On Twitter drift, hype and the infancy of the real-time web

My gripe of the month concerns Twitter.  The one with the bird on it.

Why Twitter at all ?

First of all, I love Twitter. It has killed my limited Facebook usage and slowly replaces Skype IM.  I find it is a filtered, interesting view of the world, contrary to most public gripes about the tool.  I get fantastic insights from the likes of @parkparadigm, @azeem, @robinklein, @aainslie, @venturehacks (some of the more careful and select twitterers in the list of 200 or so that I follow).  The key benefit is simple: I choose who I want to see, it's RSS on acid.  People I follow mostly drive me towards interesting long-form content.   If you still ignore this tool (or concept) as a fad (and I know many people who do), I think you should be Scobleized.  I follow about 200 and have about 1,500 followers, spend zero time configuring and get great value and entertainment out of it.

I also think it's just a first iteration of what the whole real time web should be about, and only a part of the puzzle.  

I read twitter as follows:

  • As elegant as SMS
  • A great filtering mechanism (it's the 10,000 channels you choose to watch)
  • Makes you feel close to the people you follow even though you do not know them
  • Possibly a distribution / broadcasting protocol

Twitter is not a lifestreaming tool

I got really annoyed over the last few days by:

  • a great creative thinker trying to run an entire conversation on what "value" means and as a result  "twitter spamming" his followers and their followers
  • a friend of mine using a tool to autotwitter concerts he "might like to see" using SongKick, leading to a regular stream of "I might like to see bon Iver in concert" or whatever.
  • another friend using a similar tool to share his movie ratings on Lovefilm

If they do that for 3 days, I am unfollowing.  If the whole world starts linking twitter to various update tools to let me know what they would like for Xmas, I am turning it off.   I am not sure about facebook updates yet,feels like it's thw wrong way around.  But I certainly don't want Twitter to become friendfeed.

For twitter to become a carrier protocol for the real time web, it's going to need much smarter tools or intefaces than the simple act of "follow", and this may threaten its simple elegance.

IMO there is much more to be invented here, this is clearly not the endgame in real time web experience.  I think early use of Twitter as a lifestreamer was besides the point in terms of its true value and potential.

If you think of Twitter is an asymmetric, social short messaging protocol, it probably encompasses a number of uses such as microblogging and lifestreaming, news/links broadcasting and re-broadcasting, messaging, etc all with followers wanting different elements from the folks they follow.  

As ever on the web, the glorious mess derived from the simplest (most elegant) product paradigm produces the greatest richness of use.


  • Twitter is not a microblogging platform, this is a misnomer, microblogging is a usage subset
  • Twitter can only be grasped by looking at its uses and it's ecosystem (Tweetdeck for me) as it keeps evolving
  • Facebook is a more complete interface that owns your social profile (ultimately everyone ends up on Facebook / Linked In) and may "own" or aggregate your various streams including twitter
  • Facebook will always have more (human) users than twitter and who cares

It's not complicated but it is complex

Since I am whining today, what annoys me in general with the web and the whole 2.0 "industry" is this misguided notion that every new wave kills the previous one.  Content Meme of 2009: "Oh, blogging is dead, it's now all about the real time web".  Hum.  Maybe blogging is a relatively small self-publishing industry that is getting subsumed into publishing in general, but it's certainly not dead.  Just as twitter does not "replace" blogging, print media will shrink but not disappear and content farming will not kill handcrafted editorial.  They all do different things.

People seem to continuously lament the fact that industrialists take over their innovations and appropriate them (e.g. so called A-list bloggers were replaced with professional publishers, celebrities are now the biggest twitterers, and so on…) even though the very process is what helps them build large companies.  By default if we decide all content is republishable, shareable, should hardly be attributed, we are inviting the automation of content production and migration of value to the ones who control the (supposedly hapless) audiences.

Guess what, we all hoped the web would lead to enlightenment, but it may not really be changing that much in the end… I would almost want to extend that debate into attacking the entire notion that technology per se is good or that it represents by default positive progress, but that will take more time than I have now and I need to think about this a bit more.  One for the new year I think :-) 

In the meantime I am with Doc Searls here: whatever else happens, great content is there to be crafted and read, enjoyed and shared.

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11 Responses to On Twitter drift, hype and the infancy of the real-time web

  1. You are spot on as usual. Innovation in this space, perhaps in the form of what I like to call “Fragmented Aggregation” models such as the hyper-smart move by WordPress to mirror (i.e. copy conform) Twitter’s API, will likely bring us as much velocity of progress as experienced over the past 3 years, compressed into the 12 months span of 2010. (see Slashdot & @DaveWiner on the subject: http://bit.ly/6YrLbf http://bit.ly/5WkyFh http://bit.ly/8iv9hi )

    Exciting times indeed. I would be careful picking my winners. They may not be the obvious ones we see today.

  2. Fun thoughts and writing Fred. Couldn’t agree more. And as Facebook aggregates the social profile, Twitter aggregates the information profile, or graph. Different use cases, different benefits, etc. Both are innovative though I find Twitter’s implicit *outsourcing” of its UI and functionality (via API) to be the most thought provoking.

    And to add to the whine, what sometimes bugs me in our industry is the lack of any institutional memory. Just as nothing new kills the earlier, sometimes today’s models can be found simply by looking backwards too.

  3. Derek says:

    I like the “infancy” nomenclature here, as there are a number of different types of content feeds (twitter, blogs, other online content) vying for brain share along with print information sources and other applications such as facebook or linkedin.

    It will be interesting to see how information and content delivery evolves – hopefully those who continue to carp about how “blogging is dead” follow such thoughts with insight into the end-users of technology and the recipients/consumers of information rather than a new widget or technology paradigm.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the great thoughts, Fred.

    Out of curiosity: Why is microblogging a misnomer? What does it mean that Twitter (as you see it) is not?

    Just wondering….

  5. Samaparicio says:

    Fred.. consider you may be suffering from self-selection bias. Just because you use twitter mostly as a content filter to get you to longer-form content doesn’t mean that most people do.

    I follow the same usage pattern than you do, and I thought most people did, until I clicked on a trending topic #whymencheat and then I realized that all those users had absolutely nothing to do with me or how I use Twitter. I also don’t understand why most of the people using that hashtag are african americans. But clearly, a different demographic.

    Of the 58M uniques in Twitter, I would say <2M use it as you describe in your post. What's your guess?

  6. sondjata says:

    Nice to know someone else has the 3 day rule as well.

  7. Fred Destin says:

    @ Jonathan @Samaparicio: Replying to both as you expose a weakness in the post — if Twitter is a generic short communication protocol, then it has a subset of potential uses microblogging, news rebroadcasting, messaging and so on. I could well belong to a minority of users who enjoy it for a mix of filtering (primarily), DM’ing (sometimes) and some social fun along the way

  8. Thanks for the great thoughts, Fred.

    Out of curiosity: Why is microblogging a misnomer? What does it mean that Twitter (as you see it) is not?

  9. Fred Destin says:

    Reusing content from above: if Twitter is a generic short communication protocol, then it has a subset of potential uses microblogging, news rebroadcasting, messaging and so on.

  10. James says:

    Sorry folks, Twitter will go the way of the hula hoop very soon. I’m surprised that you didn’t mention the ‘faddyness’ of the product. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Also be nice to hear from you re: the benefits of investing in it. Really, how is Twitter going to make money? Or a lot of it anyhow? I think many of the new social trends are more like media companies – lots’ of hype, cool places to work, but treacherous or unprofitable business models. Kind of like Rolling Stone magazine or something.

  11. Fred Destin says:

    If your contention is that Twitter cannot possibly be the end-game, I would agree. It’s still so unwieldy, this cannot possibly be the end game, right ? However I don’t think it would be wise to discount the innovation at work because the current instantiation of it is not great, if you get my drift.

    If your contention is we are re-living part of what we lived in 1999 with a younger generation of think the revolution is overdue, sure. I would not be so bold as to discount the deep disruptive power of the likes of facebook or youtube as mere hype though.

    I find it very hard to generalize. I think you are directionally right to be cynical.