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?"

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