What are we doing when we Twitter?

I came across a post by J.P. Rangaswami, whose blog I quite like, and he was talking about Twitter and what he gets out of it. You can read the full post, but in essence he says that he gets something different from the people he follows on Twitter than he does by following them through Facebook feeds or through blog RSS feeds and other methods.

The example he uses is a link that Halley Suitt posted to Twitter (I’m sorry, but I refuse to say “tweeted”), which led him to an interesting article at The New Yorker. At first, this seemed like kind of a dumb example to me — couldn’t Halley have just emailed him the link, or posted it to her blog? But the more I thought about it, the more it confirmed something about Twitter and why it works (and sometimes doesn’t work), and in part it has to do with what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties.”

This reminds me of David Weinberger’s “small pieces, loosely joined” principle, and I think the idea is the same: information can flow in different ways through weak links, such as the kind Twitter encourages, and different things happen as a result. Maybe Halley Suitt wouldn’t have emailed that New Yorker link to JP because it didn’t seem important enough, or she doesn’t know him well enough (I don’t know); and maybe she wouldn’t blog it because it didn’t seem worth a blog post.

But posting it to Twitter gives it a kind of life, and exposes it to a whole range of people who might not otherwise have seen it. It’s not a cure for cancer, I will admit — but that’s still something. Some people I follow on Twitter may not be “friends” in the strictest sense, but they are still people I want to remain connected to in some way, even loosely. Dan York has a great list of the different ways Twitter can be used here.

To me, Twitter is just another example of what I think is becoming a continuum of communication on the Web. Sometimes the things we are doing or thinking are worth an email, sometimes maybe just a quick instant message chat, sometimes it’s worth a Twitter post, sometimes a blog post, and sometimes a Facebook status update. Twitter is also an interesting form of group chat/micro-blog, as was noted in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination and other news events.

Yes, Twitter can be a big waste of time, as Scott Karp noted in a recent post (my response at the time is here). But then, as more than one person has noted, the Internet can be a big waste of time too. And yes, I have had to turn off notifications for certain people I follow on Twitter — no offense, Scoble — and others post a few too many personal details for my liking. But I think we’re still finding out how to use some of these tools, and there are going to be different methods for different people.

17 thoughts on “What are we doing when we Twitter?

  1. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm coming around to Twitter as another way to communicate with people in an efficient way. That said, I don't think people are interested in having me Twitter about the minutae of my life (e.g. I went skating this morning) but it's a good way to tell people about interesting things such as blog posts, magazine articles, etc.

  2. Most of the people I tweet with are also entrepreneurs, and most work at home, alone. Twitter gives us the water cooler atmosphere that is arguably the only upside to working in a “real” office. I get to bounce ideas off of other really smart, thoughtful, insightful people and get instant feedback.

    Twitter is also the #1 source of traffic to my blog, and the coolest thing is, a lot of that traffic is other people tweeting the links, not me.

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  4. Mathew,
    I agree, I have gotten a lot more just from Twitter than from FB and found a lot of things I would have not otherwise seen.
    As for your references to weak ties, I read a book recently called “Linked: The New Science of Networks” by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. He looks at all types of networks, social and otherwise. He draws a similar conclusion to the weak ties. He looked at how we get job leads and referrals and found that contrary to what we would assume, many of these come from those weak links on the edge of our social networks, not our close in ties.
    Great piece.

    Happy New Year



  5. I think that Twitter are many things to many different people. Here are uses I have observed from my friends:

    1. Some folks use it to announce new blog posts (@mashable, @nyt, etc)
    2. Some folks use it to report really personal statuses (@ararinert, @kipbot, etc)
    3. Some folks use it to vent (@antikewl, @saturdave, etc)
    4. Some folks use it to log every single thing that they are doing, i.e. microblog, and as such does all of the above (@seeminglee – that's me)

    I think that you can't really enjoy Twitter unless you use a Twitter app such as Snitter that's constantly running. @arainert gave me shit about not using RSS readers for news anymore, and he's right, I don't. I rely on Twitter now.

    All the blogs that I follow has a Twitter account and they tweet about their post with a fairly good digest anyhow. 140 word count really get people to write their gists, which is good. It's communication in WSJ style, which is great when you don't have much time–that applies to everyone these days.


  6. I'm trying to use Twitter.

    For some reason, I just don't “get it”. Yes, it's true: I don't have any real life friends using Twitter, so that makes it a bit tough. I do use the “track” feature, but, meh … more times than not, that yields far too much banality and diminished my faith in the human race.

    My friends don't want to follow my Twitter RSS feed because they think it's just another way to SMS.

    Besides my own posts to Twitter, I'm not sure how to find “interesting” people to follow, and I still use RSS for blogs. I still think the technology is a bit over-blown. It just seems like an Instant Messenger repackaged in a way.

    It's guess it's micro-blogging, but that's like saying flirting is sex.

    • Flirting is sex, Keith — or at least it's part of what we think of
      as the continuum of sexual behaviour. And I think that in the same
      way, Twitter is a part of the continuum of social interaction.
      That's not to say it's mandatory — and not everyone is going to see
      a need for it, obviously. And that's ok.

  7. I was just thinking about this subject. I've recently noticed that a whole bunch of bloggers – some of them high-profile – now seem to think that their daily list of 'tweets' adequately replaces a decent blog post. Talk about getting lazy. Random stream of consciousness, my hinny; what we're really seeing is what amounts to a random stream of digitally-delivered diarrhea.

    Tari Akpodiete

    • I beg to differ. I agree with Matthew about Twitter (Iike other tools) being part of the communication continuum.

      A whole bunch of high-profile bloggers are using Twitter for community building. They are using Twitter to enhance their blogs and podcasts and are anything but lazy. Most of them write at least one blog post every day.

      Among other things, they use twitter to: inform people of interesting content, notify us of their latest blog post or podcast episode, involve their Twitter community in research prior to writing a blog post, ask for community participation in an upcoming podcast, invite people for content suggestions and share a wealth of valuable information.

      This doesn't seem like digital diarrhea to me. Rather, it's an example of community building at its best.

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  9. I view Twitter like Britney Spears. This audience-hungy girl cannot stand to spend one night in her (mansion!) alone – she has to go out and aimlessly drive around so the paparazzi can photograph her, and then check into hotels so the world follows her every move. She needs the attention. She can't stand to be by herself and feels empty when doing so. Twitter just seems to me to have the same function for many (not you Mathew of course!) 🙂

  10. Im a big fan of twitter , I tend more to “follow” and grab interesting links as they appear. Im not a fulltime blogger , Im a professional firefighter of 27yrs . Ive met some tech fans such as myself on twitter .
    I would also compare it to the watercooler , some use twitter productively , others like myself tend to hang around and watch . I usualy speak when I have something interesting to say .
    For my photography , it serves as another connector to get people to stop in and
    comment . Recently Ive met @susanreynolds through Twitter who is currently undergoing Breast Cancer surgery . http://susanreynolds.blogs.com/boobsonice/
    Because my aunt is a breast cancer survivor , Susan will gain some fresh advise from someone who has walked the walk and talked the talk .
    Twitter is not a cure-all for everyone , but it is entertaining and wickedly addictive .
    Happy New Year
    John Piercy

  11. Great points, 'thewie. And I'm frankly still on the fence with twitter, although I'm warming to it in some ways. We recently had a health issue in our family, and during that I used twitter a lot. Why? Well, I wanted to share what was going on with (mostly actual) friends and I got a lot of good karma back. This was great I have to say. Now, I also had twitter linked to my Facebook status updates, and following this incident I've broken that link (not that I didn't get some nice messages from – again – actual friends who saw what was going on that way). To your continuum point, in looking at it afterwards, it was TMI in the Facebook context, and for the hundreds of “friends” I have on there may well have been cringe-worthy, if not downright creepy. So what works on twitter, especially short, immediate, on the go stuff, doesn't work elsewhere and elsewhere might even be too much period. Of course, my twittering during the health issue might have been too much anyway, but at the time I frankly didn't care and appreciated the instant feedback.

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