Why Twitter Works: A Primer For New Users

Posted on May 19, 2009


Recently, a number of my friends grudgingly jumped on the Twitter bandwagon and, so far, seem to be mostly underwhelmed. Because the power of Twitter is not immediately obvious, I thought I’d explain why I think Twitter is a powerful tool. In my next post, I will explain how I use it to pretty good effect for my own aims and aspirations. 

A new user needs to understand that the source of Twitter’s power lies in the fact that it is an almost costless and almost perfectly egalitarian means of public communication. For anyone who can access the internet, Twitter is easy to join, easy to use, and each instance of participation — that is, each tweet — is treated equally in terms of distribution. Every tweet is published in real time and is accessible to any person who can find it or your profile via some simple search tools. The net result is not unlike an auditorium where everyone talks at once. Twitter essentially creates noise.

Counter-intuitively, the noise is, I think, the source of Twitter’s power. The noise is created by the desire to connect and, in order to connect, people need to figure out a way to stand out from the noise and to filter it for their own purposes. So, the very same motivation that creates the noise also creates a powerful incentive in users to produce, seek out, and share valuable content which will impress other like-minded people. And that creates a shared user-driven resource that is hugely valuable, for any person who want to learn about some issue and to connect with others who also care about that same issue.

For example, if someone cares about wine and wants to connect with other people who care about wine, the best means to accomplish this goal is to publish tweets that provide good content on wine, to self-identify the tweets as being about wine, and to search for tweets and other people doing the same thing. A person does not even need to publish original content, s/he can simply re-tweet (re-publish) good content s/he has found in her searches.

The other great advantage of Twitter is that the cost of interaction is almost negligible. Profiles don’t contain a lot of personal detail, the decision to follow or not to follow a person is effortless, the essential unit of communication is easy to produce and consume, and the emotional investment in particular instances of communication is infinitesimal. As a result, interactions can be fairly mercenary but, for this very reason, unexpected and valuable connections emerge. 

For example, if you follow someone who seems useful based on a few tweets but who eventually turns out not to be useful, it takes only a second to stop following him or her. As a result, there is no reason not to follow anyone who seems promising. Similarly, because tweets are so unobtrusive, there is little cost to follow someone who does not seem to share the same interests and, as a result, unexpected shared interests can be identified. Furthermore, initiating communication is easy, effortless, and pretty risk-free. If you are ignored, hey, no problem, it only took a moment and there are plenty of fish in the sea. Similarly, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to respond, so a person might as well acknowledge any genuine communication that comes his or her way. All of sudden, before either person knows it, they are connecting, sharing information, and building a relationship which may, with a bit effort, evolve to other social media and, then, perhaps evolve off-line.

The final piece of the puzzle is the fact that the Twitter community is always open and always easy to engage. Thanks to its world-wide reach, at any given moment in a day, people are tweeting, looking to connect, and sharing valuable content on just about anything. As a result, there is always a reason to return to the community, a palpable sense of the treasure hunt, and an element of luck. Twitter is not unlike a video lottery terminal but the important difference is that Twitter encourages interaction and the pay off is a very valuable social network.  

Like any tool, Twitter is not for everyone. Twitter is a great tool for people who are trying to connect with new people and who are also willing to nurture new relationships. I suspect with effort, especially as the Twitter community grows, any person with any interest, who is also willing to make the effort, will be able to connect with other like minded persons — whatever their defining interest may be. Ultimately, what you get out of Twitter — that is, who you connect with and what you gain from those connections — will largely depend on what you put into it. 

Twitter is, in effect, a 24-7 world-wide networking party where most everyone involved is really trying to meet new people. A person can easily engage with many people at the same time and there is no risk of getting stuck in a corner talking with some blowhard who shares none of your interests and goals. In fact, you can easily chat with your best friend, network with people who share your goals, talk with people with whom your might not normally interact, and eventually connect all of them together. Twitter is, essentially, an efficient tool for the creation of new and unexpected community and for sharing content valuable to that community.

Finally, as a point of contrast, consider Facebook which, according to its homepage, aims to help you “connect and share with the people in your life”. Facebook is very much a personal space where people, for the most part, share personal information in order to nurture pre-existing relationships. It is very much like an exclusive, purpose-built, private club and, like most private clubs, people are often reluctant to let in new members and the information shared tends to be idiosyncratic.

In contrast, Twitter helps you connect and share with people who aren’t in your life but probably should be because they share common interests, values, or goals. Twitter is very much a public space where people, for the most part, share non-personal information in order to create and nurture new relationships. Twitter is like an always open global playground where the vast majority of people are trying to create mutually beneficial relationships whether or not they necessarily evolve into a personal friendship.

So, clearly, Twitter is not for everyone, but it is for everyone who wants to make new connections and / or who wants to access great user generated content on some issue near and dear to their hearts. In other words, Twitter is powerful, for those who take the time to understand it and make it work. Like all other tools, Twitter’s power emerges from the people who use it and their interactions with each other.

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Posted in: Social Media