Category Archives: Thoughts on Twitter

Opinions and commentary about Twitter.

The Oreo tweet: The double-stuff you can’t do by committee is king

A few seconds after I saw the Super Bowl power outage “Oreo Tweet” last night, this is what I tweeted (note: the time-stamp is GMT). Below it, you’ll find my “Monday morning” 5:30 a.m. thoughts:


Monday morning, 5:30 a.m.:

I’m not a fan of long explanations of the self-evident, but I know there will be so much mis-interpretation of why “the Oreo tweet” was brilliant, I wanted to weigh in before the SEO folks (Huffington Post) start their “10 lessons you can learn from the Oreo tweet” re-hash.

So, here are my two take-aways for “professional marketing” use of Twitter. (Note: There are countless ways to use Twitter, and far more important ways, than mere marketing.)

1. Content isn’t king. Brilliant, creative content is king.

Twitter is something you’ll never understand until you stop listening to what gurus and experts tell you it is and use it yourself for a few years. (See.) Only then will you understand Twitter beyond buzzwords like “engagement” and “conversational.” You’ll comprehend it at a visceral level — as a Heraclitean river that always looks the same, but is never the same. You’ll know how its impact comes from knowing the role of professional users of Twitter: marketers, media-types, tech-savvy, pop-culture hipsters — the tipping point “influencers” — the types who have large numbers of followers (connectors) who, in turn, have large numbers of followers. Twitter’s brilliance is like the brilliance of fireflies in a Mason jar, however. It lasts a nano-second. And for marketers, it requires the type of courage you rarely find at a company the size of Nabisco: It must be done with no corporate safety net other than telling the wittiest, smartest, fastest, craziest creative people you can hire that the only rules are don’t be stupid, never use a Hitler reference, and don’t get the company sued or me fired — and get out of the way.

2. Like blogging before it, Twitter rewards instantaneous, improvisational creativity — and courage. I wrote about the role of improvisation in blogging in 2006 (it’s more important than grammar). Here’s some of what I wrote then:

“While integrity, honesty, ethical standards of journalism, etc., can still govern the practice of blogging, the “process” of institutional editing and legal compliance and corporate communications, et al, all conspire against someones ability to extemporize or be courageous. Like independent film and music, independent blogging will likely always be the most compelling….It’s like jazz.”

It will be hard for those who read about the Oreo tweet later to understand why it was “brilliant” — however, if you experienced it live and you are a long-time “professional” user of, and student of, Twitter and the social media that came before it, you witnessed it in the same way a jazz musician who hears someone insert an amazing lick into a jazz standard understands that the lick will change the song forever.


Linkage: Buzzfeed – “How Oreo got that Twitter ad up so fast” Quote: “The key? Having OREO executives in the room, and ready to pull the trigger. ‘You need a brave brand to approve content that quickly. When all of the stakeholders come together so quickly, you’ve got magic,’”

Why the death of a celebrity lights up Twitter

I used to blame the vacuous nature of a pop-culture-obsessed society for why we all seem so pre-occupied with the death of celebrities. But when Michael Jackson died, even I felt a little saddened — and frankly, the guy creeped me out.

I thought about it and determined that Jackson’s era roughly matched up with my teenage years through the day he died, so what I decided I was feeling was a little mourning for my life’s playlist.

I guess that’s why, when I tweeted a similar feeling about Whitney Houston earlier this evening, so many people re-tweeted it (25+ within a few moments of it being posted). Her family and personal friends are probably the only ones who actually lost Whitney. But with her death, I lost a little piece of me.

I really, really hope she finds peace on the other side.

 

Thoughts on Twitter #10: Why we all view Twitter differently

thots on twitter logo[Part of the RexBlog "Thoughts on Twitter" series.]

(Note: This is adapted from a segment of a recent project that included an explanation of how Twitter is not just what one sees on the Twitter.com website. For many readers of this blog, it is “old ground.” I thought others might find something in it of use. Later: And it’s especially timely as the official launch today of Google Realtime adds yet another major example of how people can view Twitter content without ever visiting the website, Twitter.com. For an excellent overview of Google Realtime, see (as always with Google feature launches like this) the explanation by Danny Sullivan.)

As I (and others) have said, the reason no one gets Twitter is because each user’s experience with Twitter is unique. If you follow more than a dozen or so Twitter accounts, the chances of you and another Twitter user being part of all the same Twitter conversations and observers of the same information stream becomes statistically improbable. Add to that, the Heraclitean nature of the ever-flowing stream (or, river) of tweets and you’ll realize that even as individuals, we can never step twice into the same experience with Twitter.

Another way we each experience Twitter uniquely (from one-another, and as individuals at different times) is the  ability for users (and publishers and developers) to easily  syndicate (or, subscribe to) content appearing on Twitter and then, “re-display” that content in near endless ways.

The creators of Twitter were wise enough to understand a few fundamental laws of the web (some of which are still confusing to those who bring legacy media logic and conventional business rationale to the internet).

From Day 1, they accepted as indisputable truths the following:

  • Those who use a service like Twitter aren’t creating content for a company. They are communicating with one another.
  • It’s extremely rare, not impossible, but rare, for a a pure-play Internet company to achieve a $1 billion if the strategy is limited to one URL. (In other words, “Twitter” has never been just about http://twitter.com.”)
  • Never explain what your service is or does or how you’ll make money. It’s weird, but those who are important at different stages of the development of something like Twitter, will know the answers to those questions by the time the product hits their radar. New Internet things are like jokes, if you have to explain it, there’s something wrong with the person you’ve told the joke to.

As I have used the telephone as a metaphor in previous Thoughts on Twitter posts, let’s consider that again: individuals “own” the content of their telephone conversations and we really don’t care what kind of  equipment the person at the other end of the conversation is using. So it is with Twitter: We can initiate or receive tweets in countless ways (and, pushing forward the telephone metaphor,  Twitter wants to have a monopoly on the enabling infrastructure — oops, that’s another post for another day.)

So to recap what I just said: Twitter.com is a website, but there are millions of Twitter users who rarely, if ever, visit that website. If you are reading this on my blog, you can see a “widget” in the right-hand column that display my most recent “tweets” — so you are using Twitter, without actually visiting Twitter.com.

Viewing Twitter Content via a Twitter Client

Additionally, there are countless Twitter clients, computer software applications, web-applications and mobile “apps” that are created by companies and individuals independent from Twitter that allow users to post or read Twitter content. These clients are designed for special purposes and special types of use, and provide various ways for individuals to manage and display content from Twitter . Such clients can be dashboard-like (one example: Seesmic), simple iPhone apps (Twitterific) or category-bending new ideas like Flipboard. (And, literally, thousands more).

Twitter.com displayed with
PowerTwitter browser extension

One of the reasons Twitter is so gigantic is that Twitter’s creators granted the permission and provided the tools and methods for third-party developers to create such products — for free. (Some heavy-duty users of Twitter data have special relationships that enable them to have even more access.

Viewing Twitter.com in New Ways

One of the downsides of being such a third-party developer of applications that run “on-top”  of a product like Twitter (or, perhaps a more correct metaphor is “on bottom”) is the knowledge that Twitter will continuously add new features that “fill holes” in the service — so if your “product” is something that Twitter believes is merely a “missing feature,” your “product” is likely going to one day be redundant to something on Twitter, itself. For example, I am currently experimenting with a browser extension called Power Twitter that enables a layer of features that could one day be user options, or a part of the product. Currently, with the third-party extension activated, I can make Twitter.com appear like it is shown on the photo to the right. It embeds into the Twitter stream the photos and videos that are linked to by the people I follow. (This feature is a part of several Twitter “dashboard” clients, as well.) It also translates the truncated URLs that are character-saving tactics used by Twitter users into a full-description of what the linked-to content is. (On the downside, it probably collects a lot of data about how I use Twitter that I don’t mind, but may bother others — so for that reason, I don’t recommend you use it, unless you familiarize yourself with its terms of use.) In other words, the extension pulls in content to my personal display of Twitter.com on my computer desktop, making the site appear more like what one might expect to see on Facebook or certain RSS newsreaders.

To some people, that may be a good thing. To others, it may seem at odds with what they think Twitter is all about. But that’s what I mean when I say, we’ll never “get” Twitter:  Each person has an individual preference for how things should be sliced, diced and displayed — which, come to think of it, is also the only explanation I can think of for mullet haircuts.

Twitter is something you’ll never understand, so stop trying

[Note: I posted this in February, 2008, but it has continued to be one of this blog's most visited pages. Thanks.]

I’m sorry if you landed here thinking this was going to be a helpful explanation about what Twitter is. I’ve given up on attempting to explain Twitter. And chances are, if you’re someone who wants to understand something by reading about it instead of using it, then you’ll probably never understand it.

Twitter is really easy to explain: You set up an account so people can follow what you have to say via the web or instant messaging or via text-messaging on a mobile phone. Unfortunately, Twitter is apparently incredibly difficult to understand, because any time I explain it, the response is inevitably something like: “Uh, so why would you want people to do that — and why would they care?”

Unlike with some online phenomena, understanding Twitter is not a “generational” thing. Twitter is not one of those fads that caught on among kids that has worked its way up the age-chain. It’s more like Google, in that it started as a drop-dead simple solution to a problem no one knew they had — and has become an obsession with a sub-set of tech-geeks and people obsessed with the nature of online community and conversation (I confess).

My then 16-year-old son was with me last March at South by Southwest where Twitter first grabbed the attention of the geekorati. He observed the obsession’s ground-zero, but I’m sure he’d echo the quote from the daughter of this NY Times columnist, who says, “I’m looking at the site right now, and I don’t get the point.” Here’s my theory why teenagers don’t get the point: There’s a feature on Facebook called “status updates” that does everything a teenager would care to do with Twitter, so why bother? To high school and college students, Twitter is like Facebook without the dozens of other things they like about Facebook — except on Facebook, your parents can’t follow you if you don’t allow them to. (You can block someone on Twitter or opt to limit the visibility of your message to only those you follow, but the common practice is to allow anyone to become a follower — really, why not?)

I’d feel worse about my inability to convey to others any level of understanding of why Twitter is important but in comparison to some explanations I’ve seen and heard, I do a decent job. But, unfortunately, we all fail because we drift into explaining Twitter by telling how we use it. But the most amazing thing about Twitter is this: everyone uses it differently.

It’s a little like trying to explain the telephone by describing what people talk about on the phone. “Telephones are devices that teenagers use to spread gossip.” “Telephones are the devices people use to contact police when bad things happen.” “Telephones are the devices you use to call the 7-11 to ask if they have Prince Albert in a can.”

Like the Internet itself, Twitter is hard to explain because it doesn’t really have a point. And it has too many points. Here’s what I mean: All it does is provide a common-place to relay short messages to a group of people who agree to receive your messages. Here’s the second part of what i mean: When you stop thinking those short messages aren’t limited to “I’m about to get on the elevator” but can be eye-witness accounts of breaking news stories or bursts of business-critical intelligence, or warnings that a gun-man is loose on campus, or shared conversations about political debates you and your friends are watching on TV, the possibilities of what can be done using Twitter becomes amazingly confusing — I think in a good way. It’s easy to understand something when you think it’s limited to Prince Albert in a can prank calls. It’s more difficult to understand when you start imagining the ways something that’s today more toy than tool can be used to create new models of communication, conversation and community. It’s even more difficult to imagine that something called Twitter will morph into a serious business platform — or that it will one day save lives. But it will.

Technorati Tags:

Thoughts on Twitter #9: Twitter is getting too big to fail, and that’s a whale of a problem for all of us

thotsontwitter.jpg

[Part of the RexBlog "Thoughts on Twitter" series.]

Anyone who knows me “online” knows this: I’m a big fan of Twitter. At Hammock, the service has long-been a part of a standard set of content distribution, aggregation and conversational tools that play a part in nearly every content marketing project we develop or manage.

I personally use Twitter throughout the day and evening to point to fascinating, helpful or ridiculous things I run across from the news feeds I use to track the topics I follow for work or pleasure. Twitter is a place I use to attempt to balance a little humor to the more serious work I may be engaged in throughout the day.

Twitter, like the internet itself, has morphed from novelty toy to essential tool in just a few years. While the world was still giggling at its name, Twitter became integrated into the information infrastructure and flow of such activities as emergency and crisis response, running a business and investing. In other words, activities that are not just “fun,” but are “mission critical.”

twitter bird failing

Ironically, it’s what I’ve jokingly called, “the inability of anyone to understand Twitter” that has enabled the service to become so intertwined in so many important aspects of our lives and work. Twitter is so flexible and accessible and freely available and open for third-party development, that It has become, metaphorically speaking, an operating system for an entire form of media that we did not realize was so important until it appeared in the form of Twitter: A drop-dead simple means of distributing “from one person to many people” short messages that can be sent and received using any computer or mobile device.

Twitter has become the electricity powering entirely new forms of engines of communication, conversation, transaction and collaboration.

All of that is great. What I’m beginning to fear, however, is that Twitter, too, has also become the electricity grid through which all of this power must pass.

In other words, I believe Twitter (the service, not the company) is quickly assuming a role in our lives and work that is making it “too big to fail.” I am also moving to a belief that too many people, organizations and transactions depend on “the service” Twitter for this new form of communication — and that makes the network through which this communication must pass too important to be controlled by one company. Or, to put it another way, one company should not bear the responsibility for all that is being done via Twitter.

I don’t have this opinion because of any desire to see the demise of Twitter, the service or the company. I’m a capitalist and I would never advocate any sort of “socializing” of the Twitter service — or something like a forced “opening” of the Twitter service in a way that would provide the distribution of “tweets” without them ever hitting any Twitter servers.

That said, I feel sure, even if the underlying technology enabling the distribution of messages were “open-standards” the fortunes of the company, Twitter, would still flourish as it would be the primary beneficiary of having created the infrastructure. The company, too, would have an asset worth billions of dollars because of the number of “subscribers” who would choose to continue to have access to “the network” via Twitter. In other words, if Twitter, the company, only provided one of several means of access to Twitter, the service, then I believe it would still be a tremendously valuable and important company.

But I’m not ready to suggest that the “access” part of Twitter be separated from the “network” part of Twitter. Not yet. There is plenty of time to avoid that.

And I have to admit: I’m even shocked at these thoughts coming from me. Typically, I’d be in the gung-ho, “let the marketplace decide” camp when it comes to things like this. However, as I wrote on this blog in March, 2009, there are certain things I no longer believe in, the first being, “Anything too big to fail.” I said then:

“The whole ‘bigger is always better’ thing has now been exposed as a nice theory, but a failed reality. Why? Because all the algorithms and information technology and most brilliant programming in the world can’t overcome the bugs of greed, hubris and randomness that can best be summed up in the vernacular, ‘sh*t happens.’”

Arguably, Twitter is still a “little” company with very little revenues, so how could I be so ridiculous to suggest it is to big to fail? Well, I can’t. Now.

But I remember when e-mail was about where Twitter is. Back then, if you and I wanted to exchange e-mail, we both had to subscribe to the same service, something like CompuServe. But then, something bigger came along — an open network called the Internet, and the rest is history (including spam).

Today, despite spam, email is probably the most used, and ubiquitous one-to-one communications channel in our business and personal lives. And because the network is not limited to one provider, our email can move around the globe via an endless number of paths.

For the post email type of service that enables one-to-many short messages via computer or mobile device, Twitter is the only player who matters. And each day, as more and more new and existing services integrate Twitter messaging into their products, Twitter becomes even more entrenched into the molecular level of a unique form of communication that is so flexible, everyone who uses it can interpret it differently.

But those who have adopted it to help run their businesses or respond to emergencies have, from time to time, a wake up call about the downside of having just one dominant provider of such a mission-critical service.

Last week, the users of Twitter experienced what the company officially called, “incidences of poor site performance,” a euphemism for “Twitter didn’t work” — a seemingly familiar situation Twitter users have nicknamed “fail-whaling” after the whale and bird illustration that appears on the “over-capacity” page.

In reality, Twitter probably has a stellar “up-time” performance history compared to other major internet services. Indeed, its uptime stats demonstrate that, over the past year, the service is online an average of 99.74% of the time.

Yet, as active Twitter users know, the downtimes seem longer than a matter of an hour or two each month as they tend to hit during times of usage spikes — the very times when its importance is measured most.

1. It is time for people who are outside the tech-bubble (where such issues are actually debated already) to begin considering the need for redundancy or alternative solutions to the service provided by Twitter.

I have no desire to stop using Twitter. Indeed, I doubt I’d stop using Twitter, if given the option. However, the function it serves at critical times needs to start receiving the consideration we give to all voice and data tools and channels we use to run our businesses and protect our communities.

2. Twitter needs viable direct competition.

The marketplace — including consumers and users and even the company called Twitter — has a vested interest in having alternatives to Twitter. Competition and choice are good. And we (including the company, Twitter) should prefer to see competition or open-source or standards-based approaches challenge Twitter than to see the inevitable calls for regulations (or worse) when the “sh*t happens” that will cause Twitter to fail at a time of national or international emergency.

We need to learn about and support any open-source alternatives to Twitter like StatusNet, the platform that powers the service identi.ca and other similar services.

Or, perhaps there needs to be an open standard whereby a more explicit protocol for “twitter-like messaging” is agreed-upon that will be a part of the Internet Protocol Suite. (I apologize to the geeks who are going to read that sentence and feel the need to lecture me on the history, role and future of every protocol related to anything Twitter does — or that something already exists. Such may exist in theory or concept, but I’m actually talking here about (okay, let me put this in a metaphor) the way we can read because the electric lightbulb exists, not the “current wars” fought over AC and DC. More importantly, you’ve thought about this stuff. The people who read this blog haven’t.)

Some could, in response to many of the issues I’ve raised in this post, argue convincingly that other standards or protocols or formats like RSS, or service features like Facebook status updates or Google Buzz, or software platforms like Tumblr or Posterous are viable alternatives to Twitter. They may be, sorta. But for the core thing that Twitter does — what I’m talking about here — they aren’t.

Bottomline: Just like everything with Twitter, I fear we won’t know the consequences of placing all our eggs in the Twitter basket will be until they are crushed by the Moby Dick of fail whales.