Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What is Twitter? Thoughts on communication and media part 1.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the tide pools near our house with some other parents and their kids. A couple of the moms were talking about Twitter, and knowing that I stay up on the current stuff in technology, they asked me if I used Twitter and they wanted to know what it was. I said that I had been using Twitter for 3 years and was one of the first 1000 users (actually user number 590. ) @Derrick . That was the easy part of the question. The harder questions was What is Twitter? I don't recall exactly but I mumbled something about it being a broadcast communication facility to share information with friends. I guess at some level that is technically correct but really punts on the question and sounds dumb. I thought a more worked out answer would be interesting to help my understanding and and to share some of the broader implications with some friends. Hence this post.

In the fall of 2004 I was involved in the podcasting meme of the moment and as a result helped found a podcasting music association with a bunch of fellow indie music podcasters called The Association Of Music Podcasting (which is still going strong here.) We had some discussions with Adam Rugel from Odeo about working with them and somehow during one of my travels I managed to have a meeting with Evan Williams and Biz Stone to talk about podcasting sometime late in 2005. When I met with them, they were actually more interested in talking about what I was doing with Intercasting and Rabble. We talked for a long time about mobile and I have to say it was an enjoyable chat.

A month or two later one of my friends told me they were working on some kind of sms based messaging service called Twitter. I thought that was interesting but I knew that some of the services that had done this previously had hit some roadblocks. Not knowing the specifics I didn't think about it much. A little while later Adam sent me an invite when the service launched. Right off the bat, I thought of a service called UPOC.

UPOC was launched in 1999 by a number of guys including friend Greg Clayman and was interestingly also backed by Fred Wilson. UPOC stood for universal point of contact and the company did a great job of building out the infrastructure to send and receive messages and to organize discussions into groups. They of course also did a great job of getting carrier traction and gained great presence on deck. So why no Twitter? Not sure and frankly I never asked Greg or anyone else but my firsthand experience with UPOC circa 2004 was a very high noise to signal ratio and the use of the chat rooms or channels as the primary communication mechanism. They did get to the millions of users level but never went viral or anything like that.

Twitter at first seemed like a web 2.0, less crowded, less organized version of UPOC. I invited a handful of friends and turned on phone alerts and away I went. I didn't run into anything too out there but it was generally a quiet experience. I have to point out at this juncture that the comparison to UPOC is completely lacking any acknowledgement of the Twitter as platform, Open APIs, and other things that have helped make Twitter the juggernaut it is today. In any case Twitter to me seemed to quietly hum along until SXSW 2007. That was the first step function in growth. One on the most interesting things about community is the concept of inventory. A community without any users/inventory is nothing. SXSW helped to jump start the community aspect in a big way. This year as shown on this chart has really shown the true epic inflection of Twitter. Make sure you adjust the settings to max to see the whole chart.

There are two main concepts that I think are important to consider in thinking about Twitter. The first concept is the evolution of communication. The second concept is around the evolution of media. I will try to hit the first one in the rest of this post and follow up on the second in a following post and also outline some implications I think fall out from all of this. So what do I mean by the evolution of communication? As it relates to the two concepts mentioned there is the method by which information flows between people, and there is the actual content that flows. For the purposes of this post I am talking about how things have changed in terms of the method by which we transfer information. In many ways the changes have been subtle, but the impact is pretty profound.

Most of us who started using technology on a broad scale in high school or earlier depending on our age, are pretty familiar with email. In the pre Mosaic world, text was king and the highest value activity on the "Internet" was either sending text and files back and forth over email or arguably using some form of bbs or chat like channel to interact in a more real time way. Email went on to pervade pretty much all of our lives in the industrial world. Email on my computer, my Blackberry, my phone, are all meaningful time drains on anyone who lives a connected life. It is also how most of us manage our day and how we process information. It is the drum beat of our day.

Email has reduced the amount of faxes in our life. It has reduced a lot of the paper. I think I get one to two pieces of dead tree each day and on average 200+ emails. With the victory of email has come spam. If this is the main way one interacts with the "Internets" then it is the best place to get you to respond to Viagra ads, or Nigerian wealth scams, or whatever. And so we arm ourselves with tools and methods to defeat this but in general realize we have probably reached a peak utility for email for now and many of us look for new/better replacement mechanisms. In the work environment I would offer that there are no obvious better alternatives and we are left with efforts to lock down the enterprise and barricade off the spam. But what if you are a consumer? What can you do?

Some choose IM. Don't get me wrong, instant messaging is by no means a replacement for email, but I do know that for the legions of kids behind computers all day, and for the many kids carrying around devices like Sidekicks, instant messaging is a primary method of communicating. I started using IM in 1999 at MP3.com and over the years it became the primary way for me to keep in touch with my staff when I am on the road which is always. the more interesting part about IM is that it has a different mode of communication that email. Email is sprawling, comprehensive and something that you actually have to process. Instant messaging is fast, specific, and to the point. IM is for when I don't want to send an email and I don't want to pick up a phone and call you. How r things? Good? Kewl.

Another short bursty method of communication that started big outside the US and is now every bit as big here is SMS. SMS is very much like IM to me with a shorter back and forth. Call me when you land. Dude that was a riot. etc. While these things are all very different (Email, IM and SMS) they are all very much at their core communication functions and they are used to carry on certain types of conversations or information exchanges. The different forms are also used by different groups although I would argue that over time there aren't going to be strong demographic differences like kids only texting etc. My wife's aunt is really into texting right now. I smile when she sends me messages.

So to continue this thread of evolution of communication I think the next logical step is to talk about blogging. While Twitter is most like SMS to many, I think the lineage of some other modes is important to get a better feel for Twitter. So back in the late 90s buys like John Hiler at Xanga, Brad Fitzpatrick at Live Journal and Evan Williams at Blogger created tools for simple publication of thoughts ideas etc. This was/is huge for a big chunk of the youth demographic. Actually I would argue it has crossed from youth to people of all ages. Blogging is something I picked up back in 2004 and have been at with the exception of about a year hiatus since. I found blogging an interesting way to share my thoughts with friends and to document things for myself. I gained a ton of satisfaction when seeing friends and they knew what I had been up to as a result of my blog. Time well spent.

Blogging as communication? Absolutely. It is one way but you do have comments and are able to carry on conversations around topics, ideas or funny stuff. Blogs can be link blogs, dense theme based blogs, or just silly random stuff. One of the big downsides of blogs though is that they are a one person party in general. There are not people hanging out at your blog. Since the time of Friendster, those people have been congregating at the social networking sites of the world which are what I would argue are the next steps beyond blogging.

Social networking sites as communication tools. Most of the big popular social networking sites today have email, chat/IM and the ability to share posts or content not unlike blogs. For many kids, they may check email once a week and check their profile pages on Myspace or Facebook 10 times a day. This has made the sites extremely important in the battle for things like search and advertising. If we live our digital lives on a specific site, then that real estate is obviously of some of the highest value and I would argue that today that still remains the main battlefield in terms of Internet monetization and opportunity.

Twitter when originally launched was described as micro-blogging. A lot of this was driven by the constraint that SMS message only allow 140 characters which is the limit Twitter implemented. The big thing though that Twitter did in my opinion was the developed API framework. If blogging was my party at my house, and Facebook and Myspace is THE party that I need to be at to have my friends here me, then Twitter is an electrical plug that can be plugged into anywhere. I can update it from my phone. I can use a Twitter IM client. I can use the web. Not only can I send stuff to Twitter for others to see, but I can get Twitter data and consume it other places.

It is an interesting concept. Email and IM and SMS are point to point communication. Blogging is broadcast, social networking is broadcast. Twitter is broadcast but also re syndication and the development of a framework construct around pure message flow. There are whole pieces of ecosystems that have popped up around this. Twitpic and Twitgoo for photos. URL shortening like Tinyurl for sending links. A whole semantic language around topic organization using #.

I would stop here and go to the next post but I think the last important mode of communication evolution that should also be touched upon is the idea of site information aggregation. I think I mentioned before that I was an advisor and board member of Socialthing which AOL acquired last year. They are very similar to Friend Feed which is a storied Silicon Valley startup from one of the former top guys at Google. These sites both create a one stop shop for people to view all their friends across a ton of services and to also create content there to send out to the various services. I know that I use socialthing everyday to monitor about 7 different services and have to think that there is a movement from centralization, to decentralization, to reaggregation that consumers will ultimately want as they fatigue the constant introduction on new services. Hard to say but definitely something to also watch.

Post 2 to come...

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