Monday, March 23, 2009

The Power of Twitter

In today's Mercury News Larry Magid talked about his use of Twitter and how based on his experience he "didn't get it" but feared he might be missing something. And yes indeed he is.

Twitter is huge and here's why. It's Real-time search.

So many times a simple idea turns into something huge. Just as Tim Berners-Lee's simple idea of the URL morphed into the Internet so it will be with Twitter.

So what is Twitter's simple idea and why is it significant?

From a simple technology perspective Twitter is Publish-Subscribe SMS. It combines the publish-subscribe communication paradigm with real-time of instant messaging.

Publish-subscribe is a many to many broadcast protocol. I publish, many people listen. In fact as a publisher I don't need to know who is subscribing. If I have something interesting to say I can publish. If you find what I say interesting you can subscribe. This communication has its roots in the written word from cave dwellers hieroglyphs, to books, to newspapers, to websites to blogs and now to Twitter. Each technology transition from hieroglyphs to twitter has made publishing more immediate. Now by combining Publish-subscribe with SMS it's virtually real-time.

Additionally Twitter has opened up the network of subscriptions so that anyone can see who is subscribing (following) to who. Given the nature of social networks this means that interesting news has the ability to reach virtually everyone in six retweets.

This is significant because I can use Twitter to find what's happening in real-time and be alerted if something I care about happens when it happens. For example, just this morning using Twitscoop I was alerted to Lance Armstong's crash and injury in Spain.

Twitter is born of the same Cluetrain manifesto empowerment that drove blogging to prominent mainstream status. You can think of Twitter as real-time blogging. Jack Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder described his creation as

”… an idea to make a more ‘live’ LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.

Already Tweets have evolved from “I’m having breakfast” and “I’m watching it snow” to a powerful tool for building brand and a great way to keep up with what you’re passionate about. And because Twitter is open there is a whole industry for tools to help make Twitter even more effective. Now media giants like CNN are using such tools as a sort of police scanner to be alerted to the next news story. CNN broke the story of The Turkish airline crash which it was alerted to it by Twitter.

While Google, Yahoo and others tried to perform real-time search through their "Alert" function it does not work adequately. The main reason is their alerting mechanisms are based on repeated search of the database they build through "crawling" the Internet. The delay in that approach means that alerts to matches can be considerably later than real-time as I pointed out in this blog post, Cutting Through The Incessant Barking. Real-time works with Twitter because it limits Tweets to 140 characters which is exactly an SMS message.

As with any simple idea that drives a paradigm shift the number of use cases continues to grow only limited by the imagination of its users. While it took 20 years for Tim Berners-Lee's simple idea of the URL to morph into the Internet I think Twitter will be mainstream in a matter of years.

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Ted Weismann said...

Great post, Richard. To your point about how the use cases continue to grow, my latest favorite is the tweeting taco truck in LA:

Dr. Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler said...

Thanks Richard - always enlightening!