Twitter: Poor man's email or smart man's timesaver?

I’ve noticed more than a few people commenting about Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent quote about Twitter:

“Speaking as a computer scientist, I view all of these as sort of poor man’s email systems”

Apparently he made the statement at Morgan Stanley’s technology conference (Live notes here via Dan Frommer). I’m sensing that a number of people – especially twitter fans – feel like the statement was a little harsh. Perhaps, but taken in a broader context of his statement I don’ think that was his intention.

“In other words, they have aspects of an email system, but they don’t have a full offering. To me, the question about companies like Twitter is: Do they fundamentally evolve as sort of a note phenomenon, or do they fundamentally evolve to have storage, revocation, identity, and all the other aspects that traditional email systems have? Or do email systems themselves broaden what they do to take on some of that characteristic?”

What is interesting is that Schmidt is comparing Twitter to email – as opposed to what people usually compare it to, blogs (hence the term micro-blogging).

I actually love twitter comparing twitter to an email platform because it’s key constraint – that it limits users to messages of 140 characters or less – becomes a key benefit (although one with risks).

What I love about twitter is that it forces writers to be concise. Really concise. This inturn maximizes efficiency for readers. What is it Mark Twain said?  “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Rather than having one, or even thousands or readers read something that is excessively long, the lone drafter must take the time and energy to make it short. This saves lots of people time and energy. By saying what you’ve got to say in 140 characters, you may work more, but everybody saves.

Of course, this creates two risks: First, Twitter is totally inappropriate for all sorts of communications that require nuance and detail. So you’ve got to figure out what requires detail and nuance and what does not. (and there is a surprising amount of communication that does not – but the mistakes can be painful) Second, in addition to nuance and detail, the short comings generally associated with email – the opportunity for misunderstanding, taking things out of context, triggering someone emotionally – are still present. However, they are probably about the same since, interestingly, because people recognize you only have 140 characters they may be more forgiving in reading your tweet than they are in reading an email.

So Twitter may be a poor man’s email, but it can allow for much more efficient communication because it shifts the time costs from the reader to the writer. Schmidt is right to point out that that creates limitations and challenges, but it also creates huge opportunities. There are a ton of emails I’d prefer to get as Tweets… now if only I could download them into my email application…

5 thoughts on “Twitter: Poor man's email or smart man's timesaver?

  1. Tim

    David, here's the problem with Twitter, and it has more to do with the messengers than the medium. I have had several conversations with people who claim if only more people were on Twitter the world would be a better place. Crazy talk in my opinion. It's also being used by many as a broadcast/marketing medium, which will have a shelf life as the thousands of people some folks are following don't find much of use in the tweets. I may be wrong with how it evolves but for now I'm still a skeptic.

  2. david_a_eaves

    Tim, I'm less sure that I agree that there is something “wrong” with twitter than I am that the statement that “we're still figuring out what it is good for.” For something to be wrong you have to have some ideal – or something better in mind – that it should fit.What twitter has are some features I really like. 140 character limit (reason discussed in the post) and the fact that the user controls if they'd like to unsubscribe (unlike most email subscription lists!). Should more people use twitter? I don't know. Depends want they want to do. Personally, I love getting updates from some of the thought leaders I follow – so for me it works. But it may not work for you – which is cool… there are a lot of tools on the internet that are not going to work for everyone.As an aside, twitter may also has real potential for government. Check out this podcast about how a New Hampshire company used twitter during an ice storm and massive blackout.Finally, anybody using it for marketing is going to discover it is a terrible tool for getting new people. I get tons of people who “follow me” everyday who I don't know and who are peddling something. I simply ignore them.

  3. Catherine

    Whether we admit it or not, twitter has helped a lot of blogger to connect to other blogger to promote their site and gain social standing. I have been a member of twitter, and I don't see anything wrong with them.Maybe I am just an ordinary user and this observation is new to me. But I think nothing in this world gives a perfect result for everyone, not even twitter. But it depends on how users will use twitter to their advantage.

  4. Jeremy Vernon

    In many ways I do not think it unfair to characterize Twitter as simplified, feature reduced version of email.Twitter takes on the parts of email that it did poorly – short messages to large groups. Anyone who's on a newsgroup knows that heavy policy must be enforced to avoid even the most innocuous message from spinning out into a storm of “pingback” emails.As Tim O'Reilly observed, it's replaced the chain email or those emails with links to funny photos and other click-bait. These are all good things.Further, I think Twitter's character feed is not an engineering insight but a limitation that's viewed as a virtue – since Twitter was designed from the start to support SMS updates.Twitter is not, however, a reliable source of prose of any merit. At least, it's worse than the technology it emulates. When people view it as such, they see it as a retarded version of other media – a misinterpretation to be sure, but not unfair if you accept their premises.I also think it's problematic, in some respects, to suspend judgment of the product until its purpose has been discovered – such thinking puts all sorts of things in unjustified perpetual limbo rather than properly round-filing them to forgotten history.

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