Thursday, May 28, 2009

What is Twitter Part 2. Media and what comes next.

In the last post about Twitter, I was focused primarily on discussing how communication channels have evolved and changed. While we use a variety of channels to communicate with different people in different ways, the primary function is communication, i.e. the transmission of a message. In point to point communication, all the value of that transmission is contained in the information between the two parties, or in the case of the forwarding on of a funny message, to the various parties sent that message. It is the telephone game with no loss of signal in the message.

In this post I want to discuss more about how these different communication channels are changing the understanding of media. When people use the word media there are two ways to think about it. The first is that media is communication, and that would certainly be consistent with how I think about the previous post. Twitter is yet another way for people to communicate. The other way we think about media is what I would call big M media. Big M media would be movies, music, news, advertising, etc. Media is entertainment. Media is a way we disseminate culture, for better or worse. We watch American Idol, or go see the new Star Trek, or in my case we talk about the funny baby eTrade commercials. There is a message to share to a broad audience. I think the interesting thing about the evolution of the various communication channels is that we are slowly developing a personal broadcast mechanism that has power not unlike what we see coming from the studios, the record labels, and the big advertising agencies. Let me explain.

Most communication content is designed to be consumed by one other person or in some cases a group of people. I send an email to my wife to see if she can meet me for dinner, or I email my team to give an update on an important deal. The message in either of those cases is purely meant to convey a message and nothing more. In fact, the content of that message is probably not of any use to anyone else. There are a number of important things to think about in this case to make the message relevant and the most important thing in these cases are context. Without context these message mean little else to anyone. While email can be something that communicates to a broad audience, i.e. look at Jason Calacanis's mailing list, or the Pho list, it's primary use case has been point to point communication.

From a timing standpoint, in terms of development as tools, I would argue the next relevant item would be the development of blogs. The advent of Live Journal, Xanga and Blogger all ushered in the creation of media for 3rd parties. In my opinion blogging was bifurcated into usage by the technorati like Dave Winer and others (arguably Userland is one of the earliest platforms) and usage by kids. In the case of the technorati, blogging was a way of sharing thoughts on technology, politics and other ideas where one hoped to influence a wide audience. In the case of kids it was to share stuff with friends. It could be that I am having a crappy day or a link to a funny site, or the sharing of some personal or meaningful experience.

The interesting thing about blogging is that in general it is public, and in general I would ague that the authors write with the understanding that the context may be personal but the platform is public, For me, I have found that a number of my friends periodically check my blog out (when I am actually writing) to keep up to date with what is going on in my life. In this case blogging is still primarily communication but it also can become something more akin to media that is meant to be consumed by more than one person or a small audience. Witness sites like Techmeme that keep people in the technology business up to date with the latest news. If I want to stay on top of technology, it is Techmeme which is primarily made up of tech and personal blogs that is a critical item on my daily reading list. There are no print or other sources of professional content that can keep up with the flow. As this sort of information becomes increasingly important, the concept of traditional media having value as an important unbiased 3rd party source of information begins to become undermined.

There are a variety of sites that are similar to blogs that are important that I am going to skip until I get to the conclusion of this post. They are every bit as important as text based blogs but are more vertically focused. These sites are photoblogs, music sharing sites like, event focused sites like Eventful and location centric sites like Brightkite and Loopt. There are certainly others and I think it is important to address them, but I think a discussion of social networking sites is the next in order.

In 2004 when we started our company, Friendster had either peaked or was peaking. A small site called Myspace was growing quickly and a number of the blogging sites were adopting some of the features of these newly created social networking sites. The social networking sites were just taking off and in the subsequent 5 years sites like Facebook became the standard bearer of these friend sites. In fact, the most important thing about both Myspace and Facebook was the amazing reach. While a lot of these sites started out as a place to promote bands or to connect with your college buddies and girlfriends, they crossed over. Today, just about everybody uses these sites. The important question is how do they use these sites. The two main things people us them for is to communicate directly with others and to share. The communicate with others piece is what I referred to in the first post, it is the share piece that I think is most important in this one.

Sharing is a transformative thing for a lot of social networking users. While blogging has attracted a large population of users, sharing is something that almost everyone who uses a social networking site does. Sharing can be as simple as a post saying, Happy Monday, or as involved as sharing pictures of your family, a link to a youtube video or links to interesting articles on the web. In many ways, the infrastructure of the social networking sites allow you to create an image of your self that is the collection of things you declare in your profile, objects you link to, and things you say and share with your "friends" in public. While anyone can see my blog, only my "friends" can see my most personal things. The thing I have found most profound in the social networking sites is the willingness of others to share on such a large scale, especially people who I had previously considered very private.

This sharing experience is a core prerequisite behavior for something like Twitter to be successful. Twitter was originally described as microblogging. Sharing small pieces of content or experience. I am on vacation. Here is a link to a photo. Here is a link to a website or interesting article. Information becomes very bursty. It may be less important to know much about me and rather it is more important to know about my stream, my activities, the things I read. Whereas my blog or social networking page is a comprehensive collection of things I write, or things about me, or things I want to share in a broad way, Twitter is the firehose of things I share on the fly. When filtered it becomes the real time collection of information on particular subjects, or people, or other things such as my geolocation.

From this there are two major things that I find myself thinking about. The first is what does this behavior do to traditional media? The second is what happens long term to what we view as social networking? For the sake of clarity I want to hit the first one and will then follow up with a much briefer post on the later as I have to admit that I like everyone else has no idea what comes next. So what happens to media? We witness the newspaper business rapidly declining and most likely moving to a purely online presence. We see Youtube consuming an increasing portion of mindshare of consumers watching both amateur and professional content. The core question here is whether or not I would rather surf my friends posts and links or watch television or something else. Is it more interesting for me to passively consume content, or to share things I find interesting and view things my friends find interesting. While an idea or article or video can be rapidly spread to my 100s of friends online how does media take advantage of that? Do I friend tv shows, movies and bands? In a lot of cases the answer is yes. Marketing in this world has to change to use this way of reaching new audiences.

In reality I don't think that media as we know it changes very quickly overnight. I would ague that the rapid rise of Hulu is a great demonstration of how traditional media can learn from the new online realities of Youtube and other social media. I do think though that over time there will be increasing pressure for the attention of people who find that looking at the things their friends are doing is much more interesting that American Idol. While I don't know what happens in this new world, I will speculate in the final post, but the thing I think that one should take away is that expression on these new platforms has crossed over to a mass audience. Sharing, posting, linking are not just habits of the techno elite. My friends from high school do this. Our parents are doing this. Our kids are growing up with this as a given behavior. What will come out of this remains to be seen but I am certain that we are witnessing a fundamental transformation in how we interact with each other and what we think of as entertainment and media. While there will be inevitable disruption in these changes, they will also bring new opportunities.

1 comment:

MaidoAri said...

Thanks for the brilliant posts about Twitter- "firehose of things I share on the fly" is one of the most accurate descriptions of tweets ever made.

Of course you don't know what comes next, nobody does- except perhaps our kids ;-)

Well, there have been a couple of people who could see the writing on the wall and predict the future of media- by understanding the nature of media. Our patron saint of media is undoubtedly Marshall McLuhan. He taught us the lessons that were decades ahead of his time. The success of Twitter and other SocNet sites is firmly based on his seminal phrases; "the medium is the message" and "global village". Two precepts that still have the intellectual upper hand, even in this ever-changing world.