Twitter utilitarianism

Last month, Guy Kawasaki explored the use of Twitter as a means to make his website better. He credited that channel with enabling him to make new friends, strengthen his existing social network, and preserve his cultural heritage. Tweets also helped increase traffic to desired web sites and improve the quality of content there. Guy was able to both broadcast links of interest and receive and process feedback about those destinations that resulted in meaningful improvements. Even further back in the spring, before Twitter has become a Web 2.0 phenomenon, these themes of marketing, news, networking and efficiency clearly provided the foundation of Twitter’s appeal.

My Twitter Friends
Initially, my information stream was purposely small, consisting of family, colleagues, new acquaintances and famous people.

Who tweets, and how do they do it?
Tuesday is the anniversary of Robert Scoble’s first tweet. At a clip of about 14-15 tweets a day on average, the A-list blogger has spent the past year using Twitter to promote his site and share his life with a mass of readers. More amazingly, he manages to converse with many of his 6,891 followers, splitting tweets fairly evenly between posted links and directed replies to other users.

Scoble is on the extreme active side of the user spectrum, but he isn’t the biggest producer of content. According to TwitDir, there are two accounts at the top end of the tweet count, omankoxxx and freshpodcasts. The former has a record 253,031 tweets (and counting) but only two followers and three others being followed. The latter has 209,532 tweets—all published between March 6 and September 5, 2007—broadcasting to 56 followers with no one being followed. Together, these three accounts are representative of three kinds of Twitter members.

Tweets and followers
A snapshot of Twitter posts to number of followers (source: “Why We Twitter” slideset)

A University of Maryland study published in 2007 captured 1,348,543 tweets from 76,177 members over a two-month period between April and May. The researchers analyzed of both content and network structure of their sample. One of the outcomes was a graph (above) showing the relationship of tweets to followers. Those with high posts and few followers are considered spammers, while those with many followers and few posts are information sources. The authoritative bloggers—sources like Scoblizer and TechCrunch—are high in both areas.

The same study also concluded that there are four common user intentions for members on Twitter:

  • Daily Chatter—talk about daily routines and activities.
  • Conversations—use of the @ to specifically reference another member
  • Sharing Information—inclusion of a pointer referenced in the tweet
  • Reporting News—manual and automated reporting of new information, typically through mashups with RSS feeds

This first attempt to officially categorize twitterers through academic analysis offers a good road map toward understanding the signature characteristics of Twitter members and how people make use of their 140 characters to contribute to the information stream.

In August, Nancy White started collecting stories of collaboration, as is the fan wiki. Below are several specific examples of utilization that have appeared since last spring.

Twitter as a news channel
Back in early September, Washington state Republican Jennifer Dunn died. Before people could read about it through traditional media sources, or even Wikipedia, it was reported through Twitter. That is because early adopters are finding it easy to compose a sentence or two to share with others immediately as part of the process of releasing more in-depth reports. The news doesn’t have to be worthy of filing with Associated Press, either. One can learn a lot just by following the daily thoughts of friends. For bloggers and journalists alike, the tweet stream can be a great source of story ideas.

Twitter is also being used to bring writers together. ReportTwitters is an effort to use Twitter to strengthen the community of professional and amateur reporters. Members tweet about the process of getting and filing a story, offering tips and a transparent look behind the bylines. Bloggers Blog is tweeting information about the writers’ strike on a regular basis, adding to the solidarity base by highlighting how widespread the support is for the picket line.

Twitter as an alert system
The low barrier to reporting makes Twitter an ideal channel for alerting a community to danger. Both the recent California earthquake and the rampaging fires in San Diego were well-covered through tweets, providing important information about where the dangers were, what damage had been done, and posting links to deeper resources. The emergency channel extends outside the affected area, giving remote friends and family the opportunity to reach out with thoughts of support and get confirmation that everything is all right. In Bloomington, our twitosphere has its own brush with local danger, and Twitter beat email and blogs to the punch as a means of alerting the community.

Twitter as a virtual conference
In October, I wanted to go to Montreal to attend the third WikiSym. Logistics prevented it from happening, but I appealed to the wiki gurus to get a tweet stream flowing to cover what I was missing. That didn’t work out the way I wanted, but Twitter does make for a great back channel for events. Ground Zero for this use, of course, is the South by Southwest Conference of March 2007 when Twitter won an award in a coming out party that featured big screen displays and a surge in member registrations. In a less formal manner, Twitter is also great for documenting group experiences and annotating walking tours.

Twitter as a marketing tool
Early in the rise of Twitter, the 140-character space has been used effectively to sell books as an affiliate and promote both concerts and new television shows. Most of the blog posts about the service now seem to be related to leveraging Twitter for marketing. There are many different takes on how this is best done, but most agree that the personal nature of the tweet-to-tweet contact—which Ed Dale calls “side-by-side communication“—is a way to reach consumers and potential business partners without raising their defenses. Businesses can announce sales, solicit feedback, and understand customers in a way not easily done through other channels. The highly relevant nature of the tweet instills greater value on marketing content that is voluntarily included in a personal information stream. There is no major spam problem in Twitter because getting a message in that stream requires the reader not only intentionally following an account but also that the producer contribute in a way that does not inspire the same person to remove the account from view.

Twitter as a tool for social change
The tweets aren’t just opportunities to advertise products and services; it is also a chance to express political opinion and persuade others to adopt causes. As Beth Kantor, “Rather than complaining or telling the world you’re eating hot oatmeal, sharing a sense of accomplishment towards a reach goal is inspiring.” Twitter not only provides a simple but flexible space to express one’s self, but it does so in a way that allows each individual reader to control their own consumption of that information. Compare that to Facebook, where too much unwanted information is shared in large social circles. The selective nature of the personal information stream increases the relevance and impact of the tweets that do get read.

Among the early adopters have been politicians. A few presidential candidates are tweeting their campaign trail as they ready for primary season in 2008. Early last summer, Obvious, the company that created Twitter, cracked down on identity squatting on the names of famous people. But there are several legitimate uses by campaigns, most notably Barack Obama and John Edwards. Twitter is a medium that can unite existing community or identify new ones, making it ideal for building constituent support.

Twitter as a help desk
Librarians and educators are looking at Web 2.0 as a potential resource in getting answers to people, but it is also true that Twitter users have been relying on tweets to answer their questions since inception. It is not uncommon to ask about restaurants, web sites, or movie reviews by posting such questions on Twitter. PlusPlusBot is a new communal poll utility that parses pluses and minuses to keep track of ratings of various terms and users. Twitter has also been connected to shared databases through third-party mashups, giving followers access to stored data from the tweet stream.

Twitter as a creative activity
Members think outside the box in the many ways they use Twitter, such as writing only in haiku. My favorite use is Aric McKeown’s community game of hide and seek, inspired by a Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” Aric spends a day in a local coffee shop, tweeting clues about his location for followers to come find him and earn a little sponsored prize. If there were ever an ideal use for the constraints of a tweet, however, it would be in passing along the wit of the king of dry one-liners, Steven Wright. His short-form humor is perfect , even if someone else is the one posting the material.

5 thoughts on “Twitter utilitarianism

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  4. Excellent spread of resources and info, Kevin.

    In a similar vein to Google, I think the underlying biggest use that Twitter will represent is data mining. There’s nothing more powerful than getting to know peoples’ habits and Twitter will, pretty much, represent a capitalistic laser sight on the chest of all its users.

    Nice pics, too.
    ps. Follow the link in my name and check out my “1984” portrayal of Twitter. 😉

  5. The data mining aspect will probably be covered in a few days when I post something on visualizing Twitter. And your own issues with missing posts are going to show up on the weekend in the criticism topic.

    I think you are right, though, that data consumption is a valid category to add to this list. I would love to see a study done on how information propagates through Twitter and which sources are used on new reporting. Perhaps someone’s dissertation …

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