The Point of Twitter

Earlier today on Twitter I commented about the “insanity” that is Robert Scoble following 21,000+ people on the group messaging and microblogging service. Since his bot (software robot) monitors everything on Twitter for mentions of his name, he saw my comment and challenged me.

Scobleizer @fuzheado thinks he knows the point of Twitter and says I don’t. This might be interesting. Might.

Twitter limits you to 140 characters per post, so I had to be succinct:

Twitter is a modern digital commons – nonhierarchical, transparent, open, human-speed. Once bots inhabit it, tragedy perhaps.

Earlier that day I was thinking about what Twitter “was” before the Scoble tweet.

Twitter’s model is simple but powerful — complete transparency. Anyone in the Twitterverse can see what you’re receiving, who you are following and who’s following you. It creates a continually changing set of readers and writers, allowing peer discovery faster than any other SNS. Some other features help.

“Retweeting” an interesting post to your followers effectively bridges two disconnected cliques. The directed “@user” messages send an exploratory “Tweet” to make contact with new peers. It’s great in its simplicity, and the Twitter API furthers extendibility and usability.

The Internet had a lot of naysayers in the 1990s — people complained it was a peer-to-peer system that created ghettos. Terms like narrowcasting, personalized media, customized front pages and the Daily Me all implied compartmentalized lonely existences. Twitter does the opposite, by embracing radical transparency to support serendipitous discovery and social mixing. Perhaps it’s why a number of Twitterers have been noticing they spend a lot less time on Facebook. They’ve hit a wall with their “trusted” network of friends. They’ve tagged photos, thrown sheep, played 100 games of Scrabulous and reunited with old classmates. But they didn’t really broaden their horizons.

For English-language China-oriented bloggers, Twitter has fostered a nimble community whether it’s about Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, business, arts, pop culture, academic, Olympics, you name it. Suddenly a disparate set of folks are discovering each other, trading 140-character info nuggets faster than ever before. And with recent Olympic torch dramas and Carrefour boycotts, it’s been the only info stream that can keep up with breaking events.

Elliott Ng at has a metric-heavy analysis of who’s who in this sphere, based on the list created by Christine Lu (the ultimate “connector” in Tipping Point parlance). It’s like a celebrity who’s in and who’s out list.

But as Twitter grows, there is the risk the signal may not keep up with the noise. Spam, bots and scalability are always a problem to new digital commons spaces. There is a very good chance Twitter, a “faddish web app“, could be the CB radio of Web 2.0 if it can’t find a way to scale with its new-found fame.

Let’s hope we don’t refer to it as the PointCast of 2008 and wake up with a bad hangover.

14 thoughts on “The Point of Twitter

  1. I don’t think Scoble is using a bot to identify his name in Tweets. I’m pretty sure that he is just using the Track feature, which is a standard feature of Twitter that allows you to track keywords and route it to an IM client or to SMS. This is how he keeps up. If he is using Gtalk as his main interface for Twitter, he is only following the people that he has device updates on for (the IM gateway does not send you everything and the default setting for new followers is Off).

    Now this is just a theory, but maybe Robert has only turned on device updates for a couple thousand out of the 20,000 that he is following. If he is tracking all forms of his name (Scoble, Scobleizer, Scobel, etc.) he is able to see any tweets that are directly addressed to him plus any tweets that mention him, even though he is not seeing tweets from all of his followers. I actually think this is OK, very different from obvious spammers who are using bots to follow people in mass quantities.

  2. Andrew, I enjoyed that back and forth with Scobleizer. I don’t think its a faddish app and it is part of the open social graph that we will all take for granted in the future.

    BTW, i don’t think Christine Lu’s ChinaList is meant to be exclusive. You can just Follow ChinaList or contact Christine to join…not meant to be exclusionary or exclusive really…

  3. I’m pretty sure the “CB radio of Web 2.0″ comment was meant to say Twitter could become obsolete in a heartbeat. Which is totally true.

    However, didn’t CB radios managed to stay in the sun for about 12 years? That’s slightly longer than Google search has been in existence, and a pretty long life for a website.

    I just think it’s interesting how things we consider a fad now lasted far longer than we expect today’s potential successes, let alone fads.

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