The Evolving Uses of Twitter

I've been using Twitter for almost three years. I was an early adopter even by tech industry standards; the only guy I know (personally) who's been using it longer is a seed investor in the company.

So it's been interesting to see how the service has evolved from its original purpose (answering the question "What are you doing?" — i.e., status updates) to a broader range of uses.

My preferred way to use Twitter is:

Status updates: I enjoy being able to passively keep up with what my friends are thinking and doing. Twitter is excellent at this; Steven Johnson notes the "ambient awareness" that Twitter enables and the "strangely satisfying glimpse of their daily routines."

Micro-blogging: A self-contained thought or theory. You'd be surprised how much profundity can be conveyed in 140 characters! (From others, of course.) I also tweet quotes I read in the offline world. Online I just tag in delicious.

I am not enthusiastic about the following three uses:

Direct communication. It's hard to directly communicate with a person on anything of substance. "Conversations," while the touchstone word in social media, cannot really happen on Twitter. The 140 character limit is limiting and gets tiresome. No threading makes it unmanageable for anyone who gets a lot of replies. Conversations take place in the comments sections of blogs; not on Twitter.

Link dumping: Some people post lots of links on Twitter. I don't like this. If I'm going to follow someone's bookmarks, I'd prefer to read it in delicious or a similar social bookmarking service. I use delicious voraciously. Twitter links are hard to view if you're reading it on your phone; they're not indexed or organized in any coherent way (no tags); they're always shortened so you can not quickly see what the site is before you click it. My friend Steve Silberman prolifically tweets links. I now subscribe to his twitter feed via RSS and I will do this with any other similar user.

Re-publishing RSS feeds into Twitter: This is when bloggers publish the link of a new post into their Twitter feed. If I subscribe to someone's blog via RSS, I don't want to see it on Twitter. For one, it means I'm seeing the same piece of content twice. We need universal, portable read/unread states! Second, it can tempt me to click on the link and read the post, which is inefficient. Batching tasks (such as reading blogs via RSS) is more efficient than randomly clicking links whenever you're scrolling through the timeline. All this being said, I see the argument for re-syndicating it. There are probably a thousand or two people who follow my tweets but not my blog.

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Speaking of RSS, is Twitter killing RSS? Chris Dixon is the latest to jump on this train. He writes:

I’ve used Google Reader religiously since it launched.  I’m a few days away from quitting it forever.  Pretty much every blog I read tweets the titles of their posts along with a link.  Better yet, the people I follow retweet their favorite links, providing a very efficient way for me to discover new articles to read and publishers to follow.

I see Chris's logic as: a) I like Twitter because of the social filter — my friends link to cool stuff. b) My friends also link to their blog posts on Twitter. c) Thus, whatever shows up in my RSS reader I've already seen on Twitter.

I arrive at a different place than Chris because I don't value (a) as much as he. My RSS reader is itself a social filter. I subscribe to 200 feeds and get all sorts of great content through it. The content comes neatly organized, with longer summaries, categories, and full URLs. By comparison, Twitter is noisy, unorganized, and limited by 140 characters. If you step back and ask, "What's the best way to get content?" I think most would say RSS. The social filter/discovery of Twitter then must be good enough to surpass the inherent advantages of RSS. Not for me.

(thanks to Tyler Willis for conversations on this)

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Three final things:

1. Twitter Inc. will be a fine business. If they wanted to generate millions of revenue immediately, they could.

2. Real time search is the real deal. The Golden Triangle: mobile, real-time, social.

3. When people tell me they've stopped blogging and now only tweet, I want to reply, "So what you're saying is the essence of everything you want to say can be expressed in 140 characters?"

17 Responses to The Evolving Uses of Twitter

  1. “‘Conversations,’ while the touchstone word in social media, cannot really happen on Twitter.”

    Ben, you’re usually good about speaking for yourself and not making proclamations like this. Fact is, millions of people are having conversations on Twitter – either you haven’t figured out how to do it or prefer not to do so. But writing it off as impossible is absurd.

    Conversations on Twitter have helped me get great jobs, land a sweet apartment in NYC, learn a lot, laugh my ass off, and (yes, I’m going there) make new friends. I’m sorry you haven’t been able to tap into these possibilities – maybe it’s not a priority for you or something you’re not even interested in trying – but lots of other people are.

    I used to be rankled by the use of Twitter as an RSS feed, but I now welcome it for two reasons: One, there are some feeds I actively avoid until I feel I’m in the right mindset to read them. (Anything scientific or that will likely put me in a state of deep thought about difficult subjects gets ignored until I’m in the mood.) But seeing the headlines come through on Twitter often prompts me to read something valuable that I otherwise would have put off – or possibly not read at all.

    Personally, if the link dumpers you follow aren’t sending you to good places, you need to find new link dumpers to follow. I’ve discovered tons of fantastic articles thanks to the human filters I follow on Twitter.

  2. Brice Stacey says:

    I think it comes down to an individual’s needs and I think Ben made it clear that this post is about his use and thoughts on Twitter.

    To add further support to Ben’s ideas: If I remember correctly, I believe Colin Marshall made similar observations in that Twitter can be well used as a filter for the ever increasing amount of content on the web. This obviously makes Twitter and RSS highly compatible technologies in that Twitter is a great discovery tool (via status updates and micro-blogging) while RSS actually handles the bulk of transferring content and sending people to a single source for continuing the conversation.

    I’ll also add that these comments alone are proof that Twitter is an insufficient medium for certain conversations.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Ha – I saw this comment coming!

    If I tweet “I love the Seinfeld where George buys a wig” and someone
    replies, “Yeah – that’s such a funny episode!” did we have a conversation?
    Well, in some sense, yes. But it wasn’t very meaningful. If we define
    conversation in the shallowest possible sense, I would agree millions of
    people are having “conversations” on Twitter. I worry that “conversation”
    has been over-appropriated by social media gurus.

    There’s lots of back-and-forth on Twitter, but the constraints of the medium
    mean it’s impossible to go very deep on any one thread, at least without
    doing a dozen different replies.

    Consider the comment you just left me, and this reply. How would we have
    done this on Twitter? I would have spent inordinate amounts of time thinking
    about how to condense and shorten every word, and even then it still would
    have been an incomplete thought.

    On Twitter as RSS reader. If you want to be in the right state of mind to
    read certain feeds, wouldn’t you want to wait until you’re in that state of
    mind to read the feed? Like, say you subscribe to a blog that somber and
    serious and you want to be ready to take it all in, slowly. Over lunch
    you’re whistling through your Twitter timeline, munching on a sandwich, and
    you see the blog title come through, so you click it and read it. Wait –
    didn’t you WANT to be in a certain mood when reading it? Why is it good that
    you are now reading the post whenever it happened to be published as opposed
    to when YOU wanted to read it? Why is it good that you are now reading
    something you would have rather put off?

    RSS readers are great because you can organize feeds by category or folder,
    put off some, read others right now, and see it all easily. Reading by
    Twitter, you have much less control and it’s harder to manipulate the info
    rush to fit your own personal preferences. My read of your comment is that
    you have certain preferences, and you like Twitter because it forces you to
    ignore those preferences (read something you would have put off). Is this
    right?

    There are good link dumpers on Twitter, but I’d rather get it over
    delicious. This is how Chris and I share links, and I find it a million
    times more efficient than Twitter. But I’m sure this preference varies…

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    I don’t eat sandwiches, so your retort makes no sense.

    Will reply tomorrow. I knew you’d expect my comment! Go after Twitter, therapy, or Nigella Lawson and I’m haunting you immediately.

  5. I’m very sceptical about all this “deep” v. “shallow” conversation stuff. IME, some of the fluffiest things in life are the most important. But yes, if you want to analyse Dostoyevsky for hours, Twitter ain’t the place…

    (I say that as one who genuinely does spend hours analysing academic-style issues for fun, at home- luckily my husband finds it charming!)

  6. Scott Yates says:

    Ben,

    You’ve hit on a huge theme, and left out one of the things coming down the pike that may solve both the cobbled-together nature of Twitter and the underlying plumbing problems with RSS: Wave.

    In my spare time I’m writing about Wave now:
    http://www.examiner.com/x-25758-Google-Wave-Examiner

    It is far from “cooked” yet, indeed it’s downright frustrating to work in right now, but eventually I like it as a way of grouping conversations.

  7. Brock says:

    Ben, great article! I will immediately share this on Twitter!

    Ha ha, just kidding. I don’t use Twitter. I might link to it in my blog though, which people will get in real time thanks to PubSubHubbub (and maybe they’ll find it using Google Blog Search), and maybe they might even comment on it thanks to the crazy technology of a comments section. Heck, maybe they’ll subscribe to the comment section’s RSS …

    Twitter is a platform. The Web is a platform. The difference is that when Twitter goes down the web still works. There has never been a Fail Wail for Google Reader. Funny that, it’s almost like the guys at ARPANET knew something …

  8. One thing that never happens on Twitter: Private messages showing up inexplicably in the public stream. Ahem. :)

  9. Ben, you now write: “There’s lots of back-and-forth on Twitter, but the constraints of the medium
    mean it’s impossible to go very deep on any one thread, at least without
    doing a dozen different replies.”

    You keep adding conditions to your original statement, which was that “‘Conversations,’ while the touchstone word in social media, cannot really happen on Twitter.” Now you seem to be saying, “Well, conversations can happen…but not in just one or two tweets! And they might not be very deep. Plus, I’d have to think hard to participate.”

    It really isn’t rocket science. You don’t have to like conversing on Twitter – and yes, they are conversations, and not just in the shallow way you assume (based on what, I’m not sure, since you’ve said that you use it as a one-way communication channel rather than a conversational tool). But it’s bizarre to claim that nobody else is able to do this, when clearly that is just not the case.

    Not everybody is you. By that I mean (and I’m sure I’ve read posts noting such facts on this very blog) different people communicate effectively in different formats. For myself, there are certain people I can ONLY deal with online – face to face, they are too frustrating or overstimulating (in a bad way). There are others, like my best friend, with whom I’d rather talk on the phone than email (I can say that about very few people in the world). Then there are some with whom I have incredibly rich and enlightening, fun conversations via email or blog comments. And there are also some people with whom I do indeed “go deep” on Twitter.

    I understand the urge to write off that which one does not prefer. But I expect a level of intellectual honesty here which ‘fesses up and says, “Others seem to be able to do it, but I’m not that interested in becoming one of them.”

    As for this question: “Wait –
    didn’t you WANT to be in a certain mood when reading it? Why is it good that
    you are now reading the post whenever it happened to be published as opposed
    to when YOU wanted to read it? Why is it good that you are now reading
    something you would have rather put off?”

    It’s kind of like going working out when you don’t feel like it. Nine times out of ten (if not more), you’re glad you did. I often tell myself I “need” to be in a certain mindset to read a particular kind of blog post or article, but the fact is that it’s usually not very taxing in terms of context switching. This way, instead of declaring RSS bankruptcy on a whole host of feeds whose accumulating post count creates an increasing feeling of dread within me, I read more smart stuff than I would if I waited until I was “ready”. (Anyone who’s ever subscribed to the New Yorker will know the feeling, during especially busy periods in one’s life, of watching the issues pile up and feeling guilty and daunted by the task of tackling them all. What was supposed to be pleasurable can quickly turn into a chore. Rather than sitting down with the goal of reading the whole issue, dipping in and out when time permits is a much better option.)

  10. Alice, as you’re one of the people with whom I have had immensely enlightening exchanges of ideas in person, on Twitter, in email, and on blog comments, I’m so glad you’re here to say this.

  11. Tyler Willis says:

    I think we need a better solution for social filter — Twitter’s stepping in to fill that role, but I think it’s weirdly built for that use (for the reasons you’ve highlighted. We could improve a lot on social filtering, Google Reader Shared Items has the right components but only works in one context (using gReader).

    For fun, here are the components I’d like to see: Comments, Likes + Shares (for the distinction between bookmark and broadcast), Tags, and batched reading.

    Would be interesting to think of Disqus, or someone similar, tackling this problem.

  12. Dude, I beat you by two months. :) http://www.whendidyoujointwitter.com/

    @derekscruggs

  13. p le r says:

    funny you should say you like passively keeping up with what my friends are thinking and doing. I read somewhere that this was, on the contrary, what to avoid for a successful Twitter. As far as I’m concerned I agree with you on that particular point.

  14. Krishna says:

    What I like about Twitter is that it forces (teaches?) people to be brief. Now that (chop-if-it-crosses-140) is a great service on people afflicted with verbal diarrhea.

  15. Ben Casnocha says:

    The naturalistic fallacy: “is” equals “ought.” I don’t think that just
    because someone uses Twitter to have what they see as a conversation, means
    it’s the best way to have a conversation, or the best way to use their time.
    Of course I don’t mean to impose my own preferences onto others, but I think
    in the realm of technology it’s the case that many people fall into
    less-than-optimal habits that they are unaware of.

    As to your being in the right state of mind to read feeds — my
    interpretation of what you’re saying is that you have preferences, but you
    have learned that they are not reliable or good, and so Twitter forces you
    to do something you otherwise would not have the self-discipline to do.
    Namely, read blog posts you otherwise would have not read. It seems like the
    easier way to deal with this would be to just tell yourself, “I need to read
    these blogs every day instead of putting them off,” and then read it in your
    RSS reader as a batched task. But hey, if your way works, go for it…

  16. Shefaly says:

    Blogflogging: Twitter :: Twitter: Facebook

    Just saying. :-)

    That said it is entirely my choice to connect with you on both Twitter and Facebook even when I know I can read the same status messages in both places. I prefer Facebook because I can then leave comments longer than 140 (or not).

    As of today Twitter has the “lists” beta on. Some are complaining they follow too many people to go one by one and classify them. As any fule know, one needs to be more discriminating than be blaming the tool. I think lists would make it much more meaningful to interact on Twitter.

    And I have had conversations with Alice (and a couple others) on Twitter. Since there is very little overlap in our “following” lists, we are not really jamming up many people’s streams. To that extent, Twitter’s decision to not show @ replies to all but the common names in the “following” list has been a good one.

    As a related aside you probably know that the non-baking uses of baking soda far exceed the one purpose it is marketed most for. Twitter is like baking soda. You bake cakes, I clean limescale, yet another uses it to de-smell the refrigerator.

  17. Ben: I don’t let perfect be the enemy of done.

    Also, not everyone is task-oriented. Some of us are more explorer types who absorb and comprehend information more effectively when we are playfully engaging with it, not approaching it as a chore.

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