In a recent comment my buddy Dave asked:
“Okay. I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask, even see if you would write a blog post on it. This seems like an opportune time. Why Twitter? I don’t get it. Am I not understanding something fully? It seems like one more digital distraction in my day. I’ve got enough on my plate as it is. But the rate at which people use it makes me think its not going away as fast as I once thought.
Please note, I’m not trying to put down twitter or those that use it. I’m just curious what you find so useful about it and what you use it for.”
This is a question that I’ve fielded more than once, and I’m going to take a public stab at answering it for the demographic(s) that Dave and I, and many members of my family and social sphere fall into.
If you are in sales, customer service, or marketing, and haven’t yet figured out what Twitter’s value is, its safe to say that you have missed the boat. Dive in and start swimming. This article isn’t for you guys. I am writing this for the geeks, scientists, parents, co-workers, and friends that have asked me why so many times.
So let me tell you why I use Twitter…
One of the great intangible benefits that we provide our scientists at the SETI Institute is promoting cross-pollination of ideas. We would all love to believe that great ideas are born full grown from a crack in our head. Sadly, they are almost always a messy and awkward amalgamation of conversations, interactions, research, accidents, and good fortune. Twitter is a virtual fire hose of information on scientific topics. Sure it’s not a peer-reviewed journal, but it has got its place. For example, at the top of my pile right now is this gem.
Ariel is just one of the [citizen] scientists that I follow, others of whom regularly inform me of things that are going on at SETI before I hear it internally. Which is a perfect segue into…
I think its safe to say that all of my news comes from Twitter or Facebook. It used to be The Daily Show followed by copious googleing, or Digg but like many media outlets you’re only getting one side of the story (watch this for a moving testimony on the danger of the single story). With Twitter, it’s possible to follow diverse sources in a single stream. Perhaps the best way to do this is through trending and searching. Twitter makes it easy to see what the masses are tweeting about through special search filters called Trending Topics. These show up in the sidebar in the official Twitter web client, but many clients and interfaces have more robust trending capabilities. While trending shows you what other people are interested in, searching helps you to find information about what you are interested in.
Go to Twitter right now and type “Balloon Boy” into the search box and you’ll get a long list of inane and informative comments on the subject.
Yesterday I saw a whole bunch of people tweet about this kid, and had no idea what they were talking about. 10 seconds later I knew 100% more than I needed to know in order to have an informed, friendly conversation with the Whole Foods clerks later on that evening. To me, this is a bargain time investment because a) without that 10 seconds of ‘research’ I would have maybe 5 words to say to those folks, b) it may have actually been important, and , c) it just so happens that it is the only trend I followed up on yesterday.
Strange but true, news breaks on Twitter all the time. Sure most of it is only of interest to a small demographic, but those are often the very demographics ill served by mainstream media. What’s your niche?
First things first. Twitter is not Facebook. Its really bums me out to see Facebook changing to be more like Twitter. I use Facebook because it gives me a “private” forum to post the minutia of my daily life that perhaps a handful of good friends (and high school voyeurs) want to know about. It lets me get that same daily dose of input from people I love (or went to high school with). I would not recommend this approach on Twitter. Twitter is asynchronous. You don’t have to accept a follower for them to see what you write. This is fairly freaking fantastic. It also means that you don’t have to follow someone else just because they want to see your status. This asynchronicity is the real reason why people should pay attention to twitter.
While Facebook keeps me up to date on people I know, Twitter gets me in touch with people that I don’t know yet. A few weeks ago I posted a link to my TED India article in my status. In a very short time a few people picked up on that tweet and @ replied me that they would like to meet me in India. Is this valuable? It sure is to me. If it’s not, you can use your imagination to extrapolate a possibility that would be of social value.
This really doesn’t need much explanation. Twitter was created by geeks and geeks constituted the majority of early adopters. Lately I’ve been finding bucket loads of software and web services that I’ve then passed on as retweets and IRL (in real life). I also post great software, hardware and other tips of my own. Doing this builds my follower base while simultaneously supporting the information ecosystem. It’s a beautiful symbiosis.
I’ve stated my case for Twitter as clearly as I am able. As for the case against, I can’t claim that Twitter won’t cost you any time. I must admit that I spend at least an hour (if not more) on Twitter every day. Still I will argue that this time has supplanted time spent in front of the TV or tracking other media sources (Digg, Slashdot, Engadget, etc). In my experience Twitter is a more expedient path to this information, your mileage may vary.
If you haven’t tried Twitter yet, take an hour or so to peruse The Twitter Book. It provides a host of techniques for maximizing your Twitter experience. Once you’re on Twitter, follow me and tell me what you think.
Did I miss anything? Do you (dis)agree? Please comment!