I’ve talked to a number of people that just don’t get Twitter. They say that it’s dumb, or that they don’t have anything to say, or that it doesn’t make sense. I don’t blame them–for years I thought the same thing. When I finally did join back in 2009, I didn’t tweet much and when I did, I didn’t say anything valuable. In May 2009, 4 months after I joined, I gave up and stopped tweeting, and was silent for almost 2 years.
Then, in April 2011, I realized it could be helpful in a unique way. I had had a pretty bad customer service experience with NewEgg when trying to buy a phone, and I wanted NewEgg to know, hoping they’d resolve the issue. I realized I could tweet directly at the company, describe my complaint (briefly), it would be available for the public to see, and it would be published permanently.
I didn’t hear from NewEgg that day, but I did discover Twitter’s powers, that I’d describe in this almost contradictory way:
To be able to communicate publicly and directly with any person or business online.
With Twitter’s IPO happening tomorrow, I want to discuss why I think their platform is so unique and valuable. Maybe this post will show you why you should start an account or maybe you’ll want to pick up some stock, who knows. Either way, if you’re not an active Twitter user, it should be interesting!
Why Communicate Publicly?
Twitter’s type of public communication is not possible with any other social network or website. On Facebook, you can mention someone directly, but the posts are not easily searchable. On Twitter, unless your account is private (which is uncommon), your tweets are searchable by anyone, whether they have an account or not. This searching ability is drastically different for the two services. So, say I wanted to look into who is talking about Mark Zuckerberg at a particular time. This is what that search looks like on the two sites:
Facebook only shows you the “public figure” page for the guy, and then gives you photos, videos, and people that like “Mark Zuckerberg”. No discussions or news about him at all. Twitter, on the other hand, gives me some Zuckerberg twitter accounts, and then there’s a huge list of the most current tweets that mention his name. That’s what I was looking for.
What’s the big deal with being able to search for tweets? It gives you the ability to find people/topics/ideas that you’re interested in really easily. This may sound similar to a Google search, but it has two distinct differences:
1) Each tweet has to be short and to the point. No rambling, no bs. You get information quickly and can move on.
2) It’s real time. Not like 7-second-delay-in-case-there’s-a-nipple-slip-at-the-super-bowl “real time”, I mean real real time. If you search for the right topic, you can see a whole page of tweets that have been tweeted in the last 5 seconds. From around the world. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing to watch a twitter stream during a presidential debate or a Breaking Bad season finale. It’s one of the only ways you can get a glimpse into the human race’s second-to-second consciousness–you can watch the sentiment shift from excited to angry in a second because of something that happened and watch the entire world reflect the change.
This real time thing is huge and the coolness factor is an entire blog post in itself, but it’s usefulness is proven in the fact that a number of events were heard first through Twitter, such as the Hudson River plane crash and the Osama Bin Laden raid. Who knows how long it would have taken through other media. That’s powerful.
Another advantage of the service is that Twitter stores all these tweets. The Library of Congress started archiving every public tweet in 2010. That means you can go look up what people were doing last year or reenact events that were documented via Twitter. You can watch the Boston Marathon bombing unfold (this recap of the whole event is amazing) or see various celebrities use the medium to rant and cry and meltdown publicly. This can be super helpful if you’re doing any kind of research, and can also just be cool to look back and see what people were talking about years ago.
Depending on what accounts you look at, it can also get weirdly personal. For example, the “male feminist” Hugo Schwyzer’s meltdown and series of manic posts from August. Or the accounts from the Wired article from last month on how social media is fueling gang violence in Chicago–an especially chilling read if, afterwards, you go read some of the tweets they point out, including the one that incited an assassination.
The upshot of all this is that your posts have that much more strength than they would on Facebook or a YouTube video. Twitter is the only place where your thoughts can be searched by anyone and found years later. I’ve had a number of totally random tweets get favorited weeks after I sent them out, which I thought was really cool. This real-time, public, searchable record is not found anywhere else online.
Why Communicate Directly?
This second part is what gets me really excited.
Nowhere else can you communicate directly with people that matter to you as easily as you can on Twitter. When I say “people that matter to you” I don’t mean your family members or friends. They could be a favorite author, or a musician that inspires you, or a company that does awesome things. I mean the people that are doing things that matter, that are making an impact. They matter in a more professional sense.
You can follow these people on Twitter and, if you are mindful of it, you can slowly build up a relationship with them. This person you look up to may have 10-15,000 followers (way above mere mortal numbers of 100-300), but you’d be surprised how easy it can be to have a conversation with them if you pay attention. Relationships like these online often come down to showing that you can provide value, and Twitter is a great way to identify these opportunities to give back. You’d be surprised how far a Retweet or a nice Reply can go if it happens at the right time. You may get a response from someone that you’d otherwise never have a chance of interacting with.
These connections can have huge multiplying effects. If you have an important question, or have some information you’d like to get out, or you need a survey passed around, knowing a few of these quasi-celebrities can be super helpful. If they happen to retweet your question to their 15k followers, and 10 people retweet that, and 30 people retweet that, etc, you can reach thousands of people instantly with very little effort.
Because Facebook is built around your network of “friends”, it can be very limiting in the kinds of posts you see. You presumably already know these people in real life, so you’re really not extending your network very much. On Twitter, it’s common to follow people that you don’t know personally–movie stars and comedians and the like. Occasionally, you may get a follow back from them (especially if they’re on the smaller side of fame-dom), and you have the chance of having your messages seen by someone with some real klout. If you have something to say, you’ll be saying it louder. If you want to help people, your chances will be greater.
I suppose that sums up my feelings on the subject. It amazes me that Facebook has a billion active users and Twitter only has 200 million–what are people waiting for? I hope that, especially following the IPO, more people give the service a shot and discover it’s value. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. Join me. I’d love to hear what you have to say.