How Twitter is like soap, or Soylent Green

by Mathew on April 16, 2008 · 17 comments

My friend Scott Karp has a post up at Publishing 2.0 that is nominally about the addition of new features to Facebook’s newsfeed, and whether those features compete with FriendFeed and other social apps. But what Scott is really talking about is what I like to call the “Soylent Green” factor — i.e., the principle that Web 2.0-type services such as Twitter and FriendFeed and Pownce and so on are made of people, just like the new food product that Charlton Heston was so shocked by in the classic 1970s sci-fi movie of the same name (a comparison that I think Ross Mayfield of Socialtext was the first to make way back in 2005.

Scott’s point is that what makes a service like Twitter — or Facebook, or any of the other social networks — succeed or fail is the people who use it. After all, Twitter isn’t exactly rocket science (sorry @ev); it’s really just the Facebook status update as a standalone app. Theoretically, Facebook should be able to duplicate most of its features, or FriendFeed’s for that matter. But at the end of the day, it isn’t the features that matter — it’s the people. But why do they use one tool over another? Why did Twitter take off and Pownce and Jaiuku haven’t?

I’d like to say that I have the answers to those questions — enough for one of those classic Techmeme-bait blog posts, like “8 Reasons Twitter Wins” — except that I don’t. But I do think that answering them is probably one of the most important tasks a service like Twitter or FriendFeed or even Facebook has to confront. What are you providing that your users can’t get somewhere else? In most cases, it has better be community of some kind. That’s the Soylent Green factor.

Update:

Dan Blows has a great post about Twitter from a different perspective — he says it’s a lot like a playground (and no, I didn’t link to this just because he uses a Twitter post about me by Duncan Riley) A worthwhile point: the community you want isn’t always the community you get.

  • http://www.en-dash.com/blog calamityjake

    I pretty much agree with the Soylent Green theory of social networking (although, of course, features and performance play a significant role in attracting the critical mass a social networking service needs to take off)–and by that theory, you've got to give Facebook (or Google, if it wanted to jump in) the big edge in the Twitter-esque category. Facebook certainly has more regular users, and they spend plenty of time on the site, so you'd expect that with a modicum of additional functionality the Facebook status feature would take over and leave Twitter a faded, useless shell (like poor Friendster).

    But, as Scott Karp says, these sites aren't necessarily fighting for the same users, anyway. And those users who might use one or the other (like me) are just as likely to figure out how to use both–the TwitterSync Facebook app clones my Twitter messages as Facebook status messages without much trouble.

    I think the real question is whether there's enough general interest in Twitter as a standalone product at all. Obviously it has found a niche of passionate users, but I certainly haven't had much luck convincing most of my non-techie friends to start using the site. And, unfortunately for Twitter, if they were to expand their service beyond status messages, I think they'd be doubly-screwed, because at that point they're actually competing with Facebook. And I don't think they win that fight.

    Basically, I think Twitter's best bet is to dance with who brung it, figure out some way to monetize the service (see how I casually threw that in there, like it's a minor issue?), and eke out a profitable existence as a minor player in social networking.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Jake — Twitter's end game is unclear.

  • http://burden.ca/blog/ Tim Burden

    I have to admit to some trouble understanding the usefulness of Twitter. Maybe I haven't built a big enough network, or maybe I don't get it on some more fundamental level.

    What was wrong with email? Well, one might say, one isn't likely to email all one's friends (or casual acquaintances or people you don't even know) to tell them you are watching Battlestar right now. Well, quite frankly, I'm not that interested when I see that on Twitter, either.

    To be notified of new blog posts, why wouldn't I just subscribe to someone's RSS feed rather than follow them on Twitter? And anyway, as the recent mantra goes, the news will find me. Twitter just looks like work to me.

    And Jake has a good point about connecting with the non-techie non-bloggers: they're not using Twitter, they're using Facebook. You can do more stuff there, and you don't feel like you have to update every sneeze and hiccup in life to be participating “properly”.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Fair enough, Tim. Just admit that you're not cool enough to get
    Twitter. As for what's wrong with email, that would take a book :-)

    Seriously though, it's not for everyone. I think it's a lot like text
    messaging is for a generation younger than ours (or at least mine).
    Why do they do it? Who knows. Different reasons, I guess. Some are
    purely social, some are not — in some cases it's broadcast, in other
    cases it's a way to get input. Sometimes it's informative, sometimes
    it's not.

    What's the Internet for?

  • Pingback: CloudiD | The Echo Chamber…talk amongst yourselves.

  • http://www.winextra.com StevenHodson

    Soylent Green factor …. I so like that phrase Mathew

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Glad you like it, Steven — just give me $5 every time you use it :-)

  • http://InternetDuctTape.com engtech

    SGF is such a better term than “The Network Effect”

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Engtech :-)

  • http://burden.ca/blog/ Tim Burden

    Or maybe I'm uber-cool, for calling it. :)

    The Internet is for connecting computers together. On top of which you can build things like the Web and social networks. And?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Well, I could argue that connecting computers together is what the
    Internet *is*, not what it's *for*. But still — what are the Web and
    social networks for?

  • http://burden.ca/blog/ Tim Burden

    Staying as informed as possible, if I had to put it as succinctly as possible.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    And I guess I would answer that different people like to be informed
    about different things, in different ways. Sometimes it's a big news
    event, sometimes it's a quirky story, sometimes it's a personal update
    from a friend. Different purposes, different methods.

  • http://burden.ca/blog/ Tim Burden

    Oh, for sure, and I'm not trying to crap on people for using whatever they want to use. Personally, my problem with it appears to be twofold:
    1. signal/noise ratio
    2. work in building a network

    That last one is a bit of a Catch-22 – I don't want to put a lot of work into it until I see the value of it, and I probably won't see the value in it until I build up a network. In the meantime, I see a lot of stuff about Clinton/Obama (ahem – Dave Winer) and other stuff that doesn't interest me per se. And my friends and fellow students and journalists (except you, kind sir) don't seem to be on there.

    I want services that help me sort through all the available information quickly. Twitter doesn't do that for me. It's like a big chat room. I thought chat rooms went away in the 90's :)

    The difference now is that I can chat on there with my cell phone. Except I don't have a cell phone. Damn, you're right, I am NOT cool! :)

  • http://microblogs.ning.com jansegers

    Every major language seems to have its microblogs these days…

    but all accept English language posting with an English URL included

  • http://webosophy.ning.com jansegers

    Every major language seems to have its microblogs these days…

    but all accept English language posting with an English URL included

  • Pingback: Twitter is not microblogging; it’s social networking « Spaghetti Testing

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