What is Twitter For? The Message is the Medium.

The other evening I added a few new people to the list of folks I was following on Twitter. It was one of those typical social networking things; checking your “friends” to see who they were tracking, and then adding the ones that looked interesting.

The result, oddly enough, was a late night conversation on the pros and cons of Welfare. It felt very much like those late night conversations I used to have in college; when everyone was full of ideas and eager to explore them. It was really quite enjoyable. And it certainly created a bump in my Twitter usage.

People who don’t use Twitter often ask just what it’s for. Why would you want to broadcast what you’re doing to the world. That’s partially the fault of the Twitter folks themselves, for that “What are you doing?” prompt. A better prompt might be “What do you want to do?” (although perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Babylon V :-). Adam Engst once called Twitter “iChat on shuffle,” and it certainly can feel that way when you’re carrying on several conversations at once. But Twitter isn’t so much a piece of software that does something, as a medium through which software can do things. When the Telegraph and Phone were introduced, people certainly wondered why you’d want one, but people found interesting things to do with them, many of which had never been anticipated by their inventors. That’s Twitter.

What’s interesting to me is the relative pluses and minuses of having this type of discussion in Twitter. Andy Ihnatko recently pointed out the rather obvious (sorry Andy) fact that trying to express complete thoughts to their conclusion in 140 characters is rather difficult. You can of course just post a second message to finish the thought, but the delays in Twitter make it less natural to do so than it might be in a chat program. The performance of Twitter reinforces that 140 character limit, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, because keeping points brief and concise may have the effect of equalizing the conversation. Nobody can dominate with a long exposition on a particular topic. Ratholes on side topics tend to be limited to pointers to URLs, not long conversations. You can use Twitter to espouse and justify an idea, but not to explain it in detail. But that’s fine. We have other media that are better suited to that. That’s not to say Twitter is perfect, separating incoming messages into categories (a New York Times news blast in the middle of a conversation is a bit distracting) and threading conversations (particularly when you aren’t following all the participants) would be big pluses. But those are things that Twitter clients can do, they aren’t necessarily drawbacks of Twitter itself.

Twitter’s limitations might make it seem superficial and trivial. But that’s like saying chatting around the water cooler is superficial. It can be, but it can also be a catalyst for new ideas that are followed up elsewhere. Andy’s Twitter posting was the catalyst for my writing this blog posting. The discussion on Welfare was the catalyst for making new connections on other networks. Social interaction takes place on many different levels, all of which are necessary. What we are seeing online is people taking new tools and adapting them, consciously or unconsciously, to fit the interactions they feel they need in a virtual world. The companies that are succeeding in the social networking sphere are those that either identify those needs, or more likely, have the flexibility to be molded by their users. Flickr, FaceBook, Twitter… none of those companies are necessarily doing what they started out to do, but they were able to adapt to the way people used them. In Social Networking, you achieve success when you stop being an application and become a transparent part of people’s interactions.

But enough of that. I need to go fix the Welfare System!

P.S. I’ve suddenly become very self-conscious about the fact that I seem to be very fond of semi-colons.