I’m frequently asked about technology, the internet and web 2.0 and in the course of the discussion the subject of Twitter inevitably arises. People are frequently curious, often judgmental, and almost always bewildered by the service. This isn’t surprising, Twitter is poorly understood despite its relative success (and its success is still small in the grand scheme of internet related things). Part of this is because people (even early adopters) are still figuring twitter out, and part of this is because those frequently explaining it don’t understand it themselves (I’m looking at you newspaper columnists).
Most often I sense people misunderstand Twitter because they compare it to a text based internet tool they do know: e-mail. This reference point shapes their assumptions about Twitters purpose and leads them to ask questions like: how can you read all those tweets? or how can you “follow” 250 people? If the unsaid assumption is that twitter creates 2000 new emails a day to read – well no surprise they’re running for the hills! This is doubly true if you believe the myth that all people tweet about (and thus read) is their breakfast menu, or what they are doing in a given moment.
Twitter is not email and while it has many (evolving) uses I’ve found the best metaphor for explaining how my friends and I use it is a much simpler technology: the newspaper.
Few people read every (or even most) articles in a newspaper – indeed most of us just scan the headlines when we see a newspaper. Likewise, very few people read all their tweets. Indeed, many of us go days (guilt free) without ever looking at the newspaper – same with Twitter, many people go days without looking at their twitter feed. The difference is that your newspaper’s headlines only change once a day and it is awkward to carry the thing around with you. Twitter’s headlines are always changing, and its located on your blackberry or iphone.
Now the difference from email becomes more clear. There is no obligation – or even expectation – of readership with Twitter. Emails you have to (or are supposed to) read and, let’s face it, are often a chore to get through. Newspaper articles you choose to read, often for pleasure or consumption.
Indeed, as Taylor and I outlined in Missing the Link, Twitter is better than a newspaper in many ways since you get to choose the columnists whose headlines you’ll scanning. Whereas a newspaper brings together articles, ideas and information someone else thinks you should care about Twitter brings together the ideas, articles and information by people you care about. I follow a number of “thought leaders” people like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Andrew Potter, Tim O’Reilly, David Weinberger, etc… along with some friends and colleagues. While they occasionally say short pithy things, they are usually linking to articles that they find interesting. In short, some of the smartest people I know, and some I don’t, are essentially creating a vetted reading list for me. This virtual community is my news editor.
Better still, I don’t always have a newspaper on me. But an endless stream of articles vetted by smart people is always just a click away so whenever I have a spare moment – on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a taxi – I can pull up some interesting reading material I would otherwise never have read.
I don’t claim this is Twitter’s only use, so it’s not complete, comprehensive explanation, but I’ve found this explanation has helped a number of my non-web savvy friends to “get” Twitter.