As Twitter leaves the realms of ‘joiner geek’ social network, and (partly due to it’s integration with platforms like Facebook), becomes a more popular and diverse service, its utility is being more rigorously critiqued. What is Twitter for? Its a cogent question. In a world of blogs, microblogs, and social networks, what’s the use of twitter? Is it merely a loose knit social network, or a (nano) blogging platform? Is it just the latest fad? Lets look at some real world uses of Twitter, how its utility differs from more traditional blogging platforms, and some scenarios in which it could be more effectively used.
Real world use
Right now, twitters use is primarily as a loosely coupled, mobile social network. The barriers to membership and use are low – as the platform is quick to join and simple to use; and adding ‘friends’ can be done easily and quickly. Perhaps too easily, since no confirmation is required to ‘subscribe’ to a user. Mass adding of contacts within twitter is a quick way of creating an audience – as some of those added will tend to add back the mass connector, creating potentially unwanted one way connections.
Twitter has strong but limited communication features. Users can receive updates (‘tweets’) from their ‘friends’ via web, RSS, IM or (free) text message. They can send their own tweets, through Twitter or a host of other websites, IM or paid text messages.
Tweets are either undirected, direct, or aimed at a user, but visible to the general audience (signified by the @ symbol). A general audience in this context can be either the public at large, or a users entire friend group, depending on privacy setting. Blocking is available – and users can only directly message their friends.
However no fine grained control is available – users cannot for example, chose to receive text message notifications of tweets from one specific user, or group of users. In fact no user groups or gradations of connection exist within twitter. Aspects of this functionality may ultimately emerge from third party applications.
With built in text messaging functionality, Twitter has the capacity to function as a ‘short message’ (140 character) moblogging platform. While it lacks MMS picture support, it has the advantage of immediate one to many connectivity. As such, it can be used to provide news updates and reports of ongoing events.
A conversation emerges in the ‘friends’ feed of a users twitter; visible from their profile on Twitter.com or via RSS. Although direct messages are not visible to all, as previously stated, frequently publicly visible messages are directed at a user, through use of the @ sign. This allows a users friends or readers to engage in conversation, and allows a user to publicly flag the existence of their communication with high status users. In effect this serves to pull users on the periphery of the network into more direct conversation with more centrally connected users. In this role Twitter can provide a form of ad hoc business social networking.
Blogging grew in part, out of link logging, and the low time cost and mobile nature of Tweets, makes Twitter ideal for sharing links with a directed audience. Due to the character limit of ‘tweets’, links are often truncated using services like Url.ie or slink.in.
Future Use 1 – Group management
As previously mentioned, creating user groups is not yet a feature offered by Twitter, but their addition would allow significant additional emergent uses of the platform. Work teams, clubs, and institutions could use Twitters push messaging to notify members of meetings and updates. Rather than acting as a replacement for traditional systems of notification (e.g.: email memo’s), Twitters immediacy would make it ideal for notification of last minute changes of plan, or time sensitive communications – especially with large or loosely affiliated groups.
Future Use 2 – Mobile applications
Applications are already being built around twitter, but none have yet taken advantage of the powerful utility of the mobile communication capabilities built into the platform. Twitter applications should in theory proliferate virally, due to the public nature of visible ‘@’ directed communications – in a similar fashion to the recent viral growth of applications on the Facebook platform. However this can only take place if an applications utility necessitates two way communication with its users. ‘Mashups’, which utilise the API’s of two or more external services to create a new service providing additional utility, hold great potential in this regard. Combine low cost two way mobile communication, with social application proliferation, API sourced data, and multicasting, and a variety of potential services become obvious. The viability of businesses which utilise Twitter in this way will be dependent on the future reliability of the platform, and on Twitters tolerance of providing host to an emergent ‘ecosystem’ (positive construal) or ‘parasite infestation’ (negative construal) of applications.