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.

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