Thursday, June 14, 2007

Twitter: A Solution Seeking Problems

The buzz around Twitter is hot. No surprise: it's an interesting new thing that appeals to a key group of hyper-connected people, and they're using it and talking about it.

But, as is often the case when people love something because it's fun and interesting, everyone starts feeling compelled to explain why it's important and useful (instead of just fun). And it's getting a little embarrassing. These "great uses of Twitter" lists reek of desperation; mostly , they explain how you can use Twitter to make ordinary things more complicated and intrusive by utilizing a technology that will reach 0.5% of your audience.

I had another fit of eye-rolling when I came across this list of 17 marketing uses for Twitter, via Jaffe Juice. An example:

Questions from the audience. A speaker is talking on stage. Something she says triggers a question. But you have to wait 30 minutes until Q&A. By then the topic may have lost its relevancy. But what if she has Twitter enabled for the discussion? She'll be able see your (non-interruptive) question pop up right away, and decide if she can answer it at that time.

I just have to go Miss Manners on you; if you have bothered to attend a speech or lecture, please put your phone down and pay attention. Or leave.

As for the speaker, I expect that she will be focused on giving the lecture or speech, not watching Twitter for questions. Even as I enter middle age, my short-term memory still functions well enough to remember my question twenty minutes later and raise my hand and ask it. (And if it's not relevant anymore then it probably wasn't terribly important.)

(A friend of mine has the ultimate low-tech solution for this problem on his fridge. It's a slip of paper that says, at the top, "Please write your question for Sir Arthur C. Clarke.")

Or this one:

Quick intraoffice memos. "Meet in the conference room in 5 minutes." "Can someone bring an extra extension cord?" "Check out this article..." In essence, these memos increase the amount of communication. They should only be used when absolutely necessary (don't go overboard), but they can sharpen your company's efficiency.

By creating a culture of distracted people who can't focus on anything for more than five minutes because they're watching Twitter feeds to find out who needs an extension cord? Guess what, folks? You need my attention now, you need to call me or walk up to me. I might not be looking at my email or IM or watching for Twitter messages.

The big efficiency challenge isn't getting more information, it's parsing what you've got.

Hailing taxi cabs. It's not always easy to track down a cab. And it seems even harder when you're in a hurry. But wait. If you know you're going to need a ride in 10 minutes, Twitter the taxi HQ in advance and they'll send one your way. All you have to do is give them an address and a time.

When I lived in DC I called for cabs regularly. By phone. Because unless the dispatcher said, "Okay, he'll be there in fifteen minutes," I knew that no cab was coming (and even then, maybe not). Besides, most of those calls required questions: "Which airport? Is that a house, apartment, or office? Will you be outside?"

Ordering at arenas. Having trouble finding the beer man at a baseball game? Just Twitter the vending area with your order. 2 Old Styles comin' right up!

Yeah, because the guy with the beer is going to be watching his handheld for a Twitter from row 47 instead of serving beers to the people nearby.

Okay, my point here is not to pick the list apart. I realize that I sound like some kind of Luddite who just hates new things. But you know what? I'm not. I tend to be an early adopter 0f these kinds of things. I'm more likely to use Twitter than 98% of the people out there.

But you've got to give me a reason. And if the reasons hasn't become clear yet - which I think is the case with Twitter - just stop talking and let people use it and see what emerges.

These is exactly one item on that list that makes perfect sense to me:

Just to have fun. Many a boisterous laugh has been shared via Twitter. It's a place where people can come together and just be themselves. Personalities shine through. People encourage each other. Jokes run wild and turn into memes. Friends can relax and peer into each other's lives. And a general feeling of camaraderie, compassion and respect flows freely from one person to the next.

Well, that's really cool. And that's enough reason to use it. Play with it, have fun with it, experiment with it, and one day somebody is really going to find the killer use of it that makes the rest of us say, "Now that's wicked cool."

But that's not going to happen in one of these "how to use Twitter instead of dental floss" lists. If anything, they make Twitter sound silly, and I just don't believe it's as silly as most of what I've read about it suggests.

So please, go play, go discover, and stop justifying.


Ryan Karpeles said...

Thanks for the feedback, John! I think the point of the post wasn't to come up with every possible (and perhaps impractical) way to use Twitter.

Instead, it was to get the ball rolling. To get people thinking proactively. Anybody can sit around and wait for someone else to think of something grand. But why not get a head-start in an open, collaborative environment?

I totally agree that we need to let this develop. There's no need to force Twitter into the marketing mix. I was simply attempting to get people thinking. And part of the thinking process often involves coming up with what *not* to do, which you so lovingly pointed out :)

Thanks again for discussing this. I look forward to reading much, much more over here.

Joseph Jaffe said...


As is your right, you've selected only a handful of less relevant uses.

What about the Delta Twitter which is announcing the changes occuring within the airline (and certainly integrated with their campaign)?

What about comedian Stephen Wright (if it's even him) who is using Twitter to keep himself relevant?

What about the director of the new Fox Series Drive Twittering live as the series premiered?

At the end of the day, let's look at what Twitter is: a communally-activated integrated IM/text-message platform (social networking for IM if you like)

There are thousands of applications and uses. It's up to us to figure them out and experiment accordingly

John said...

Those are interesting experiments - and my point was that this is very much an experimental thing. I think Twitter as something that's integrated into entertainment media is actually one of the more probable uses of it - perhaps the next logical step after SMS offers for TV programs, etc.

I don't want to pick on Ryan here - I've seen a ton of these lists of potential Twitter apps and they mostly make me wince. So my point is really that trying to justify Twitter is nowhere near as illuminating as seeing what happens when people start playing with it. And those of us whose reaction is, thus far, "Oy, another interruption!" will be watching you guys to figure out when it's time to try it (or whatever it morphs into!).

Glenn Gow said...


Here are the top 10 reasons Twitter scares me:

1) I’m taking time to write about it,

2) So are many, many other people,

3) You are taking time to read what we are writing about it,

4) They have no business model (see Jennifer Jones,

5) They are capturing eyeballs (very 1999), which means they could actually succeed (maybe),

6) I don’t understand it,

7) I think Gen Y does,

8) It HAS important applications in the business world (I just know it), I just don’t know what they are yet,

9) It represents a new way of communicating that we need to understand (otherwise, why would people use it?),

10) Even if Twitter itself doesn’t survive, something like it will (remember Pointcast? see It was the precursor to RSS), so I need to be on top of it.

What scares you about Twitter?

John Whiteside said...

Scares me? Nothing. I am concerned by the lack of skepticism that surrounds it, because I think healthy skepticism about any new technology is a good thing and avoids some real blunders.

Joseph's comment that it's an integated IM/text messaging platform is interesting because it puts Twitter in a broader context. How would you use such a platform? Is Twitter the way you'd deliver it? I'm reminded of the realization that people were conducted business on AOL IM some years ago, and the realization that secure, enterprise-class IM platforms were needed.

There are two issues where I think there's a big blind spot among the Twitterati:

1. Is this better than the other options. If you want to sell somebody on using something like Twitter, one of the first questions will be, "How is this better than sending email, allowing people to opt in to a broadcast SMS service, etc." And it's got to be more than a little better - better enough to justify the investment (in terms of time and effort.

2. The second is, "Who's using this?" I think it's easy for the early adopter crowd (of which I am a part, though not for Twitter) to wildly overestimate the importance of a new technology, because early adopters are by their nature fascinated by the new stuff. Twitter is used by a tiny number of people, and I think that'll be the case until something really compelling - for non early adopters - turns up.

I suspect something like Twitter will someday have an important business application. I wouldn't bet on it being Twitter, though, or that happening all that quickly. But we'll see.

(By the way, I think a big appeal of it for SMS-addicting 20-somethings is that it lets you send free messages to lots of friends. Free for you, anyway. I'm not sure that's promising for Twitter, though!)

Maureen Rogers said...

Well, I might not use Glenn Gow's word "scared", but what alarms and saddens me about Twitter and all the other in-the-moment technologies is that, while there are/will no doubt be good applications for them, as often as not, it's "Hey, I'm walking down Charles Street." Or video-ing every last minute of an event rather than actually enjoying it.

Hey, if you're walking down Charles Street, why don't you look in a couple of windows? Or at the people? Or at the water bowls that some of the merchants leave out for dogs.

Hey, if you're at your 1 year old's birthday party, why not put the camera down for a sec and just look - and not through the view finder, or at the tiny screen on your cell-phone-cum-camera - at your little one's face as she smears icing all over it. Come on, stop and smell the talcum powder.

Not to mention that all this obsession with the minutia of our lives is so incredibly self-involved - not to mention pretty darned boring.