The truth about twitter

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
~ David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in radio, 1920s

Maybe this title could be less provocative, but it answers to what I want to write about, which is how I have come to understand the purpose and usefulness of twitter. The quote I opened with really could have been any quote about a new technology or cultural artifact. We as humans have shown an incredible propensity to downplay just how much any given technology will affect our lives. For some reason this quote about the radio really resonated, given that twitter often seems to be about broadcasting a message to no one in particular.

Probably just as often, we believe the change to be more significant in the short term and we underestimate the long term change that the new technology represents. I don’t have a quote for that, but if you can think back to when the dot com bubble burst, you’ll get my drift. Anything internet related could return hundreds of percent in a single day, sometimes based only on an idea. Of course, if you think about how the world has changed in the past 10 years, it’s obvious to anyone that the internet really has revolutionized the way we communicate, work, interact, shop, buy things, etc. It’s not that the tech bubble craze was totally incorrect, it’s just that the value of the changes investors et al. were anticipating were 10 or more years off. We need time to absorb change. Change causes more change. It probably goes without saying that these changes that occur are non-linear and completely unfathomable 10 years prior. But all of this is relevant to twitter.

Number of tweets by % of users

Number of tweets by % of users

1. User Growth and Network Effects. If you think back, probably only a year or so, there were a lot of news stories touting twitter and how everyone and their dog was signing up for the free service. This led to a peak in new user acquisition in July 2009 of 7.8 million users that month. This has slowed to somewhere below 6.2 million per month (I believe the last figure I found was for January 2009). However, there are conflicting reports that it the service is now growing by 300K users per day, meaning that it is acquiring 9 million users or so per month.

In any case, there are about 105 million twitter users. Depending on what measures you use to consider a twitter user active, there are probably 20 million or so active users (I’m going with the reports that 80% of users have tweeted 10 times or less. I’m calling them inactive – they may be listening but they are not sharing.) This is still amazing. If twitter were a city, it would be one of the largest, most well connected cities in the world. Much as cities grow, with each new active user twitter becomes more valuable to every other user.

2. Twitter = 1/3(Digg + StumbleUpon + Google Reader) + search + Facebook + social commentary. My equation of course depends on why and how you’re using twitter. For me it’s about navigating the web, sharing cool things, and finding cool things from like-minded people within my network. The thing I originally loved about StumbleUpon was that it would help me find things I liked that I didn’t know existed and literally could not have searched for. Twitter does that plus it comes from someone you know generally or have chosen to follow. It diggs things by retweeting them, so you have a good idea of how popular something is. Google Reader is my source for everything I follow closely, but there are not enough other people I know who use it to make it useful for me – ie, I don’t have a large enough network of Google Reader friends to find stuff I didn’t know about as well as I do through twitter.

3. The strength of weak ties. That’s the title from a 1973 paper by Mark Grannovetter that I read about in Albert-László Barabási’s How we are Linked. The great thing about twitter is that it is really a whole bunch of weak ties. What I mean by this is that even among friends in the offline world there are often not a lot of overlapping connections. The reason this is important is as follows: let’s say you and your friend are both looking for a job. Between you, you share a tightly-knit social network of friends and acquaintances. If any opportunities come up, you are both privy to them through the same sources. So first of all, that means you will compete for the same resources (in this case jobs) and you will not be able to find any opportunities through only one of you (I’ve written about this earlier on this blog).

However, if you took the same situation – you and a close friend – but instead assume that you each have a completely separate group of friends, then you have likely just doubled the amount of opportunities available to one or both of you. These weak ties are often how we find jobs. And it is this nature of twitter that makes it a great place to learn about opportunities.

For example – I took two friends (@loxyisme and @jagtianinikhil) from the offline world who are active on twitter and here is what shows through its trusty venn diagram:

who we follow

This is who we follow on twitter - notice no common users between all three of us.

Who follows us

Again, nothing in common for all three of us.

I’m actually quite surprised that we share no common connections on either side of twitter (despite the fact that Loxy and Nikhil have never to my knowledge met). It’s also phenomenal that we share so few common connections between myself and either of Loxy or Nikhil: Loxy and I share a fair number of offline friends; Nikhil and I both have MBAs from UBC (albeit a year apart). I don’t know the value of weak ties in dollars, but I would venture to say that finding a job through twitter is going to be a common trend in the future.

4. What would have to be true for twitter to become a dominant form of communication? Allow others access to your API. Check. Make it run on nearly anything (computer, smartphone etc.). Check. Get an overwhelming number of users relative to similar communication options. Not yet, as I’m sure there are more people with email and cell phones than there are twitter users, but the growth rate is looking good (and accelerating if the latest figures are to be believed). Make it easy for companies to develop products that support the use of your program or product. Check. I don’t know the total number but my mind is constantly blown about every new twitter app I hear about. Make it easy to find information. Check. 600 million searches per day. Make it reliable. Not quite there yet, but there are fewer sightings of the fail whale everyday. Make it easy. Check. Make it a small change to adopt. Maybe half marks there. I feel as if I am only getting to understand twitter and its power and I’m 1.5 years and 260 tweets in.

5. Twitter teaches brevity. As a writer, I know how difficult it is to get to the heart of the matter (see: the length of this post). Any character limit would have done, but 140 is where we are with twitter, and it seems to have hit the sweet spot. It’s just long enough to get across an idea without anything extraneous. In a world overflowing with information, the ability to cut through the noise is extremely valuable.

Twitter is here to stay. Much like earlier technologies or applications, we have overstated the importance of it over the short term (it’s this fad with 100 million users that will pass) and not considered the longer term (that people are forming smaller social networks they will use to communicate and share information and that that is here to stay). Twitter is an integral part of social media – it might change, it might mutate, but the essence of it is here to stay.


Focus on Everything (subtext: another reason to use twitter)

As I plow through my Google Reader treasure trove of awesomeness, I’ve found a few related writings, at least in reference to Grannovetter’s the Strength of Weak Ties that I really must share with you. These reads of course linked to each other, but they are each worth reading on their own. First is the difference between having a purpose and having a vision, written by one of my many idols, Diego Rodriguez at IDEO. The second is by Joi Ito, who I’m sure will become one of my idols, based on the brilliance of his writing and the clarity of his thought.