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Twitter's transmitters


Illustration by Ian Whadcock BIZ STONE, one of Twitter’s co-founders, uses the term “social alchemy” to describe the way in which short, seemingly inconsequential 140-character messages are often transformed into something of real value. Imagine, he says, that you are having a drink at an airport bar waiting to catch your flight. You send out a tweet explaining where you are and what you are drinking. Perhaps you get no response. But it is also possible that a friend who is “following” you on Twitter happens to be in the airport at the same time,

sees your tweet and comes over to say hello. Thus what would otherwise have been a solitary moment is magically transformed into a pleasant encounter.

Such serendipity helped Twitter attract 58m web visitors in October last year, according to comScore. Recently its growth appears to have faltered in America, but the service is still expanding in countries such as Japan and Germany. This has led to speculation that it could eventually make a dent in Facebook’s fortunes, even though size-wise it is not in the same league. Those who see a looming clash note that both companies are in the business of helping people to share information, and both have a real-time element to their services.

That is true, but the services differ in two important respects. The first is the nature of the relationships that underlie them. On Facebook, users can communicate directly only if one of them has agreed to be a “friend” of the other. On Twitter, people can sign up to follow any public tweets they like. The service, which boasts Ashton Kutcher (4.3m followers) and Oprah Winfrey (3m) among its most popular users, is in essence a broadcasting system that lets users transmit short bursts of information to lots of strangers as well as to their pals. Facebook, for its part, is more of an intimate, continuing conversation between friends.

This difference is revealed in research conducted by Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, a professor at Harvard Business School, and one of his MBA students, Bill Heil. They surveyed just over 300,000 Twitter users in May 2009 and found that more than half of them tweeted less than once every 74 days. They also discovered that the most prolific 10% of twitterers accounted for 90% of all tweets. On other online social networks the most active users typically produce just 30% of all content. Another survey published in June by Sysomos, a research firm that had analysed 11.5m Twitter accounts, found that one in five people that were signed up to the service had never posted anything.

Another big difference between Twitter and Facebook is in the kind of content that gets sent over their networks. Facebook allows people to exchange videos, photos and other material, whereas Twitter is part-blog, part e-mail. “There’s a real difference here between the power of multimedia and the power of text,” says Dom Sagolla, the author of a book about the art

of twittering.

Even so, there are some tensions between the two services. Last year, after its takeover talks with Twitter stalled, Facebook introduced several Twitter-like changes to make it more attractive for real-time postings. It also gave more visibility to its pages for athletes, celebrities and musicians and lifted the limits on the maximum number of fans that they could have on the site.

Still, Mr Stone says he sees Twitter as more akin to an outfit like Google than to Facebook. He describes the business as “an information company” whose users are keen to find out answers to what is happening in the world. The billions of tweets that Twitter is gathering up could certainly be the basis for a vast, searchable archive. The challenge facing Mr Stone and his colleagues is to find smart ways of transforming those raw data into profits.


2. Read comments to the article and say what you agree or disagree with. Give your own comments.


1. The first paragraph reminded me why I will never use Twitter: I use the otherwise wasted time at airports to read the novels I cannot find the time to read otherwise. And the last thing I could wish is to have some bored acquaintance to chat. On top of that, I cannot really get the value of advertising what I am doing at any given time. Were I a politician or a show business star with a large following tribe, it might be understandable. Otherwise I see it worthless.

2. I see twitter in a very different vein. Many people use twitter as a kind of syndication platform - that is, to post links to news, blogs, etc that they have found interesting at the moment. Following "the right" group of people makes your twitter feed into your personal news feed. Twitter lists promise to further this idea by allowing interesting aggregations of people to follow to in themselves be shared. This is very different than finding someone to have a beer with.

3. "On top of that, I cannot really get the value of advertising what I am doing at any given time. Were I a politician or a show business star with a large following tribe, it might be understandable. Otherwise I see it worthless."

In my experience this statement reflects the sentiment of most people who purposefully avoid Twitter. Upon hearing a similar comment for the first time my initial reaction was surprise. I wondered why I didn't share this feeling. But it quickly occurred to me that this is the fundamental difference between the young and the old of the "internet age". Not hesitating to ponder ones own self-importance prior to joining Twitter is probably a good sign.

4. Apart from Twitter and Facebook, there are great social networking sites like Shelfari, which connect people by their interests in books. I found Twitter, not conducive to long monologues, when communicating. In fact, Twitter should have been Facebook. If Facebook is primarily for friends, then the communication of Twitter, is more suitable for Facebook. Both these sites, if they merge would be able to contribute their proprietary technologies to the merger.

5. It's also possible that person following you on twitter is a creep who should be kept on the other end of a computer. I enjoy and use twitter as a PLN and have benefited in many ways both professionally and personally but I also have the good sense to know not everyone is as they make themselves out to be.

6. It's a pity that the article doesn't lead with Biz Stones comparison with Google. Twitter is a meme machine, acting as a notification and filtering mechanism for new information and so activities that hang off new information like entertainment, shopping and PR are naturally attracted to it. 7. I can understand both the allure and repulsion of Twitter. The analogy I use most often to describe the social networking service is that Twitter is like a

cocktail party.

You wander about, you find people with similar interests and chat with them. If you find someone particularly interesting, or annoying, you tell your friends and they go chat with them. The common mis-perception of tweeting what you had for breakfast is just a way to maintain presence, it's not at all a common thing. It's an opportunity to "meet" and open a dialogue with people you might not otherwise know existed. Sure you can follow Ashton Kutcher, or Larry King, but for most celebrities its simply another way to stay popular. There are far more interesting and relevant people out there to get acquainted with.

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