Is Twitter the Ultimate “No Social Barrier” Medium?
Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2007
People who didn’t grow up on email are acutely aware that email often brings out the worst in people. It’s a phenomenon that’s been studied and theorized about. What it boils down to is that by abstracting and isolating away the other participants in a conversation, email makes senders much bolder than their normal face to face or even telephone persona would allow.
There’s a big meme flying around about whether Twitter is a huge waste of time or an incredibly valuable resource. This latest flare up seems to have started when Scott Karp announced he was going to stop using Twitter entirely because it was, “a massive waste of time.” This isn’t the first time Scott has managed to stir up the blogosphere with a negative post. His earlier “5 reasons why the mobile web sucks” struck a similar nerve. Incidentally, having heard the startling statistic that iPhone users access the web just as much as users of desktop and laptop PC’s I have to conclude that Scott was wrong on that mobile web business. I still can’t get over that story which also mentions that 1 in 1000 web pages served are served to the iPhone.
Returning to the subject at hand, Karp wrote a fairly lengthy post, but other than blaming a lot of the time sync on “half conversations” (two people Twittering but you’re only following one of the two, only getting half the conversation, and little value from that) and noting that it made him very unproductive by distracting him too much, he didn’t really have much meat to pass on. There were many reactions to it all:
- Anne Zalenka, a writer for GigaOm, seems to have found the whole thing insulting. She is offended that Scott found talking to her on Twitter to be a waste of time, and takes umbrage that Scott seems to slam people who like it as people who look to the web as a tool for time wasting. Personally, I think it is odd that Anne takes this all so personally, but Twitter does excite tremendous passion and polarization. More on that in a minute.
- Ryan Stewart had the most useful post I read on the whole thing, largely because he clued me into Tweetscan. I love search tools that yield rich results but are slightly off the beaten path. I regularly search the blogosphere for many topics before I’ll go into regular Google search because the latter has gotten so spammy. I’m not sure I’m ready to proclaim as Ryan has that Twitter is “insanely valuable.” He uses it as a way to stay in touch on a personal level with more people. Twitter seems to have disintermediated the water cooler in that role for Ryan. I just don’t know that I can view that as “insanely valuable”, although it is certainly fun.
- Mathew Ingram is on a similar vein, waxing eloquent on the notion of “ambient intimacy.” I first came across that term via Leisa Reichelt. There is no question that continual casual contact promotes much deeper communication than many people suspect. It’s one reason why teams geographically separated have a hard time communicating as well as a group all in one place. I’m just not sure Twitter is an adequate substitute. The water cooler may in fact be a better tool after all. Still, Twitter beats no contact at all by a lot, and it lets you have some form of ambient intimacy with a whole lot more people.
- Jeremiah Owyang may have gotten this ball rolling when he says that some conversations are shifting to Twitter. I liken the way Owyang likes to use Twitter to the way the Marines use Recon: it provides advanced intel on the meme-o-sphere (there’s a new one for you) and and various other tasks too lightweight for real blog. For example, he uses it in lieu of a link blog. I can see value in the former–I hear news often breaks on Twitter before blogs. It makes sense because there is far less friction. OTOH, for the latter, even if it’s only limited to 140 characters, I’d much rather click “share” in Google Reader than have to Twit about some great blog post I just read. In any event, Jeremiah and others report that Twitter has been driving tons of traffic to their blogs and they now regularly Twit about any new writings. I wonder if that same effect would be felt if the blog software automatically Twitted? Is it getting notification, or is it getting notification you know at the early stage was provided by hand? Kind of like my searching the blogosphere to minimize search spam. If enough people did it, the search spam in the blogosphere would get so bad the tactic would quit working. In this respect, advertising is much like the stock market: it adapts to whatever you do if there is enough advantage to be had in adapting.
- Logic+Emotion calls Twitter a “Conversation Ecosystem.” Writer David Armanjo is clearly a visual thinker as this post is full of visuals. Yet Twitter is textual. More on these learning/communication styles shortly, but I didn’t get an awful lot out of the post. Evidently I wasn’t intended to because Armanjo winds up saying, “Explaining Twitter is an act in futility unless the person you explain it to understands the intricacies of social networks.” He then says it works for him as does participation. Note: participation is another dimension of my learning/communication styles theory of the Web.
- Brian Solis gets into this conversation ecosystem idea little more deeply and convinces me further that my Web 2.0 Personality Style theory explains a lot of what’s going on here, so let’s end the he-said-she-said and cut to that chase.
I’ve observed before that Twitter is very much a love/hate relationship, and that the choice is a function of your preferred personality and learning styles as expressed on the web. Think of this as a Myers-Briggs type analysis, but applied to the web. Here is a diagram I like to use to illustrate the point:
There’s Twitter in the top left quadrant pegged as being appealing to those who are Interrupt Driven+Textual+Structured+Participators. Scoble loves Kyte, which is all the same stuff with Rich Media thrown in. When these bloggers write about how some conversations are moving into conversational platforms, isn’t that just saying that conversations that either involve people who prefer those dimensions, or subjects that benefit, operate more naturally and with lower friction there? I think it does. This is why I think that ultimately, any entity that needs to get a message out to everyone with minimum friction has to consider how they’re going to cover every square in the matrix. An ideal corporate web presence would solve to that. In addition, it would make it easy for visitors to self-select the presentation format that they prefer.
Incidentally, I think that identifying that optimal presentation format for visitors is one of the most valuable and unique things a Social Network could do. If you are a marketer, wouldn’t you love to understand the best way to package your message for each potential customer? I don’t see anybody working on that today, but there are Social Networks that have personality tests of various kinds that could be used to gather some of this information. Google could infer a lot of it too by looking a little more closely at what things you prefer. Already you have the option of searching web pages, blogs, images, and videos. Where does each person spend most of their time searching? That’s telling us something interesting about that person and how to reach them effectively.
What does all this have to do with Twitter being the ultimate “No Social Barrier” medium? This was the other thing I came to after thinking further on the essence of Twitter. As we strip expressiveness from a medium we increasingly depersonalize it. It’s almost the opposite of a Turing Test, so much so that a Russian firm has a technology that can talk dirty so well over a messaging medium that most people can’t tell it’s a bot and not a real person. Someone quipped that this is because such messages only communicate with the reptilian portion of the brain, hence the bar is lowered. I agree, but you get the point.
For messages where there are no social barriers, Twitter may be the ultimate. You can tell someone about the hamburger you had for lunch without too much fear. Scott Karp may be annoyed and quit listening, but most Twits seem to take it in stride. After all, there will be another Twit along shortly, and how much time could be wasted reading just 140 characters.