Do you get Twitter? Is a "sampled" medium good or bad?

I just returned from Jeff Pulver’s “140 Characters” conference in L.A. which was about Twitter. I asked many people if they get Twitter — not if they understand how it’s useful, but why it is such a hot item, and whether it deserves to be, with billion dollar valuations and many talking about it as the most important platform.

Some suggested Twitter is not as big as it appears, with a larger churn than expected and some plateau appearing in new users. Others think it is still shooting for the moon.

The first value in twitter I found was as a broadcast SMS. While I would not text all my friends when I go to a restaurant or a club, having a way so that they will easily know that (and might join me) is valuable. Other services have tried to do things like this but Twitter is the one that succeeded in spite of not being aimed at any specific application like this.

This explains the secret of Twitter. By being simple (and forcing brevity) it was able to be universal. By being more universal it could more easily attain critical mass within groups of friends. While an app dedicated to some social or location based application might do it better, it needs to get a critical mass of friends using it to work. Once Twitter got that mass, it had a leg up at being that platform.

At first, people wondered if Twitter’s simplicity (and requirement for brevity) was a bug or a feature. It definitely seems to have worked as a feature. By keeping things short, Twitter makes is less scary to follow people. It’s hard for me to get new subscribers to this blog, because subscribing to the blog means you will see my moderately long posts every day or two, and that’s an investment in reading. To subscribe to somebody’s Twitter feed is no big commitment. Thus people can get a million followers there, when no blog has that. In addition, the brevity makes it a good match for the mobile phone, which is the primary way people use Twitter. (Though usually the smart phone, not the old SMS way.)

And yet it is hard not to be frustrated at Twitter for being so simple. There are so many things people do with Twitter that could be done better by some more specialized or complex tool. Yet it does not happen.

Twitter has made me revise slightly my two axes of social media — serial vs. browsed and reader-friendly vs. writer friendly. Twitter is generally serial, and I would say it is writer-friendly (it is easy to tweet) but not so reader friendly (the volume gets too high.)

However, Twitter, in its latest mode, is something different. It is “sampled.” In normal serial media, you usually consume all of it. You come in to read and the tool shows you all the new items in the stream. Your goal is to read them all, and the publishers tend to expect it. Most Twitter users now follow far too many people to read it all, so the best they can do is sample — they come it at various times of day and find out what their stalkees are up to right then. Of course, other media have also been sampled, including newspapers and message boards, just because people don’t have time, or because they go away for too long to catch up. On Twitter, however, going away for even a couple of hours will give you too many tweets to catch up on.

This makes Twitter an odd choice as a publishing tool. If I publish on this blog, I expect most of my RSS subscribers will see it, even if they check a week later. If I tweet something, only a small fraction of the followers will see it — only if they happen to read shortly after I write it, and sometimes not even then. Perhaps some who follow only a few will see it later, or those who specifically check on my postings. (You can’t. Mine are protected, which turns out to be a mistake on Twitter but there are nasty privacy results from not being protected.)

TV has an unusual history in this regard. In the early days, there were so few stations that many people watched, at one time or another, all the major shows. As TV grew to many channels, it became a sampled medium. You would channel surf, and stop at things that were interesting, and know that most of the stream was going by. When the Tivo arose, TV became a subscription medium, where you identify the programs you like, and you see only those, with perhaps some suggestions thrown in to sample from.

Online media, however, and social media in particular were not intended to be sampled. Sure, everybody would just skip over the high volume of their mailing lists and news feeds when coming back from a vacation, but this was the exception and not the rule.

The question is, will Twitter’s nature as a sampled medium be a bug or a feature? It seems like a bug but so did the simplicity. It makes it easy to get followers, which the narcissists and the PR flacks love, but many of the tweets get missed (unless they get picked up as a meme and re-tweeted) and nobody loves that.

On Protection: It is typical to tweet not just blog-like items but the personal story of your day. Where you went and when. This is fine as a thing to tell friends in the moment, but with a public twitter feed, it’s being recorded forever by many different players. The ephemeral aspects of your life become permanent. But if you do protect your feed, you can’t do a lot of things on twitter. What you write won’t be seen by others who search for hashtags. You can’t reply to people who don’t follow you. You’re an outsider. The only way to solve this would be to make Twitter really proprietary, blocking all the services that are republishing it, analysing it and indexing it. In this case, dedicated applications make more sense. For example, while location based apps need my location, they don’t need to record it for more than a short period. They can safely erase it, and still provide me a good app. They can only do this if they are proprietary, because if they give my location to other tools it is hard to stop them from recording it, and making it all public. There’s no good answer here.

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