.”

Twitter is people. It’s the sum of everything put into it by everyone with an account. Not only that, it’s the sum of everything put into it, along with a means to extrapolate the potential relative authority of each “data point” added to it. You add potential value to it by who you choose to follow.

And that leads me back to Google.

I have no idea whether or not Google will buy Twitter. But I do know this. If it does, it won’t be to serve up ads on people’s Twitter user pages or because they can make money from aggregating tweets and putting them into banner ads.

Twitter is the closest thing there is to being able to peer real time into the collective stream of consciousness of tens of millions of people. For fun or work, all day long, these millions make observations and — the golden goose potentially for Google — they point to web content they find interesting.

Those links, when parsed and crunched and “algorithimed” by Google’s page rank pigeons, could make its search results even more accurate and more timely.

And the competitive advantage would be, anybody? anybody?

Us.

We are Twitter. We are the “turks” (as in The Turk) that power Twitter. As long as Twitter provides me with a service I can’t match elsewhere (i.e., a platform that has millions of people who are already using it who can one-click “follow” me) and treats me right (i.e., doesn’t try to “monetize” me in a way that treats me as little more than a spam target), then I have little incentive to leave. And as long as I’m there, along with all the inanity I contribute to Twitter, I’ll still keep being a turk for someone, perhaps Google, to use in narrowing their search results.

About Rex Hammock

Founder/ceo of Hammock Inc., the customer media and content company based in Nashville, Tenn. Creator of and head-helper at SmallBusiness.com.
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  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ Aaron Pressman

    Great post. I have had the same experience. It reminds a little bit of a time 10 or 15 years ago when I used to try to explain the Internet to people who only knew about email and AOL.

  • http://rexblog.com Rex Hammock

    Thanks, Aaron. But I’m not sure I know what you mean when you say AOL? Explain please. ; )

  • http://asserttrue.blogspot.com/ Kas Thomas

    What perplexes me is that people who have yet to fully grok Twitter quite often have a strongly negative emotional reaction to it and bristle at the mere mention of the name. That’s the worst kind of ignorance, IMHO: condemning something you don’t understand. I suppose it’s possible some of those who don’t understand Twitter don’t *know* that they don’t understand it. They *think* they understand it. But still.

  • http://RexBlog.com Rex Hammock

    @Kas – I think everyone, upon first using Twitter, has a stong emotional reaction against it. They don’t like to admit using it not until they hit upon a usage they can describe with a methphor that sounds more important than goofing off.

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