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The future of Twitter

May 08, 2009 _ 11:35 / Digital Nation Team / comments (0)

Over the last couple weeks, we've been having a discussion about the utility of Twitter here on the Digital Nation blog. I've received many helpful reader comments, some explaining their distaste for Twitter, and some explaining why they find it so useful. While these have been interesting to read, I want to take time to explain why I see this as relevant to our project as a whole.

At Digital Nation, we are examining life in the digital age, but we're hoping to specifically get at how the fast pace of technological change is affecting us as humans. Once this comes into focus, we'd like to pause and reflect on the implications: how will this change our values and should we be working to preserve the ones we hold dear?

Twitter, as a the fastest growing online community, is part of this conversation. Simply by virtue of its prominence in the media, the service has changed the way we think and caused us to reconsider what we value. Is it an important skill to condense thoughts into 140 characters? Will this be vital in the future? Some people certainly think so. But new data released by Nielsen finds that "about 60 percent of people on Twitter end up abandoning the service after a month." As Nick Carr puts it:

The biggest crowd on the Web today is the one streaming through Twitter's entryway. The second biggest crowd on the Web today is the one streaming through Twitter's exit.

In light of this, I wanted to reconsider the potential of Twitter to change how we live. In the tech world, rising stars can quickly fall and the latest trends are often short-lived. Yahoo reminded us of this a few weeks ago when it decided to quietly pull the plug on '90s Web icon GeoCities. This caused Harry McCracken to contemplate what happened to the other top Web priorities from 1999. As it turns out, many of the top 15, such as Xoom.com and Snap, have simply disappeared. I'm not saying this will happen to Twitter, but it's worth considering. Carr again: "If Nielsen's numbers are accurate, and if they don't improve, Twitter may turn out to be the CB radio of Web 2.0."

An important lesson to take from our Twitter discussion is that any online service is not going to be for everyone. Twitter happens to be particularly polarizing, as our readers made clear. But, as we at Digital Nation consider how technology affects life in the digital age, we should be careful to remember how diverse that life is and that no single service will affect everyone in the same way.

As I made clear in my first post, I don't use Twitter particularly well. I have used it as more of an RSS feed than its intended purpose of broadcasting a stream of thoughts and updates on what I'm doing. A reader writes:

I really want to mention the distinction I see between twitter and rss: Twitter content is written intentionally from the getgo to fit in 140 characters. The content *usually* stands on its own. RSS feeds are just summaries of larger bodies of content which may or may not accurately reflect the actual intent. Every "Im just sending my blog RSS to twitter" feed I subscribe to, I rapidly turn around and unsub from. It ends up being more noise than use. If that's the kind of feed you subscribe to or offer over twitter, you're not going to get a very high satisfaction rate on either side.

I realize the differentiation. I'm the first person to say I don't use Twitter effectively -- or at the very least to its potential. The thing is, I've found that many of the Twitter feeds I subscribe to use the service in much the same way I do. Many of those that don't do this -- and post mainly about their personal life -- overload me with too many updates. I'll check Twitter and find it entirely filled by one person's mundane personal details. These people I quickly stop following.

I know that many people have found a nice middle ground between these extremes. That's why I made my original post asking about the utility of Twitter. I'm curious to hear from people like this reader, who utilize it effectively. Too often, in the media-hype whirlwind surrounding Twitter, I don't see these stories. I hope that by broadcasting them -- along with people who don't find Twitter particularly useful -- I can get at what Twitter will be used for in the long-term. And this will tell us more about how the service fits into the premise of Digital Nation -- how is it affecting us?

The reader counters:

I think what you're seeing is an evolution of dialect and communication patterns...you literally can't frame thoughts and conversations the same ways you can verbally, in blogs, or in other formats.
What makes twitter interesting (and what I think it's long term value stems from) isn't its role in providing yet-another-new-communication-stream, but rather the constraints it forces on users. As with other things (like Second Life) those constraints let interesting patterns of communication develop.
In this case, the 140 character limit and undirected communication focuses of twitter has certain useful repercussions: People who stick with twitter are beginning to develop a distinct dialect. This dialect tends to be concise with a high information density.
In a world where we are being inundated with so much information that we're literally choking on it, we need these types of dialects to effectively communicate. I really don't have enough time to read every blog I'm interested in and I certainly don't have the time to sift through -video-...especially when they're sources new to me. Twitter's high density dialect with its easy, fast, open publish/subscribe network model solves both of those problems: I can get information quickly, some knowledge of the validity of the source by who else is following/talking, and click through to people's longer blogs on their profile (or URL's in the tweet if provided) if I want more information. Or I can just ask :)
All this also has a secondary effect of flattening social networks - I have access to more "high profile social network hubs" via twitter than anything but IRC (and everyone has mostly left IRC). Even blogs don't flatten things as much - it takes more time and effort to read/respond to user blog comments than it does to read/respond to followers' tweets. Neil Gaiman (Coraline), Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls), and Brian Bolter (Fox 5, DC) are all fantastic examples of how this works.
I think you're definitely seeing some growing pains as people adapt to the associated communication constraints of twitter, but whether or not the service/company ultimately succeeds, I think you'll find this type of dialect living on and growing.

If this turns out to be the case, it certain deserves consideration by our project. Should we be pausing to consider whether we'd like to hang on to elements of our current dialect before this new one grows too large?

-Jeff

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posted February 2, 2010

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