Saturday, April 07, 2007

Grokking Twitter: Presence, Scope, and Permanence

Should we care about twitter? I addressed this question back in February over on my IP Inferno blog but I think I did a lousy job. Since then I have used (and thought about) the service a lot more. And I have increasingly found myself in conversations with my fellow over-40 digerati trying to explain why they should care about twitter...

And in the last week both the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today have published articles about twitter and neither of them really get to the heart of why twitter is important and why we should care.

Stowe Boyd offers an amusing rant on the USA Today article but while he correctly points out that author Andrew Kantor does not "...understand the benefits -- or even the possibility -- of moving to a flow state of interaction..." Stowe doesn't explain what this means or why it is important.

So in the spirit of Time Magazine's Person of the Year I have taken it upon myself to explain twitter...

As the Internet has moved from obscurity to a staple of our society over the past two decades there has been an explosion in new communications tools. A useful way to think about this explosion is to think about communications around three characteristics: presence, scope, and permanence. Each of these characteristics, as I will go on to explain, has a continuum of modalities and each communication tool has optimized for performing within a particular part of that cube.

Is it necessary for the participants in the communication to be present at the time the communication is created? For example if you are taking a class, you need to be present in the classroom to get value from the lecture. But you can read a book thousands of years after it was written. The recipient must be present to receive the lecture but is usually not present when a book is written. Similarly, a phone call is a synchronous form of communications -- both speaker and listener must be present. Voice mail is asynchronous -- the listener need not be present at the time the recording is made and the speaker need not be present at the time of listening.

Classrooms engage a defined group of people in a conversation, newspapers engage an undefined group, a phone call typically involves just two people. Scope is about the number of people involved, the relationship between those people, and the privacy of the communication.

Information has a shelf life (or even a half life). Some information is valuable for thousands of years, other information is valuable for only a moment.

Think about the kinds of communications tools that we commonly use, applying these three characteristics:

Synchronous communication (presence required), the scope is typically one-one, and (short of a recording) it is a medium best used for information of little permanence.

Email is asynchronous, allowing for long delays between exchanges. The scope can be one-one or one-many but there are few facilities for managing complex many-many communications on a topic. As information can be stored and retrieved for later use, it can be used for topics with some permanence though various limitations generally cause users to move to another medium for longer term storage of documents or issues of more permanence.

Instant messaging is mostly synchronous, though it can have delays in replies. It is typically a one-one communication and the information usually has a very short period of value.

Like email, a blog is asynchronous. The scope is typically one-many although commenting facilities can make them into more of a conversation. Information of value for a long time (though perhaps not decades) can be stored on blogs and accessed by a wide variety of readers.

So what is twitter? It is asynchronous (although there can be more value if both speaker and listener are present); the most valuable uses are when the communications are within a particular defined group (friends, a company); and the information has a very short term value.

I might tweet "Headed out for a soy chai, anyone want to go?" -- this emphasizes the value of presence, the fact that I am broadcasting to people within a defined group (my office), and has a very momentary value (miss it by 5 minutes and I am already gone).

Another example (from Stowe Boyd) Chris Pirillo points to an article written by Paul Graham claiming Microsoft is dead: -- this is completely asynchronous, anytime I find out about it, it is valuable to me. There is little definition in the group (other than perhaps interest), and the information has some permanence.

So two things that emerge in looking at twitter in this way -- First it has an interesting ability to be useful over a range of states but tends toward group communications that are impermanent and where presence can add value but isn't necessary. Second that it complements other communication types without replacing them -- indicating that there is a place in the ecosystem for this type of communication.

Another interesting thing that you can ask about twitter is whether you can compare the role it serves in online communications with some similar off-line communication. Within every social group there are adhoc communications that serve the same purposes that twitter serves in an online world. Announcing that I am going out to get a cup of chai tea, or people sharing an interest in an article happens all the time within social groups. The difference online is that time and space become less of a constraint for allowing these group communications to occur. This is the role that twitter is serving.