Friday, July 20, 2007

Twitter! What is it Good For? Well...

Good question. Twitter is a Web 2.0 tool where users create an account and are given what is basically a "micro-blog" where they can record posts up to 140 characters in length - typically about enough for a sentence. These posts, called "Tweets" (yes, both "Twitter" and "Tweet" sound like something related some kind of drug), are then posted online and are automatically fed to people who have subscribed to your blog (not necessarily people who you allow to see them.) In this instance, it's a marriage of instant messenger and RSS aggregator/broadcaster: you can see what other people are Twittering about, and it can be as simple as having it delivered to a desktop client or an RSS reader. Whichever makes it easier to read.

My first thought was, OK, that's interesting - what would I use it for? So I logged in and signed up and gave it a whirl. Twitter informs you that you're supposed to use it to tell people briefly what you're doing. For example, a Tweet might be "I'm riding into work" (you can post to Twitter through the web, through text messages on your phone, or through an IM client - I use a Firefox extension, but to each their own.) That's kind of the first application.

Then there's the second, the one upon which my ilk has seized: it's a marketing tool. In fact, it's so much of a marketing tool that the New York Times has taken notice: a great blog post by Saul Hansell details how marketing and PR people have begun using Twitter to great effectiveness - not to tell the world that they're making breakfast, but for quick and informative updates their audience will care about. For example, "the art assets for Ninja Captain 3 are online at" might be a Tweet from a marketing person.

Third, and somewhat related to the second, is the use of Twitter as an IM client when you know the person you want to talk to is on your friends list. This is frankly the least attractive use of Twitter I can think of: IM is insecure enough as it is, and if I'm going to write someone a short message, I'll just use IM to do it unless they aren't on IM, in which case I'll use email. "@Jimmy: Man you were right, the Fantastic Four movie was great but Galactus sucked LOL" is an example of this kind of Tweet.

And then, the fourth application, and so far my personal favorite: I've been using Twitter kind of like a school notebook. Not to write down notes from class, but to put random brain droppings into. These can be song lyrics, especially if I'm having a hard time getting the song out of my head, or funny phrases, or just random things I think are funny. Going back and reading my Tweets, it's a pretty eclectic and random collection of crap. The kind of thing you might find in a modern George Carlin book, and I don't mean that in a complimentary way.

So what is it good for? The marketer in me definitely sees the application of a tool to inform a large number of people in a relatively small space that something's available, but hey - don't we already have email for that? How does this bring us closer? If anything, the 140-character limit forces an unnatural end to conversations that might otherwise be more informative. Maybe it's my reaction, because I tend to have diarrhea of the fingertips anyway (as Stephen King once so eloquently put it), but 140 characters isn't enough to have meaningful anything. It's barely enough to put a line from a song or draw a stick figure with a gun.

Online discourse doesn't have to be shorter, faster, better. In fact, I think that's one of the main problems with a lot of online discourse these days - it lacks the depth of traditional media and even face-to-face conversations. Not that Twitter is a bad tool, not at all. It's great for my stupid scribbles and as a marketing tool - but it's not a substitute for other kinds of discourse, either.

Web 2.0 it may be, but other than that it's just one more thing in the old Bat utility belt.

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