You didn’t get Twitter before Oprah didn’t get Twitter (nor did I)

I don’t get Twitter.

I don’t get Twitter despite being on Twitter for two years and five months and posting 4,304 updates and having about 3,000 people decide for some reason I don’t get to follow the random stuff I add to Twitter.

What’s especially frustrating to me about not getting Twitter is that one of my professional and personal passions is gaining an understanding of new media platforms and approaches by living in them — and not just visiting them. In other words, I do more than study things like Twitter, I immerse myself in them and ponder what they mean and where they fit in people’s lives. A part of what I do for clients and others is to understand things like Twitter, so I can help them understand them. Translation: I get paid to get Twitter.

But I don’t get Twitter.

Because if I got Twitter, I would understand why lots of people who use it — even many of those to whom I look for help in understanding things like Twitter — are insisting that somehow a line of demarcation exists between those who started using Twitter before Oprah did last Friday and those who have started using it since then.

Sure, sure, I understand that @Oprah is being used symbolically as the mainstreaming of what used to be a fun geeks-only sandbox. Hey, I was there back in the day. But Twitter stopped being a geek sandbox the first day someone with a marketing job signed on and wrote a blog post with a title like, “Five ways to build your brand on Twitter.”

And sure, sure, Oprah endorsing anything means that millions of real people follow along — just ask President Obama.

Back to Oprah in a minute, but first let me explain why the whole “getting Twitter” is so difficult for me.

The reason I don’t get Twitter is this: Twitter is nothing but a blank box into which you type up to 140 characters. You then hit a button and those characters feed out to anyone who wants to receive them. That’s all Twitter is. Everything else is what you do with Twitter. But it’s not Twitter.

OK. Let me attempt to explain this another way.

You know those iPhone commercials that carpet-bomb TV all day and night — the ones that say, “There’s an app for that.”? Those commercials do not explain what an iPhone is. They explain what you can do with an iPhone. And 99% of the time, they are using an “app” created by a company other than Apple as an example of what you can do with an iPhone,.

Other mobile phone companies historically have tried to sell phones based on calling plans or coverage area or price. But Apple just runs the commercials over and over that say, “Do you want to do this? Then there’s an app for that.”

Now, let’s apply that idea to Twitter.

When I hear people say that other people don’t get Twitter, inevitably they are referring to how they understand how they use Twitter but the other person doesn’t perceive Twitter in the same way. To me, that’s like trying to say someone who uses the iPhone to talk on the phone doesn’t get the iPhone because they haven’t figured out yet how to do their banking on it.

To carry this metaphor a little further: If I want to keep up with the best deal Amazon is offering today on MP3s, there’s a way to use Twitter to do that. If I want to keep up with the latest news headlines from the New York Times, there’s a way to use Twitter to do that. If I want to discuss stocks with day-traders, there’s a way to use Twitter to do that. If I want to follow people who are discussing Twitter to discuss the NFL draft, there’s a way to do that. (There’s a way to use Twitter to do just about everything.)

However, if I start trying to define what Twitter is or isn’t, not what you can do with Twitter, I fail. It’s like when you start thinking there’s an iPhone app for just about everthing, and then a new one comes along that does something different or better or cooler so you have to rethink what iPhone apps can be or do — That’s the problem with “getting” Twitter. Everyday, someone comes up with another way to use it and you have to rethink what it means to get it.

About six months ago, celebrities started discovering how they could use Twitter to do an end-run around their publicists and handlers and the tabloids and the paparazzi and beam out messages directly to anyone wanting to receive them. To me, that’s about as obvious a use of Twitter as celebrities discovering they can use an iPhone to call up their friends. So, duh, celebrities are now flocking onto Twitter and using it in a different way than I do.

See, I love Twitter because I view it as a conversational tool. I find the back-and-forth and the interaction informative and enriching. I used to think if you understood that about Twitter then you got it. But then I recalled I like getting updates from Amazon about MP3 deals — but I never reply to robots.

Back to Oprah.

I think Oprah will one day get Twitter as much as anyone does. Sure, I’d like for her to get it the conversational way and maybe she will — because Oprah is Oprah — and Oprha has, more than anyone in history perhaps, mastered the power of conversational media. Her talent has always been the ability to project genuine empathy for her audience and to let them talk — as much as being talked to. She is like a great teacher who doesn’t just lecture, but helps her audience learn by taking them along a conversational journey and letting them share their own versions and insights. She has mastered the art of making the audience feel special, of allowing them to win and take home special stuff. She has mastered the art of admitting failure and apologizing when she’s wrong. Sure, she heads up an amazing industrial-strength hype complex, but there is no way someone can sustain the longevity of success she has enjoyed without being the real deal.

It doesn’t really matter if she gets Twitter like me. That’s because she will immediately get Twitter in her way — and that will be a way that turns it into a means to promote positive causes to a massive number of followers. It’s not how I get Twitter, but it will be a better understanding of Twitter than those who are trying to prove they get it simply by saying they’ve been using it longer than @Oprah.

[Note #1: I fear this post suggests I believe Twitter can do no wrong. However, if you think I think that, you don’t get it. I’ll blog another day about the reasons it bothers me that Twitter is owned by a private company and is not an Internet “protocal” or standard.” I start getting concerned when things that are owned by private companies become “too big to fail.”]

[Note #2: This is not the first, nor last, time I have, or will, blog about my inability to understand Twitter: I’ve covered this theme on 4/3/2009, 1/16/2009 and February 3, 2008.]

  • The great thing about Twitter is it is difficult to define. Each person makes it something unique by following different people, engaging in different conversations, etc.. Your experience will always be different than mine.

    I do agree, though, that Twitter has essentially crossed the chasm into the mainstream. Once Oprah endorses anything, it happens. I wrote about this on my blog, feel free to check it out and let me know your thoughts:

    John F Moore

  • I think the reason Twitter is difficult to “get” is because people are looking for *a* thing about Twitter to get when in fact, Twitter is an enabler of *many* things. So, if there is one thing to get about Twitter you should get its that Twitter is a *platform* on which *many* things have been, are being, and will be built.

    I wrote about that idea here:

    F. Andy Seidl

  • Two things:

    (1) like yourself, I have been on Twitter for a while (since 2007) and I got it, but for the most part, I am as geeky as it gets in the people I cared about, so it failed. Then in 2008, celebrities started using Twitter and for the obvious reasons you explained started promoting their twitter feeds all over the place. What is great about celebrities and now “The Queen of Turning Things into Gold Oprah” being on Twitter is that the laggards and non-techy people of the world are going to check it out and give it a bigger shot than if Oprah wasn’t on Twitter. And like the App Store on the iPhone, we are going to have thousands of new Twitter feeds that we didn’t have before to make our experience that much better. People who don’t care about new media will now offer us more techy people (who love Twitter) new feeds that otherwise never would have came about if Oprah didn’t join Twitter.

    (2) you can’t compare Twitter to AIG (“on your too big to fail statement). I’m with you on a standard protocol for micro-blogging (and other non-email communications such as Facebook), but the small team that runs Twitter (and owns it) is not the scum of the earth. Because it is privatized, if something better comes along people will abandon it (i.e. Myspace) for something better, so it’s not all bad that they are private company. And if we are going to get on this subject of too big to fail in the tech world, let’s start with Google, not Twitter.

    Nice post!


  • Jeff Carroll

    There are plenty of social network aggregators (friendfeed, profilactic, plaxo, the Yahoo iPhone client, etc.) that relegate Twitter to the role of just another hosting service. Couple any of them with, and you have a single client interface for all. The big piece that is then missing is federated user discovery and browsing (unfortunately Twitter hosed the most natural cross-platform userid format by appropriating the @ prefix to designate their own userids).

    I predict that one of the aggregators will acquire or clone, and then set about solving the discovery problem.

  • @Tyler – Nor would I ever try to compare Twitter to AIG in the “scum” of the earth category. As a matter of fact, I think there are tens of thousands of employees of AIG who are wonderful. I love Twitter and I’m sure I’d like everyone who works there. And there are investors who I like also. Dominant players who have, in effect, a leveragable market share of anything — like Google — all concern me.

  • Twitter is the ultimate shortcut.

  • Tinu

    These are the kind of posts that keep bringing me back here year after year, Rex. And this time, via a RT on Twitter. 🙂

  • Mark QUinn

    Very good post. I found it via a RT on Twitter or never would have seen it. I agree with you 100%

  • himagain

    I don’t get Twitter either – in a human development sense, that is……….
    Have humans degenerated/been degenerated to such an extent that this thing exists?
    I recall being at a public library some years ago – where I was delivering introductions to the Internet as a research tool – the free-2-use computers were lined up either side of a long table.

    Down one side were a dozen or more schoolgirls clustered around the 4 computers and on the other, a similar number of young schoolboys.
    They were all having such fun I walked around the table to discover that they were all text messaging VERY suggestive messages…… possibly to each other.

    The point was that here was a number of the opposite sex PHYSICALLY available and they were all doing the forerunner of today’s primary activity: text messaging……. to no one known to them in reality.

    Twitter is simply a desperate – and for the most part a forlorn hope to gain attention in a non-human world.
    Hmmnnn…….. like I’m doing right now????

  • @Tinu – That’s very kind of you to say. Thanks.

  • @himagain – I think you’re helping me prove my point. Everyone sees Twitter differently and when you see it differently from me, I don’t think you get it. And when I see it differently from you, you don’t think I get it.

  • Rex —

    What a great post. I’ve heard a bunch of complaining about “Oprah doing it wrong” since she entered the picture. But I have the same question as you. How can someone do something wrong that is personally defined by them? Sure there are “norms” in every community, but each person’s experience is and will be different based on the reason they are on twitter. Being an observer of people, I find it very interesting the unique ways people have set up their twitter experience. It’s fun to listen, watch and participate. Looking forward to more insightful posts on this topic.