Twitter isn’t a ‘mainstream’ tool – does that matter?


(photo by http://Flickr.com/photos/pierofix)

By now (especially if you use Twitter), you might have see the recent news that there are other services (Instagram in particular) that have more daily users, more “reach”, and generally more adoption. I’d like to present a simple argument for why none of that matters, and why Twitter will continue to have outsized impact even as other services gain more active users.

Twitter will continue to have impact because it limits choice; because it encourages and welcomes automatic information publishing (‘bots’); and because participating on Twitter requires only a simple SMS and does not require a broadband Internet connection. Funny, none of these reasons seems like Web 2.0 or Web 3.0 sensibilities – they sound like mobile email – a very social, mobile, and local technology.

So let’s unpack these ideas. First, the idea of limiting choice. When you decide to publish content on Twitter, even if you include a shortened link or a media link, publishing an update on Twitter is fundamentally one of three things: a public update directed at, a public update mentioning a person, or simply a public update. (Yes, I know DMs exist, but they act more like a substitute for SMS than anything else and are sort of bolted onto the service). That update you’re making can be creative, but it’s basically limited to 140 characters or less. This combined with the Retweet allows you to publish, share, and get on with your day. Twitter makes it possible for you to consume more “information resolution” even taking into account the noise created on the platform because the people you follow create the filters you need.

Consider how weird that is for a moment. In the old days of television and radio, you couldn’t simply subscribe to an information aggregator who would bring you the best, most relevant content for the narrow idea you wanted to follow (say, everything about Earthquakes; the idea of subscribing to a parody account satirizing real people or celebrities or brands is even stranger.) Yet Twitter allows you to do just that.

Because Twitter encourages automatic information publishing and the existence (and thriving) of information bots, you can create channels that bring you exactly what you need. Whether you use hashtags as your filter or just find the most relevant people or handles to follow, you’re getting a micro channel that’s influenced (but not controlled) by the big media organizations.

Participating on Twitter doesn’t require a social media command center: just a phone or a simple Internet connection. And that’s what makes Twitter have outsized impact even for the people who don’t view it every day. On Facebook, Instagram, or many other services the primary medium is visual – so the organizations with the best visual resources (usually traditional media organizations and brands) have an easier time communicating than the average person. And Twitter started out as a way to share words – it’s true that it’s also a way to share memes, photos, and sounds – and continues to be relevant because it’s meta. Twitter’s value comes from its function as a “TV guide” for the information of the web – to help us find the people who will find the best stuff out there and keep on bringing it to us.

Twitter’s not perfect by any means, and suffers from people who don’t use their accounts, malicious bots that spread misinformation, and the confusion of the internet’s Tower of Babel. Yet Twitter combines disparate information streams better than any other service out there, and gives you great tools to tap into the knowledge of smart people. And that’s what makes it worth using, and returning to, even if it’s not mainstream. Because after all, the whole point of Twitter is not to reinforce the mainstream, but to help you find the informational needle in the haystack.

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