The Usefulness of Twitter: Formerly Perplexed to Newly Initiated

Problem: As a tech-savvy fellow, who manages half a dozen Web sites, uses three different computers, a smartphone, and an iPad, I nevertheless had the hardest time making any sense of Twitter.  Twitter is something people talk a lot about, but few explain.  Even as a Twitter account holder, I rarely used the thing and did not really understand its value.

I am now convinced.  Twitter is quite remarkable.  A number of my friends have been perplexed about Twitter also, so I am jotting a few words down to explain the usefulness I see in Twitter.  I am going to assume the reader's familiarity with Facebook, a service more wide-spread in use than Twitter, but with a different purpose.  Twitter is growing and is an impressive tool.

Twitter fills a niche.  On first glance, it looks like a place to post Facebook status updates, but that can be viewed by everyone.  In fact, you can make your Facebook page more public, but most people don't recommend that.  Why?  Because Facebook reveals quite a lot about your identity.  In an age of identity theft, that's not often a good idea to do.  Also, a common feature on Twitter is similarly available on Facebook: following a celebrity, opinion leader, newspaper, etc.  But, there are important differences.  Plus, one might think that 140 characters is not enough to say much.  That's true.  But just think about catchy news headlines.  they're usually far fewer characters.  Plus, you can link to things.  So, as in this case, one can post to Twitter with a link to one's blog or to a site that has more information.  Spreading the word with a blog, however, will only happen if you already have a lot of blog followers.  As I don't at this point, and as Twitter is powerful for spreading messages, it can be the way to drive readers to sites or blogs.

What is remarkable about Twitter is the power it has to spread messages and to allow you to follow discussions about topics.  I am a scholar of Philosophy, Public Policy, Leadership, and more, and each of these terms I can "follow" on Twitter.  The idea is that whenever a person writes about a topic, he or she places a "#" tag before the word ("hash-tag," I've learned to call it, not a "pound sign").  What immediately follows that symbol is then viewable to whomever follows that term.

So, imagine going to a big conference.  You want to keep up with what is going on there.  Using a designated #tag for the event can allow you to follow updates about the event while it is going on.  It is a bit like the big bulletin board chat spaces that used to only be available on desktop computers.  Now you can chat with people on your cell phone.  This could be incredibly useful.  Also, if you are a scholar/researcher, the #tag is akin to Web readers that send you alerts anytime your political candidate or research subject is mentioned in the newspaper.  The difference is that Twitter is a constant, ongoing conversation.  I should add that the "@" tag links to users in much the same way.  So, if you have something to say about Fareed Zakaria, his 100,000 follower list will see your post.

For anyone interested in research, therefore, which includes journalists, scholars, and many more, this is a very interesting and promising new tool.  Given all my friends on Facebook who are scholars, I regularly find interesting links to news articles or journal articles there that are worth reading for my field.  Imagine the same thing being an option with a far larger audience than my small list of (hundreds of) friends.  A message posted by one person can be retweeted, furthermore, which is akin to "sharing" on Facebook, but unlike Facebook, you can spread the word to people who learn about any particular #tag.  So, if there's an article anyone who studies philosophy should read, I can post a link to it on Twitter and add "#philosophy" to make sure that anyone following that tag sees it.

Beyond that, big names often direct their own twitter accounts.  I've seen Fareed Zakaria respond to people directly on Twitter, when he might not respond to emails.  You can understand why.  If someone's comment is short, it is much more likely to be read.  Although I've only put a few pieces in newspapers, I've gotten insanely long emails from people that I haven't had time to read.  If they'd kept their messages short, I'd have been much more likely to read them in their entirety.  And, keep in mind, I'm nobody.  In this same context, Zakaria has responded to people just today.  The accessibility of people, themes, and more is far more direct.

Now, one could reasonably argue that you can't say much in 140 characters.  That's right.  It's just like reading headlines when you visit CNN's page (their headlines are shorter than 140 characters, actually). The point is that you can glance through many headlines quickly, skipping over tons of stuff, and look only at those posts that catch your interest.  Given that they often link elsewhere, you can then go read more and do so selectively.  It's like Facebook in this regard, but with far more possible people to draw from, and with the added power to narrow what you read from them to only those things relevant to your own selected keywords.

Bottom line, why does this matter?  A. You can follow opinion leaders, celebs, politicians, organizations you care about, or sports teams more quickly, directly, and immediately; B. You can spread a message like nobody's business if you're aiming to ("@nytimes," for instance, will reach more than 4 million people), such as about a political candidate, a pressing news story, a fundraising effort, or a change of location for the event you've organized; C. Your messages might have something to contribute to a variety of audiences, and if so, you can mention a person or several (@tag), as well as a topic or several (#tag), the audiences of which will see your link and message when you post it.

I should finally add that as a reader who does not care to post much in a public space, a person could nonetheless really be impressed with Twitter.  The trick, I think, is to follow those newspapers, politicians, opinion leaders, etc., whom you find really interesting (Andrew Sullivan's DISH is very interesting, for example).  Rather than going to their Web sites and browsing, you can have tags keep you up to date on those topics of greatest interest to you, and have those messages sent to you directly via the Twitter conduit.  The possibilities for making use of this platform are remarkable.

Lots of people know this platform FAR better than I do.  Posting here, I've probably understated many things that could be expanded upon or clarified elsewhere.  For now, though, I thought it might be useful to share with others the reasons this new initiate (moi) has come to be highly impressed with a platform that sadly requires the use of the word "tweet" (I know, I know...).  That aside, the potential for a new way to filter news (which is sometimes overwhelming) and to contact people is so great that I thought a few words about it might be worthwhile.

By all means, please correct me in the comments below and consider following me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/erictweber.