What the Hell is Twitter?

After days of holding out, my co-worker iseff finally got me to join Twitter. Twitter is the newest trend among techies, and there are already many thousands of people using it, but I'm still at a loss to explain just what it is.

The Basics

Twitter asks every user to answer, in 140 characters or less, the question "What are you doing?" Answers can be submitted directly on the web site, by text message (SMS), by instant message (AIM or Google Talk), or by a public API. I can create a network of friends and see their posts (or "tweets") interleaved, much like my LiveJournal friends page works. There's also a provision to send mutual friends direct messages that they can receive on the web, by SMS, by IM, or by running a Twitter desktop program.

Twitter is LiveJournal With ADD

Carrying on a conversation via Twitter is often done in public in very short bursts, and with few privacy options (only private, friends-only, and public, with no way to send to a subset of friends) it can be hard to follow. If only some of a conversation's participants are on your friends list, you can see unintentionally hilarious quotes taken out of context.

The emphasis on "What are you doing?" implies that people should tweet about what they're doing right now. During this year's SXSW, widely regarded as Twitter's coming-out party, people were tweeting about the shows they were going to attend. Twitter can be good for planning impromptu gatherings like poker nights or trips to a neighborhood bar, but this assumes that all your friends live near you.

The most common construction I've seen used to describe Twitter is "micro-blogging," writing about ephemeral things without any of the cruft that blogs are now known for: no comments, no TrackBacks, no add-to-43-social-networking-services buttons, etc. I started my sidebar "Weill Real-Time" column back in 2000, and so Twitter fits my idea of ephemeral messaging well.

Twitter is Yet Another Voyeurism Outlet

I've kept the defaults on: everything I post to Twitter is public, and all my friends have the same settings. In fact, it's public knowledge just to see who my friends are. Users who are not logged in see a cross-section of the public timeline, an aggregation of everything people are posting publicly. Using this data, people are already starting to analyze what topics and web sites people most commonly tweet about. For example, twitteringAbout suggests that right now people are tweeting about "… wife, tonight, game, thing, and family."

The understated interface of Twitter makes the playing field surprisingly level. A few weeks ago, popular blogger Robert Scoble posted a public question to Presidential candidate John Edwards. Using Twitter, Edwards responded within minutes. The idea of text conversations between celebrities has been around since Carnegie Mellon's infamous and now-defunct Forum 2000, where artificially intelligent SOMADs representing Ayn Rand, Pikachu, George W. Bush, Jesus Christ, and others collaborated to answer questions from the public.

This is supposed to be the reason why some big tech company will eventually pay millions of dollars for Twitter. Even though the underlying technology is uninteresting, it's supposed to be the community that's worth a lot. More on that later.

Twitter Will Destroy Premium Text Services

Twitter lets me send tweets to my cell phone. I can also send direct messages to bots like Forecast to get little chunks of information like weather forecasts. News alerts, stock alerts, etc., can all be converted from any format to Twitter with readily-available tools, and in turn these can be sent to my cell phone on demand. I can turn each one on and off as I want. For example, when Woot! is having a Woot-Off, I can avoid a torrent of text messages by "leaving" the Woot! Twitter user. There are also provisions to prevent me from being paged in the middle of the night. There are no extra charges for any of these alerts -- yet.

Twitter is the Harbinger of the Second Tech Bubble

After all the dust clears, Twitter is just another trendy means to publish content quickly on the Internet. Since all the APIs are totally public, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from taking all the content off Twitter and doing anything I want with it. I can mix it with all my other RSS feeds, incorporate it into any weblog, or even make a lookalike service into which anyone can load their Twitter feeds. Twitter has had to pay dearly for its early success by buying lots of new servers and more bandwidth. They have to rent SMS short codes to receive messages in the US and the UK, and they may have to pay more to send messages en masse to the various mobile networks.

As much fun as Twitter is, there's really nothing it does that can't be done by someone else. The earliest adopters of Twitter are the most likely to leave it if things go sour, dragging their followers along to the next trendy thing. Unlike the Web 2.0 buzzword of "disintermediation," Twitter's goal appears to be reintermediation. All Twitter does is expose a medium, like e-mail and RSS, but theirs is privately owned. The openness of Twitter has already led to hundreds of bot accounts, including two I run. Blogs begat spam blogs, but that's okay because blogs have to be hosted somewhere. What will happen when Twitter has to field complaints about bot accounts replicating bot accounts replicating bot accounts, all with a smattering of advertising to make a profit from someone else's content?

In any case, if you want to befriend me on Twitter, I'm j2xl. Don't expect any great wisdom, though.