Monday, October 20, 2008

Twitter 101, Part 1: What Twitter is

This is part one of a four-part series on Twitter. If you already use Twitter, this post may not be of much interest, but as more people are drawn to the service, I find I am getting more questions about what it is, what value it provides, and how to be successful on Twitter.

To those of us who’ve made Twitter part of our daily lives and have built extensive networks of friends and associates, it seems hard to believe that just 3.2 million people use the service (according to TwitDir). Compare that to Facebook’s 110 million active users, and you get a sense of how small Twitter is at this time. Still, considering the number of Twitter users has grown around 500% in the past year, there is reason to believe Twitter is going to get quite common in the future.

To the uninitiated, Twitter seems like an odd, time-consuming, and valueless habit. (“Hundreds of complete strangers will read what you post? Why would they do that?”) Although using Twitter quickly becomes instinctive, trying to describe it to someone unfamiliar with the service is monumentally difficult. The reason is that Twitter really is a completely different form of communications, and trying to explain how it is “like” email, text messaging, instant messaging, or other communication media often ends in frustration for both the Twitter evangelist and the listener. (“You just have to try it, and once you do it will make sense.”)

So, what is Twitter? Describing it as a microblog tool is accurate but probably about as helpful as saying that water is Dihydrogen monoxide. Rather than try to compare and contrast Twitter to other electronic media, let’s start with a blank slate. It may be best to describe Twitter as a place where you can share news, thoughts, ideas, jokes, and opinions, and anyone who cares to listen to you can do so. Of course, at the same time, others are also sharing their daily events, perceptions, and attitudes, and you can choose who you care to listen to. In some ways, Twitter is like a giant room of people talking, but you only hear the people you want to hear.

In the real world, this sort of giant and dynamic networking wouldn’t be possible. At parties, for example, you may engage in conversations with a variety of different groups throughout an evening—some of those people may be discussing politics, some parenting, some favorite TV shows, and some their gripes about their workplace. But while in the physical world you must engage in one group at a time, Twitter permits you to be part of all those discussions simultaneously.

Twitter really has three essential functions that merge to create a new online communication medium. The first function is broadcasting. In Twitter, you don’t simply communicate with one person at a time, but instead broadcast yourself to whomever cares to pay attention to you. Every time you create a post (or Tweet, as they’re called in Twitter), you create a new entry in a list that includes all of your prior Tweets. This list is accessible on; you can see my list of Tweets at You’ll note that each Tweet is very brief; Twitter limits posts to 140 characters.

It’s easy to imagine that some Twitterer’s Tweets might be very interesting and worthwhile tracking. As you find interesting and relevant Twitterers, you could bookmark their pages and visit regularly, but it would be onerous to click to every individual’s page of Tweets one at a time. This brings us to the second essential function of Twitter—subscription. When you find someone whose Tweets you care to read on an ongoing basis, you can subscribe to them. In Twitter, this is called “Following.”

As you follow people, all of their Tweets are posted to your personalized Twitter home page, making it easy to, well, follow the people you follow. The Tweets of every person you follow appear in chronological order, starting with the most recent. Unlike on MySpace or Facebook where you can join different networks that have a defined purpose (such as the New York Yankees fan club or Disney Cast Members group), on Twitter you create your own unique network, one person at a time.

Each Twitter user has two lists of other Twitter users--one list of Followers (those who subscribe to and read that user’s Tweets) and a separate list of people he or she is Following (whose Tweets appear on that user’s personalized home page). The two lists are not identical; you may follow someone who doesn’t follow you, or you may have someone following you who you choose not follow.

If Twitter was just a place where people yammer without regard for others, it would be an impersonal and useless service. This is why threading—the third and final essential function of Twitter—is so important. Twitter is rich with dialog; one person posts a question or statement, a second person responds, a third joins the discussion, and so on. Unlike on forums and bulletin boards where the threading is highly structured, Twitter is unstructured; you cannot view discussions in a threaded view but instead may follow a chain of responses from one Tweet to the next related Tweet.

Twitter combines broadcasting, subscription, and threading to create a unique communications medium. In some respects, it borrows from and combines many other electronic communication media:
  • Blogging/RSS: For those of you who understand blogging and Real Simple Syndication (RSS), Twitter is a tool that combines both the posting and subscription of tiny 140-character blog posts (hence the description as a microblogging service). It’s a bit like joining a blogging tool (such as Blogger or WordPress) with an RSS reader (such as My Yahoo or NewsGator).

  • Instant Messaging: Twitter is like participating in a multitude of simultaneous Instant Messaging discussions, but everyone and anyone who cares to see what you’re saying may do so. (There are privacy tools on Twitter, but most choose not to use them.) Discussions on Twitter can often be as real-time as on IM, but back-and-forth dialog may also occur over the course of hours and days.

  • Email: Twitter is like creating an email list and sending messages to your entire list; even when you respond to one person, you still broadcast that response to the whole list. But with Twitter there’s a twist: your list isn’t an address book of people who will receive your messages but instead is a list of people whose messages you want to receive.

  • SMS/Text Messages: Twitter is similar in form to SMS; while SMS permits 160-character text messages, Twitter is limited to 140 characters. Twitter is not only like SMS, it also uses SMS—you can opt to be alerted to new Tweets from the people you follow via Text Message and can post to Twitter via text messages from your phone.

We’ve explored what Twitter is, and here is one thing it isn’t: unique. Other microblogging tools exist—such as Pownce, Identica, and Plurk—and each provides a similar but slightly differentiated set of tools. Twitter is the microblogging service that has gained the largest audience to date, which makes it a worthwhile place to start for newbies. It’s possible some other microblog service may someday surpass Twitter—and some observers question if Twitter can be made a profitable and ongoing venture—but for now Twitter is the biggest and best of the competing services.

Visit tomorrow for the next part of our Twitter 101 series: Why You (May) Want to Use Twitter.


Gary B said...

Thanks for putting this together. I am someone who uses social networking tools on a very limited basis (have Facebook and LinkedIn profiles) as I have a hard time finding value in the time spent with them.

However I love the conversational nature of Twitter. Maybe its because I enjoy listening more than talking. Perhaps my short attention span really enjoys the 140 character limited. Nevertheless I am hooked.

As a Twitter evangelist, I'm looking forward to your series helping me convert others to this platform for conversations.


Augie Ray said...

Thanks Gary. I hope you find the rest of my Twitter series interesting and helpful. As a Twitter evangelist, please weigh in should I miss anything important!

patingski said...
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