Thoughts on Twitter

thots on twitter logo[Note: This is a chronological display of a collection of posts previously published on RexBlog.com]

Thoughts on Twitter #1: I surrender. Twitter is the only thing worth blogging about

On Twitter (where you can follow me: @R) I continuously mock the way in which media — especially the New York Times — seem obsessed with running Twitter-related stories every day. As I’ve said before, “I love Twitter, I just hate reading about Twitter.”

Because of this, I’ve tried very hard to throttle back posts about Twitter on this blog — and have failed.

So I give. Over the coming days, I’m going to be posting lots of thoughts on Twitter in a hope to purge myself of this need to explain things that I don’t believe need explaining — nor can be explained.

If you don’t want to read any more about Twitter, well, neither do I. But I’ve got to off-load some of these thoughts — for therapy, if nothing else.


Thoughts on Twitter #2: Twitter means never having to say you get it

I am always intrigued by how people — even those who have never used Twitter before — describe what they think it is. In some ways, it sounds like a blind person trying to describe the color blue. But in other ways, it’s like a sighted person trying to describe the color blue. It’s just not something blind or sighted people need to do — blue is blue. It’s light blue or dark blue or the blue of a crisp spring-day afternoon or the blue of a tempest-tossed sea. Blue is best described in metaphors — not in scientific formulas that measure the refraction of light or in PMS numbers.

Twitter’s that way. The more you try to describe it, the more you realize you’re getting more and more bogged down in metaphors and dependent on ways that describe what you can use Twitter to do — not what Twitter is. That, or you get bogged down in a technical argument about protocols or identity or business models.

As I have said and will say over-and-over until I get it right, nothing you ever hear people say about Twitter should surprise you anymore. If you hear someone say school systems should drop math requirements in order to require children to take courses on how to use Twitter, don’t be surprised. If tomorrow, you wake up and hear that everyone has decided to never use Twitter again, don’t be surprised.

Nothing you hear about Twitter is reality — it’s someones perception. But it’s not reality.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll try again: As much as you want to think you get Twitter, you don’t. The people who created Twitter didn’t get it — and they still don’t, as I’ll get to in a later post.

And you don’t get Twitter. And neither do I.

We don’t get Twitter even if we:

Thoroughly understand how you use Twitter.

Thoroughly understand everything possible about how Twitter’s underlying technology or API works.

Thoroughly understand all the marketing, PR, communication, community, fund-raising, public safety, policy, promotional, governmental, educational, religious, health-care, journalistic, philosophical, etc., etc. uses and implications of Twitter.

Attend every conference, seminar, workshop, camp, tweetup or university course on Twitter.

Have a million followers and post a thousand tweets.

Understand the psychological or practical reasons different types of people use Twitter to bolster their ego, cope with depression or any number of mental illnesses, build their personal brands, develop family-only emergency communication networks, broadcast random updates to friends or track information and relationships related to their work or personal lives.

Track and comprehend all of the third-part applications that provide a wide array of practical solutions for segmenting and organizing groups of people, topics of discussions.

Unfortunately, the more you know about Twitter, the more you realize it is incomprehensible.

More unfortunately, the moment you decide you’ve got it, you become a defender of your point-of-view. You become a traditionalist and advocate of that point of view. For example, if you believe the point of Twitter is “social media,” then you claim those who believe it is a means to send out news headlines don’t get it. If you decide you get it as something that is a time-wasting exercise in ego-boosting, you cut yourself off from understanding its potential to save lives in an emergency.

Your goal should not be to comprehend Twitter. Your goal should be to use Twitter in the service of your specific passions and interests — not someone elses.

My advice to anyone about Twitter is this: stop being obsessed with Twitter itself. It’s just one little instrument (literally, “little,” say, about the size of a percussionist’s triangle) in an orchestra of online instruments with which people may express themselves, be creative, form community, send out alerts, links and headlines, etc. When you start thinking any one instrument is the whole orchestra, you miss the point.

If you are passionate about Oprah, then, fine, Twitter is an Oprah-following tool. If you are passionate about keeping up with swine flu, then Twitter is a swine-flu tracking tool. If you are passionate about communicating with 500 other people who joke around with each other, Twitter is a community chat tool. (I could go on and on.)

As I said the other day, Twitter is best understood by individuals in the way Apple advertises the iPhone: by defining it in ways that help you understand what you can do with the iPhone, rather than by trying to define the iPhone.


Thoughts on Twitter #3: If the creators of Twitter don’t always get Twitter, why should you?

In interviews (lots and lots of interviews), the creators of Twitter (Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone) admit they are surprised by the level of hype Twitter is receiving. Being savvy and experienced in such things, they know also that hype doesn’t always equate to the adoption of new technology or, more importantly, to business success. Indeed, they have personal experience in this reality as Twitter, itself, rose from the ashes of a failed venture — a highly visible (at least among a small corner of the geekosphere) and stinging failure: the crash and burn of Odeo, a podcasting platform.

Unlike the typical early Web 2.0 startups that tried out “on the road” during a period of “closed beta” testing before heading to Broadway, Odeo was announced to the world in a major New York Times story before it was ever operational. Before the first user ever registered, CEO Evan Williams was quoted in the Times declaring Odeo was going to be “an eBay for podcasting.”

Evan (who goes by @ev on Twitter) tried to do some expectation-reducing spin control after that New York Times article appeared, but the damage was done: the service was defined by that article — and his quote — before Odeo ever appeared in public, before its users could try it out and decide for themselves what it was all about. It didn’t help that Ev and the other developers weren’t podcasters, as they missed some of the nuances of the medium, as in, their platform wasn’t that good and, to no surprise of anyone, podcasting didn’t need an eBay. The real killer, however, was the decision by Apple to support RSS (the technology underlying the distribution or “‘casting” part of podcasting) in its iTunes Store and later when Apple added a few podcasting-friendly metaphors to the user interface of its audio production software, GarageBand. Both decisions drowned out any interest in either the technology or marketplace of Odeo.

But hey, I wish we all could fail so wonderfully as Odeo did. Evan became a Harvard Business School case study of entrepreneurial angst and finally, in October 2006, Evan and his Odeo partners returned the money to Odeo investors (Evan had already done well in selling another startup, Blogger, to Google) who seemed to appreciate getting their money back. (Later, they sold the podcasting remnants of Odeo, as well. The current service at the URL is no longer associated with Twitter.)

Ev and his partners decided to focus on Twitter.com — a little feature of Odeo they had spun off as a separate product a few months earlier. When they launched Twitter (first called twittr) no on in the universe, including Michael Arrington of TechCrunch understood what it was — not even Evan, Jack and Biz, as evidenced by the current interviews.

With Twitter, there were no pre-release chats with non-bloggersphere reporters and no attempts to define the product narrowly to a reporter from New York Times. As I recall, Ev and Biz and Jack did little to get people to sign up on Twitter in 2006 — beyond, of course, depending on having a core group of registered users among those who will register on anything appearing on TechCrunch.

Unlike with Odeo, the creators didn’t get bogged down in trying to answer questions about how it worked or why anyone would want to use it. They didn’t say it was a service that could help you could discover if one of your friends was in the same bar or concert you happened to be — the way others did who launched similar ventures around the same time, or earlier. They didn’t define Twitter as anything, other than a means to relay messages via the web, RSS or text message. In fact, they didn’t make it location based, at all. They didn’t even stress that it was a mobile platform, something that would have been more trendy then, and now, among investors.

They simply set up the service. And this time, they actually started playing around with it themselves. Unlike their apparent disinterest in podcasting, they seemed to enjoy tweeting. But they didn’t make lots of rules about how other people should tweet — and when users started putting “@” in tweets and “#” in tweets, they didn’t tell them not to, they just adapted to what Twitter users were doing.

Back then, the creators seemed to embrace the idea that no one — including them if you believe the interviews — actually got Twitter. It was not until March of 2007 at South by Southwest Interactive that Twitter actually “debuted” with a bang. SXSW 2007 will be remembered as the place where Twitter took off.

And by taking off, I mean “the hype.”

But unlike with Odeo, the hype did not cause the failure of Twitter (although it did help surface lots of scalability dilemmas that could have led to later failure had they not be caught and dealt with then). But the hype did turn Twitter into something the creators never envisioned — and something they apparently still (just like the rest of us) don’t quite get.

Because recently, the creators of Twitter did something that is completely contradictory to the way in which Twitter succeeded earlier: they added a list of suggested people to follow for those who now register on Twitter for the first time. (Biz Stone blogs here the reason from his point of view.)

I didn’t understand the problem with having “suggested users to follow” until last Friday when Dave Winer posted a screen grab of “what a new Twitter user sees.” Looking at it convinced me that had the “suggested users to follow” option been available when I first joined Twitter, I doubt I would have ever used it a second time. Because if I had chosen the 20 default users the creators of Twitter are now suggesting, I would have never used Twitter because these users (as demo’d on Dave’s screen grab) reinforce to me the commonly-held belief that Twitter is completely banal and useless.

By adding default suggested users, the creators have created an unintended consequence: They are projecting how “they get” Twitter to new users who should be allowed to “get” Twitter in a completely different way.

Instead of suggesting users new users you believe people should follow, help them discover users they may actually want to follow: It would be better for someone to sign up and have no default users than to sign up and have Twitter pre-selected users. Here’s a suggestion to the creators of Twitter. Replace the default users option with a link to a page that tells people how to find people to follow.

Keep it simple and suggest they do two things:

1. Click on the “advanced search” button on Twitter Search and look at all of the ways you can search for specific people or track topics you may be interested in.

2. Use the new search box and “save search” features on your user page and look for people who tweet about the topics you are interested in.

There are lots of ways that Twitter can be used for interesting, enlightening or, even, vital purposes. Following the 20 users the creators of Twitter suggests is not one of them.

 


Thoughts on Twitter #4: Do the folks at Twitter just not get that Trending Topics is seriously broken?

As you can see from the tweet above, a week or so ago I came to the conclusion that the folks running Twitter either don’t use it, don’t care or are clueless that the Trending Topics feature has turned into nothing more than a spam magnet.

On Saturday, search-guru Danny Sullivan provided an insightful break-down of what the problem is:

“Because of how prominent trends are — people will click trends links out of curiosity — people are putting out tweets that contain the trending words but which have nothing to do with the topic.

How can the folks at Twitter continue to promote something so prominently — Trending Topics is a part of the sidebar navigation — that is doing little more than encouraging spammers to find ways to hack the service? Could it be that the folks at Twitter never click on those Trending Topics links?

During the past week or so, Dave Winer started and others like Marshall Kirkpatrick followed in taking an indepth look at the way in which the people who work at Twitter use it and how that may influence their perception, and thus, their focus on what may, or may not, be policies and priorities for the service. It is logical — and obvious — that how those who run and own Twitter use it as individuals — or don’t use it — means a lot to what it will become.

Like the internet, itself, Twitter is one of those “blind men and the elephant” things that can be whatever people use it for. I have — in a light-hearted way, but with sincere belief — characterized this as the Twitter “get it” paradox. Simply, that when one believes he or she “gets” what Twitter is, they don’t. Indeed, believing that you “get it” blinds you to newer and more profound ways of understanding and using it. (This “blinded by the light” seems especially true among those who assume they’ve “gotten it” when they realize Twitter can be used blast out marketing messages.)

Twitter is never just what you think it is.

For example, last week, an event media team from Hammock created and managed a real-time site for a client’s annual conference that allowed — among other things — anyone to watch a stream of tweets from attendees. Tech-oriented conferences have done this for a couple of years and heavy users of Twitter can easily recognize and “get” what we were doing. But the simple act of making the “back-channel” of Twitter part of the front page of an event made many of the attendees (most of whom who are not techies) change their minds about the potential of the service — to see it as something more than where people say what they are eating for lunch.

The versatility of what can be done with Twitter — that the service can be used by developers, editors and producers like our event media folks — underscores the importance for those who run it to not, themselves, begin to believe it is any one thing.

What Danny Sullivan, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Dave Winer and others (including my small voice) seem to be doing is trying to avoid the train-wreck of unintended consequences that happen when founders and owners start believing their own hype.

I don’t get Twitter. But I follow more users and tweet more than the people who work there. If you don’t know what that means, you missed the Clue Train when it pulled out of the station.

Here is one thing everyone should get: Twitter is nothing without the people who use it.

It is they (we) who will make it into whatever it becomes. Or who will leave it to move onto the next thing if, like many others before them, those who believe they have the power to control what Twitter is, try to force it into being something that it’s not.


Thoughts on Twitter #5: Why Twitter may catch on with young people — it’s more private than Facebook (WHAT???)

When I say, “Nobody gets Twitter,” this is what I mean.

Dana Boyd (dana boyd) who — just take my word on this — has a PhD in “getting it,” wrote a short, but (as always) insightful and thought-provoking post a couple of days ago titled, “Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody.

Of course, the title itself is a slap-in-the-face challenge to the conventional wisdom of all those who believe they get Twitter and social networking. To those who get Twitter (I try my best not to), it is supposed to be very public and all about having as many followers as possible so you can use it for 10 Different Ways to Build Your Brand or something.

To those who get social networking, young people don’t use Twitter because they prefer Facebook’s status update — because it’s something only their friends see — and not their parents.

But Dana writes of a conversation she had with some extremely tech-savvy high school seniors including one named Dylan who said:

“as for twitter, we are totally not representative, but ya a lot of people use twitter. it’s funny because the way they are using it is not the way most do… they make private accounts and little sub-communities form. like cliques, basically. so they can post stuff they don’t want people on fb to see, since fb is everybody. it’s odd, because the way i see it get used with my friends is totally contradictory to what everyone is saying. people seem to think teens hate twitter because it’s totally public, but the converse is actually true. but it’s not everyone… probably 10-15% at most.”

Gee.

Twitter’s little “protect your tweets” feature is something that people who get Twitter probably don’t get.

I know of at least one person who reads this blog who has two Twitter accounts for precisely this reason.

For her, there is a public purpose for using Twitter. And a private purpose.

She figured it out a long time ago, but because I don’t get Twitter, I’m just now appreciating how savvy she has been in understanding that, at least with one of her Twitter usernames, the coolest thing about Twitter is how few followers she has.


Thoughts on Twitter #6: Why I am re-botting my Twitter following list.

[Note: After starting to write this, I noticed ubber-blogger Robert Scoble wrote a post on the same topic. I thought of just pointing to it and saying, "what he said," but had, by then, written too much.]

It’s rare that I post on a topic because someone requested me to — primarily, because it’s rare that I get such requests. However, I’ve been asked to explain why I’ve decided to start all over in building a list of people I follow on Twitter.

Until yesterday, I followed about 1,300 people on Twitter. Wait, let me correct that. I had about 1,300 people on my following list. Upon cursory review, I discovered that most of those people rarely posted a tweet on their account, so I wasn’t actually following them. However, I had decided to take a big tent approach to following lots of people for a couple of reasons:

1. To receive a ‘direct message’ from someone, you must follow them. (If you want to DM me, you can e-mail me at rexhammock (at) gmail.com or call me at 615-852-REXH — okay, knocked off that reason.)

2. I follow lots of people who list Nashville on the location line of their Twitter bio because I’ve been (for a long time) fascinated with the role of social media in emergency situations. Twitter is, to me, a natural early radar tracking system of breaking news of an emergency nature. I discovered fairly early in my blogging experience that it’s too late to put together a meaningful list of potential eye-witnesses to a local widespread emergency event if you wait until the emergency occurs. (I now know of ways to accomplish this without having a long following list on your primary Twitter user account. Two quick solutions: Outsource such tracking to someone like Christian Grantham at WKRN’s Nashville is Talking or to an automated service like the very impressive one being developed by Chris Ennis, NashMash.com)

That’s how I started out building my original follow list, but when I crossed about 500 followed people, I began to notice something: If you follow lots of people who tweet alot, only a fraction — sometime only a small fraction — of those tweets begin to show up in your “tweet stream.” If Twitter algorithms were filtering what tweets I was seeing, I decided that it wasn’t my follow list they were streaming, but theirs. So I decided that I would scale back to a number of followers they could actually handle.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I heard NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen talking with Dave Winer on their podcast called, Rebooting the News talking about his approach to “hand-building” a following list, an approach to creating a such a list with a sense that you’re curating something you perceive to be a service to those who may be looking for advice on finding the best voices on Twitter in a particular field.

In part, the idea is a rejection — or, a reaction, at least — to the decision by Twitter’s management to include a “Suggested User List” to follow in the registration process. The Twitter official SUL is a bug, in the opinion of many people as it is heavily weighted with celebrities. Whether or not the SUL is flawed (and I tend to believe is in the case of Twitter), having alternatives to it — experiments to discover a better way of discovering who you may follow who will make using Twitter a better experience for tracking the types of information you personally find important are important. We all benefit when people like Jay — and ubber-blogger Robert Scoble and others — experiment with conventions, even if the conventions are only just a few months old.

So I decided that my “August” project (one of many) would be to take control of my following list. I didn’t know it was going to be a fad, or that people would ask me to explain why or how. But, as I found out a long time ago, when your name is Rex, on the internet, people think you’re a dog — so you might as well behave like one from time to time.

[This post has officially ended. However, for hardcore Twitter geeks, I've included the following notes that explore some esoteric or technical aspects of re-botting my follow list. I recommend you skip this part, really.]

I’m not advocated everyone do this. Twitter usage is a very personal thing. Everyone has a different approach. No one gets Twitter, remember. As soon as you think you do, it’s a sure sign you don’t.)

In the re-boot of my list, I have used the same method followed by Robert to start over: a $25 premium tool from the service Sociatoo.com. In re-building the list, I’m using methods like the Twitter feature that allows a user to authorize Twitter to find people among ones Gmail contact list who are users of Twitter. I’ve also gone back through my list of individuals who I’ve DMd (direct message) to see who I might want to include. If my username did not generate so many false replies (I’m not complaining), I would review those who have placed an “@” in front of my username in a tweet to look for others to add to my list, however, if you do a search on the term “@r” you’ll see why that’s not very efficient (although I’m not complaining).

I have some basic criteria I’m following in rebuilding the list. The person needs to meet just one of the following:

1. The person must tweet regularly and insightfully about a topic in which I’m interested. Typically, these will include: media (especially magazines and new media), technology or humor (especially ad-libbed commentary on breaking news).

2. The person is from Nashville and seems to be the kind of individual whose knee-jerk reaction to seeing something noteworthy is to pull out their phone and tweet it. I follow these people for the “emergency radar system” reason.

3. I know the person — or know who the person is.

4. I’m intrigued by the person for reasons I can’t quite explain — as in, they’re a trainwreck waiting to happen. (I find these are the people I unfollow most quickly, also.

Other “helpful hints” for getting me — or anyone — to follow you:

1. Have an avatar. The default one is ugly for a purpose.

2. Fill in the “bio” fields with enough information to let people know where you are located and to click through to a website where they can find more information about you.

As I post this (Thursday morning, August 6, about a day and a half after re-booting), I’m back up to about 150 on the list and expect to climb higher this weekend when I’ll have more time to devote to reviewing my OPML file of those I previously followed.

Don’t worry. If you’ve read this post this far, I feel certain you’ll be on the list.

People who are power users of Twitter have fine-tuned third party applications (like Seesmic or TweetDeck) that are designed to organize and control all the spinning plates that one must keep in the air so as not to get overwhelmed by Twitter. And an even smaller sub-group of social-media devotees become power users of the service FriendFeed.com to keep up with a multi-channeled flow of their river of “social media.” However, these methods don’t serve as means to “share” ones following list on Twitter, itself. A curated following list does.

One reason I’ve chosen now to reboot the list is related to another experiment Dave Winer is running. One of the key philosophical underpinnings of the metaphor “social” in the concept of the social web is the belief that ones connections — what the Facebook people term “the social graph” — belong to an individual, and thus, an individual should have the ability to import or export such lists. In other words, when you sign onto a service that includes building a network of connections, you should have the ability to use that list in ways similar to how you’d use any list, even if its as simple as adding that information to a program that manages your personal contacts.

To this point, Twitter, to the credit of its owners, has focused on what it believes are its most challenging needs: the engineering ones necessary to scale the infrastructure (including the constant battle with the dark forces of spam and hack — the kinds — perpetrators) and grow the network of users (which the tsunami of hype is making relatively easy). One of the key components to Twitter’s success and popularity among the eco-system (or, geekosystem, in this case) of early third-party developers who use it, are its flexible APIs that allow the data generated from its system to be utilized in near endless ways.

So, for instance, if Twitter’s management think that list portability is not among the most critical feature necessary at this point, individuals like Dave can come up with creative hacks of the Twitter API (the good kind) to export following lists as an OPML file that can be imported into a newsreader and followed via RSS — again, to Twitter’s credit, for including, from day one, RSS as a feature. So, when Dave posted his hack (the good kind) for such an OPML export, I decided to use it to record and export my following list and to reboot the list on my account.

Having this record of my longer following list lets me know I can still following them via RSS or via Twitter again if I want to review the list.


Thoughts on Twitter #7: The NY Times has officially run out of Twitter stories

On Twitter, I’ve had a running gag for several months in which I note that the New York Times hazes reporters by making them write a story about Twitter. That’s why there’s a story about it every day (or so it seems). They even have two entries on Twitter in their encyclopedic feature, Times Topics.

But a feature story in today’s (8.26.2009) paper called Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teenagers has me thinking that every story about Twitter that can be written, has been.

Why? Because they’re re-hashing the “teens don’t use Twitter” story as if it’s news or insightful.

Early in 2008, I wrote a post I titled “Twitter is something you’ll never get, so quit trying,” which has become one the most visited pages on this blog. The post was inspired by a column in the New York Times that said nearly exactly what today’s story says: Twitter is a platform that has never been popular with teenagers.

It has never been a mystery to me — or anyone who actually thinks about this stuff — to understand why Twitter is not a “teenager” thing.*

As I wrote in February, 2008:

“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 Im 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?)

So, all together now, repeat after me: Teenagers don’t use Twitter because everyone they care to talk to has Facebook. And besides, their parents use Twitter. Thus it was. Thus it is. Thus it will be.

*Twitter may not be a teenager thing, however, my “Thoughts on Twitter #5” explains a use of Twitter dana boyd discovered that could fuel its adoption by teens.


Thoughts on Twitter #8: You’re going to love Twitter Lists, unless you don’t

If you read this blog closely, you know I’ve been whining for a “lists” or “groups” feature on Twitter since, well, about the time I started using it. (About 90% of the complaints I hear from people who use Facebook could be solved if they understood and used the FaceBook “friends list” feature.)

For those of us who use third-party services and software to manage our Twitter following and tweeting, solutions to organizing people and topics one follows were solved a long time ago. Likewise, it’s been obvious for a long, long time, that the way a person who experiences Twitter just via the website, is completely lost because of the lack of such a feature.

They are so lost that the Twitter powers-that-be started rolling their own lists of suggested Twitter users for new Twitter users to follow. Unfortunately, those “suggested users” were the entertainers, media types, tech-personalities or random friends of the person who controlled the list, that it resulted in a sky-rocketing of those individuals’ followers. The infamous “Suggested User List” (SUL), in my opinion, set back the comprehension of what Twitter is as it encouraged new users to believe it’s something that you sign up for when you want to get blasts of messages from famous people you’ve never heard of. And so, they’ve dismissed Twitter as being a joke.

Recently (as I explained in Thoughts on Twitter #6), I decided that the list of people I was following on my @r was creating so much noise, the tweet-stream had become meaningless. Therefore, I re-booted the list — wiped it completely away and started all over. In doing so, I lost hundreds of followers who, obviously, have services set up that unsubscribe from anyone who does the same to them. As I explained in that post, my idea was to be a better “curator” of the list of people I follow, so that it was more targeted on friends, folks I respect and talk with professionally, some of my passions and Twitter users who live in my hometown of Nashville.

The experience of thinking about “following” as curation made it clear to me that if a Twitter user was able to make “lists” have a public view, such list-building would be viewed as a valuable service — and, in a way that is understandable to longtime students of online reputation, another data-point that could be used by those who are always trying to quantify “authority.” (If you stick with me, you may discover why there seems to be a high correlation between tech-geeks and baseball fanatics.)

Here’s an example of “following” and authority and curation that I’ve experienced personally.

Because I’m the “juggler-in-chief” of the wiki-model resource SmallBusiness.com, I registered the “early-bird-catches-the-worm” Twitter account, as #2 in authority, again, despite being #63 in followers.

As, frankly, I’m too little interest to spend much time trying to understand how WeFollow actually measures “authority” (another term for “reputation” or “influence”), I’m assuming it’s related to the number of “high authority” users who follow someone else with perhaps some weight given to the “authority” rank of individuals who re-tweet something posted by a particular user.

As the “content” of the tweets I post on @smallbusiness are limited to news stories and other items I think are ofinterest to small business owners and managers (unlike the goofy banter on my personal user account @r), I get lots of RTs because it’s obvious that the links I post are highly curated and timely: they are real news I look for carefully.

What WeFollow is doing with an algorithm, Twitter Lists is going to do with the power of the crowd. Lists will provide an incredible service to the casual Twitter user — and will help the service evolve away from its perception of fluffiness — a perception the Twitter SUL helped to reinforce.

It will also turn the ridiculous notion that how many followers you have on Twitter is the most revealing marker of “authority.” Listen — you can buy Twitters followers. And, no doubt, you’ll be able to buy getting on “lists.” But the challenge and cost of doing that will become more geometric in complexity and expense. And, the likelihood of those with “real” authority following your spam list is zilch.

Bottomline: Lists will make it a lot easier for unconvinced users of Twitter to understand its utility. And second, Lists will reward those who actually spend time and effort providing helpful, witty or engaging content in the form of the “tweets” they post OR the effort they put into curating unique and special lists.

Sidenote: I am working through the weekend on a major project, so I haven’t gotten around to building many lists on my @r Twitter account. However, I’m going to be aggressively creating lists using the @smallbusiness/lists (where I have an amazing URL to build such lists) and I’ve already started a few.

Bonus link: Like so much I have learned regarding the nature of content and connectedness over the past ten years, Dave Winer has been my maven on the topic of Lists, as well. The other day, when I first received the feature, I was thinking of him when I decided that Twitter Lists won’t be a “perfect” feature until they are exportable via OPML and can be followed via RSS. I’m sure Twitter will enable those or there are 3rd party hacks of the API going on right now.

Other bonus links:
Dave Troy – “Why Twitter Lists Change Everything”
Todd Zeigler – “Using Twitter Lists to Judge Influence


Thoughts on Twitter #8: Hints for creating small business and non-profit Twitter Lists

During the past few weeks, I’ve been spending a few minutes each day creating Twitter Lists as part of a set of directories on SmallBusiness.com (a wiki) called the Small Business Twitter Lists Project.

Currently, the project involves creating (or finding) local lists of merchants, cafes and other consumer-oriented small businesses who are actively using Twitter to communicate with their customers. (Later, we’ll be adding lists of professional services, personal services, business services, consultants, etc., but now, we’re focusing limited bandwidth on doing lists of small businesses that are consumer-focused.)

Our plans are to create good models of lists and then to encourage others to create such lists they can add to the directory.

Even though I spend just a few minutes each day on it, the project has led me to realize what a great potential service Twitter Lists are, but how there needs to be some guidance or suggestions for what makes a good list. (And yes, I realize the irony that the lists created under the @r Twitter account do not follow these suggestions yet.)

So, here are the top hints for creating and curating Twitter Lists I’ve learned (so-far) from the SmallBusiness.com Twitter Lists Project:

1. Know the difference in “following” and “listing”: On Twitter, “following” is like adding a Twitter user to your iTunes Library. “Listing” is like creating a play list.

2. You don’t have to “follow” a Twitter account to “list” it, so that iTunes metaphor in #1 is a little inaccurate. (Warning: see hint #8)

3. Lists are incredibly helpful to people who look to you for expertise on a topic. A list titled “Boise stores where I shop” can be a great service to those who consider you a retail maven in Boise.

4. Another way to explain #3: If you have more than 100 Twitter users you follow, new Twitter users may look at the list of those you follow hoping to find people they should follow — a Twitter List would be a lot more helpful to them.

5. Name your list in a search friendly way. Twitter has not yet integrated Lists as a filter (operator) to Search.twitter.com and is even promoting a third-party list directory called Listorious (obvious acquisition possibility for Twitter), so it is important that you name a list so that it can be found by those using Google to find lists. (Here’s an example of the Google search engine results page if someone is looking for a Twitter List of small businesses in Austin and uses the query: Austin small business twitter list)

6. Keep your lists “narrow” in focus. Think niche. Twitter Lists are like tagging. They can be categorized any way you like, and using any term, and can include hundreds of accounts. However, I’ve found that for me, personally, the most helpful lists are narrow in focus, and very limited in number. For example, with our SmallBusiness.com project, I feel certain we will end up with lists of coffee shops, lists of bars, etc., in a certain city — rather than lists that are broad.

7. Use the “description” field to explain what your list is about. This is a recently added feature, so if you’ve created a list, go back and add it. Again, this will help Google find the list, and make it easier for readers to understand what you intend the list to be about.

8. The best Twitter List to experiment with is a cause about which you are passionate. In fact, here’s your first Twitter List trail run. Create a Twitter List with the name of your hometown as the first word followed by “___________ non-profit organizations I admire”

9. (A cautionary hint related to #2) You can create “private” Twitter Lists that only you can see, but those on the list can see they’re on such a list — so don’t name a private lists “idiots worth monitoring” or anything like that.

10. If you create or run across a good list of your hometown merchants, bars, restaurants and cafes using Twitter to promote their businesses (i.e., *not* a list of social media experts and marketing consultants – yet), please email me a link to it: rex@smallbusiness.com.


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

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am 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.”

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 one-to-many 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 that it is a network 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-sourced,” 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 have 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 as 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” — an 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.

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


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

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 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-part 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.


Thoughts on Twitter #11: Twitter decides to fill in some holes

Recently, I wrote that content distributed through Twitter appears in lots of different ways, depending on whether you’re seeing it via the Twitter.com website or one of the many third-party Twitter clients (software from other companies that provide different ways to track and manage Twitter accounts) or, as I demo’d in that post, enhanced by some auxiliary tool like the Power Twitter plug-in, about which I wrote in that earlier post:

Integrating content from a
linked website is supported in
the new Twitter interface.
(via: TechCrunch)

“One of the downsides of being 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.”

If you clicked through to that “fill holes” comment, you know that it references a metaphor first used by Twitter VC inv estor Fred Wilson, who was generously hinting to third-parter developers what Twitters plans are. And, as I predicted (or, as Fred projected) in that earlier post, Twitter is now rolling out a new interface that will incorporate — and enhance — many of those Power Twitter features. Techcrunch’s MG Sigler has several screen shots of the new Twitter.com interface, including the one on the right.

I should add that users of the new Twitter iPad app have already been getting a feel for what using a post 140-character Twitter is like. I love it, but it’s a very different Twitter experience from the clean and minimal original Twitter.com. And, as anyone who follows Internet users know, different is something lots of people don’t like. (Ironic though it may be for someone to react against changing something that didn’t exist three years ago.) Indeed, there’s probably an opportunity for Twitter Power to survive by offering browser plug-in support for those who would like to remove the new features of Twitter and make it look like it did earlier.

I have several concerns with Twitter, but the new interface is something I think I’ll be liking.


Thoughts on Twitter #12: Twitter vs. The Crazy Uncles

From Alex Payne, one of the few employees of Twitter who has left the company, comes this very interesting quote:

A large part of the reason I left Twitter was a fundamental philosophical difference that I couldn’t reconcile, either for myself or the company. I believe that Twitter as a medium is and should be distinct from Twitter as a business. Put another way, that’s there’s an important difference between lowercase “t” tweeting and uppercase “T” Twitter, just as with democrat and Democrat.

This is not a new sentiment. Others have expressed it for years, in calls for a decentralized Twitter and attempts to build just that. For a time, I dismissed those missives as faxes from the crazy uncle lunatic fringe of the Internet technology community: the standardsistas, the neckbeards, the open sorcerers, the people who believe that all things must be free and open regardless of context. I came to the conclusion on a different path, but I came to it nonetheless.

I’m not sure which group I fall into (while I like the “crazy uncle lunatic fringe” tribe, I’m not sure they’d let a member of the Rotary Club in), however, my posts (here and here) about Twitter being too big to fail were precisely about the topic Payne is writing about.

It’s refreshing to know — and provides me some hope — that such an internal debate has even taken place within Twitter. As I said in those earlier posts, I’m all for Twitter, the business, growing as big as it can — go ahead and steamroll everything in your path, for all I care.

But Twitter, the medium (as in communication medium equivalent to e-mail, instant-messaging, the telephone), is another story. If it continues to be “owned” by one company, it’s on a collision course with the brickwall destiny all such monopolies hit one day.

Who knows? Perhaps, the new version of the Twitter website may indicate that the “business” of Twitter will compete for dominance in the way people use Twitter, the service. Perhaps it indicates the company’s willingness to consider a future in which things like life-and-death emergency alert services that use Twitter have a means to function, even if Twitter’s servers crash.

I hope that’s true, or I predict that one day, people will actually wake up and start listening to what the crazy uncles are saying.