“I am not a tool” – Twitter’s inflection of web and society.

Points of inflection.
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Update (090811-20:51ET): The end felt incomplete – some more detail added.

I’ve been getting some questions about how public micro-messaging is different than other social media. Why is it not just another tool?

While the flip answer of “well it’s public and micro and that’s the difference” is correct what is more elusive is how that is changing things – an inflection in the web – and society.

So let’s start with ‘micro’. Micro is about sms – the reach of sms means every mobile phone on the planet – or about 4 billion potential contributors. Being on a mobile phone also allows for real-time publishing from almost anywhere. Micro also makes it easy to publish – with the least time commitment or audience expectation of any form of publishing there is.

With public though we get to the real shift. When publishing a micro-message you’re publishing it to… well no-one and yet everyone as anyone can read it. This has been a big part of the rise of blogging effectively bridges the power of the web with the reach of mobile.

Together, these features then encourage a unique form of publishing that is:

  • spontaneous
  • interest-driven
  • succinct
  • frequent
  • anytime-anywhere.

As people publish through this medium they create an often uniquely authentic public expression of who they are, what they are doing and what they are interested in. To this we add the ability to reference another account, link, or topic in the public micro-message itself.

In the case of accounts, this allows for 1-1 conversation, in the case of topics it allows for many to many conversation, and in the case of links creates a dynamic layer of context around the link itself – a thread of free, interest driven public expression. In isolation these things are not so novel, but when we recognize them as a public collective we start seeing some new patterns emerging that point to a new use and form of the web.

These interconnected messages offer new interest-driven pathways for discovery that are constantly evolving. It’s a map of consciousness of sorts – based on spontaneous human interest. These pathways seamlessly weave between accounts, sites, and topics. While those new pathways are an easy invitation to get lost for some, they are definitely changing how public micro-messaging users experience the web. Some examples are:

  • primary source for notification of current events
  • primary source for new links of interest
  • channel for relevant new connections to people and initiatives
  • opportunities for new collaborations

Clearly this isn’t just a new tool.

It is instead:

  • a new multi-facted, layer of personal public expression
  • changing how we receive information
  • opening new pathways for discovery
  • lubricating trust and relationship

… which in turn is:

  • opening us up as individuals and society to the new and the now in ways we’ve never had
  • fostering new connections and collaboration
  • making the web more relevant to us than ever before.

And in the end it’s just  the most simple, human, public expression we have. Who would have thought there could be so much in so little?

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11 thoughts on ““I am not a tool” – Twitter’s inflection of web and society.”

  1. This is a great post and I agree with everything you said. However, I think what is missing is a set of “gentleman's rules” to fully extract the value from public micro-messaging. Let me try to explain.

    Public micro-messaging is certainly a new way to publicly express oneself, but this by itself is of little value outside of the celebrity aspect or potentially knowledge disbursement (eg traffic, coupons, news). In other words, this is one way communication. What's truly valuable is how these micro-messages can be aggregated into 1-1 or 1-many conversations that have neither time nor spatial boundaries. The problem is that the public micro-messaging platform we have, Twitter, isn't very good at that aggregation. It places too much responsibility on the author to set context and adhere to an unenforced set of rules. Whenever you see an “@xxx great post!” it's very difficult for an outsider to pick up context and continue the conversation – one of the original value propositions for public micro-messaging.

    I guess the complication can be boiled down to two use cases:
    1) Those that use public micro-messaging as a wall, just to broadcast “what I'm doing” or “what I want you to know”
    2) Those that use it as a loosely structured, multi-way conversation tool

    The beauty, as you've pointed out, is that the platform remain flexible enough to allow cross-over as participants dictate, relying on a set of gentleman's rules and potentially some aids from the tools. I think that's the key distinction to what separates public micro-messaging from other forms of social media: lack of form.

  2. You're onto something with the 'gentlemen's rules' or soft standards. The more formal rules that are implemented the less fluid posting will become. The fluidity is what creates the base value. Our tendencies are to restrict the medium and take things offline but the medium is far more valuable the more that's populated into it. We need new ways to engage the stream and filter it to make use of it but that's at an application layer above the medium itself… which again begs the need for a universal network-grade infrastructure, maybe as a layer below twitter that other services can build on top of.

  3. using this to expand #socap09 chat comment & follow-up on: http://tumblr.com/xyj1n96kx

    more thoughts on scale vs. diffusion w.r.t. “social media and changing change.” imo, one of the failings of institutional innovation is the tendency for hierarchies to disconnect ideas from the “places” that create them.

    there is a chance, that unless social media enforces transparency, it may accelerate diffusion of an idea, while enabling a disconnection from the creative origin of an idea. In this way, rather than “changing change,” social media may exacerbate the stunting of real, networked innovation. (side note to Igniter, this “disconnection” is one reason why i think its better to scale than diffuse, scale keeps tracability to origin intact)

    sooo.. my question, and i do have one; does the openness & searchability of Twitter (structural transparency) enhance its ability to impact “change” vs. traditional collaboration and social media tools?

  4. The question of institution innovation's effects is a fantastic topic. My two cents:

    Institutional innovation can go two ways. Some institutions will be monolithic and insular and that will be fine. They'll be working on certain types of innovation that is best suited to this arrangement. Other institutions will become more dispersed and nimble when their projects lend themselves to that type of arrangement. I think that you could call those two structures scale innovation and diffusion innovation institutions, to borrow your terms.

    The strategic decision to model yourself in one of those fashions dictates how you'll use social media as part of your innovation system. It's largely dependent on your business objectives and the challenges you've faced. Diffusion becomes less of a problem if you're unable to innovate without collaboration beyond your immediate network. If that's where you find yourself, the negatives of diffusion that you must consider relate to things like economic profits and intellectual property. Positives include rates of innovation, exposure to new utility, etc.

    As far as Twitter, its openness and transparency are largely in the diffusion innovation camp. I think your question gets more at the efficiency/effectiveness of one model versus the other. I'd have to know more about your objectives to comment. For instance, if you're seeking social welfare and intellectual capital, I'd expect a diffusion model to be better. If you're seeking patents, probably not.

    Sorry if that wasn't helpful.

  5. Love the conversation on scale v. diffusion. To me, both run into the same problem if the solution is transplanted to a community vs. a community taking up a solution and applying it in their own way.

    In this the searchability/discoverability inherent in public micro-messaging in particuar give some advantages in being able to find pieces of ideas/solutions that can be incorporated to meet a community's needs. This is born from the structure of the medium and it's public nature.

    In terms of structural transparency though, I'm not sure. Structurally the medium defaults to public, and it encourages spontaneous contributions from anywhere and everywhere. That in turn makes it uncontrollable by institutions and results in more of what is happening in an organization being exposed and potentially spread.

    I don't know if it is structural transparency but it certainly increases the threat of uncontolled exposure.

    So maybe that's a part of it's provocation of change?

  6. Wow, a lot of great stuff in that post.

    “Rate of innovation and exposure to new utility” are too great positives – particularly new utility. What would you say leads to the 'new utility'? I'm thinking the ability to 'listen' and the exposure and accessibilty/discoverability of what's exposed. What do you see?

    Taking from the prior comment too, I'm wondering if the 'involuntary exposure'/'structural transparency' actually provoke diffusion innovation threaten scale innovation.

    Seems like you are hitting on something here.

  7. Suppose you model social media messages into two simple camps: First order messages and final order messages. First order messages are seeking an interaction. Final order messages don't lend themselves to much interaction. From final order messages, there is little utility to the observer besides for the message it contains (eg “Joe: I'm brushing my teeth right now.”). They are basically dead end messages. First order messages are not dead end messages (eg “Twitter is more than a tool, it's a profound part of self-expression and one's innovation program.”).

    As anything more than an interested observer, we (we being us, maybe not the Ashton Kuchar masses) desire to find first order messages where interaction can occur.

    To that end, the structural transparency is both a blessing and a curse, and significantly dependent on the medium. Consider the four key places you're likely to find first order messages: Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Blog comments.

    Save disqus, only Twitter has a critical mass and enough tools to capitalize on its structural transparency. The problem is that it’s so extremely transparent, threads are difficult to emerge and follow. Combine that with 140 characters, and you see why we're debating this on the blog.

    However, it has to be said that Twitter was the catalyst for the conversation. That's largely due to its structural transparency.

    So back to you question about the source of new utility. It's not a function of Twitter or blogs or anything else. It's a function of connections. We could do this over IM, snail mail, or messages in a bottle and likely create new utility for ourselves. It would just be much slower and less effective due to the lack of additional contributors. What Twitter contributes to finding new utility is a result of its critical mass and transparency. Besides for that, it's not really all that great of a tool, in my opinion. Twitter is a conversation finder.

    The involuntary exposure part of your post is really, really interesting and something we should think about. If we were talking about my industry, advertising, I'd say involuntary exposure is our bread and butter. Then I'd say something like saliency is a result of borrowed and distinct memory structures combined with distinct messages. But on Twitter, I don't know that the equation holds. Noticing a message is a function of social capital, certainly, but you have to consider the incomplete nature of the message. Tons of tweets are just like “whoa, you gotta check this out http://bit.ly/XXXXXXXX“. That's an entirely different scenario. Going back to my original definitions, I don't even know how to define those: First order or final order?

  8. Great stuff. I do think there is value in the final order messages messages
    in public micro-messaging. Looking at a person's last 20 messages a few of
    those help build a sense of the person that if it resonates, builds a sense
    of relationship. Individually it may be useless, but as part of a stream it
    adds dimension. And it's only possible in public micro-messaging because
    those little things are not suited to posts or comments, and if lost in a
    stream it's no big deal if 'no one cares'.
    The inclusion of a link or other in-line tag that resolves to a hyperlink
    (e.g. @account #topic) creates another order of message. It effectively turn
    that message into part of the message stream around the thing that was
    referenced. What's behind those links also says something about the person
    posting the message. And of course it's what creates gateways for
    discovery… and fuels the seeking dynamic described here:

    I also think there might be something in finding 'new utility' coming up
    from some of these dynamics as well coming from
    the mashup of snipits of ideas from mulitple areas that spark new
    applications never intended or anticipated. And not necessarily in the
    linear/logical sense always either.

    Take the #SoCap09 twitter chat yesterday. In one sense a seemingly futile
    series of burps. Did we, through that chat, have a deep, probing,
    conversation? I don't know. Were we clear on what each other was saying? Not
    likely. But I think that's part of the point. This collection of fumbling
    loosely connected comments have probably sparked deeper thinking and
    questions that are different for each of us. The chaotic stream will also
    probably spark some more thoughts on re-read. And what it also offers links
    back to each of the posters or anything else that was tweeted into the

  9. On the matter of dead end Tweets, you're exactly right. I didn't think about it that way originally though. But assuming that we agree that public micro-messages of any sort hold value, then we need better tools in the application layer to extract it. I guess that's why there are 1000s of Twitter add-on applications. 🙂

    Back to the innovation and new utility thing, two basic ways to innovate are to find:
    1) Problems seeking solutions
    2) Solutions seeking problems

    Both of those have a place in public micro-messages. I think the utility depends on which side of the fence you sit on. There are definitely ways to jump s-curves based on what you find in the messages or just try to use the message to move up the existing s-curve a little farther. Innovation may require participative interaction or it may not. I think that gets interesting when you think about using Twitter as an innovation tool combined with present day intellectual property law.

    The #socap09 comment is interesting because it represents yet a different way to use Twitter – multi-minded stream of consciousness, or something like that. Back to the application layer, that's an interesting way to recount a conversation by time-stamp and see if everyone else heard it the same way.

    One thing I'll throw out, and this thought isn't fully-developed, is that we have to be careful to think of Twitter as an adjudication tool. In other words, if we have a judgment/supposition/point of view for which we're seeking validation, a Twitter stream may not be the best validation. Again, this goes back to structural transparency. Maybe I only tweet when I'm drunk/angry/happy. It's important to remember the Twitter stream is incomplete, I think.

  10. There is something in the incompleteness too. It's the soup – this mish mosh
    of ingredients that are better together – but soup (for me anyway) can only
    ever be an appetizer to the full meal.
    And yes – the applications
    and tools for analysis – are where we have to look in beginning to
    extract more explicit value from the medium.

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