[Note: I posted this in February, 2008, but it seemed appropriate to rerun it today.]
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 (note: 2007) 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.
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