Monday, February 16, 2009

What's the big deal with Twitter (and Facebook)

What's the big deal with Twitter? 
This post is about the "latest" social networking craze of very short personal updates, sent fairly often.
People do this on Twitter, or on Facebook status updates.  Many people think these status updates are frivolous, trivial things that young people with too much time on their hands do.  I think that if you pay close enough attention, you can see the amazing potential that these tools have.

First, the small bit of emotional currency exchanged by sharing a bit of yourself to your acquaintances (that's who "follows" you on Twitter, or your "friends" on Facebook) is actually important, and real.  Increasing the strength of connections between you and your acquaintances is basically what facebook and twitter does, and to me it is really interesting how amazing this can be.

Two examples:
Me reading about a grad school acquaintance's exploits and witticisms (and responding to them, this is key) led her to ask me a more serious and personal question about the job search, which also led me to spend more time and energy answering it.  None of this took place over the phone, but our connnection is a lot better than if we had just gone our separate ways.  
A childhood friend sent a status update saying he was coming to the area to his facebook friends, and we ended up hanging out and catching up. 

Second: Keeping track of all your acquaintances, whether by twitter or by facebook, is a way of storing all their collective knowledge and wisdom, for whenever you need it.  James Pogue, the technology columnist for the NYT put it this way:
"I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)"
I've seen this work as well on facebook.  Every now and then, someone will post a question.  Friends will then respond.  I've seen some amazing group problem solving at work on facebook.  One was someone was in DC and forgot their passport in Milwaukee.  Within hours, one of her friends suggested a solution and another was in a position to implement it.

The third thing I see from twitter is the potential to mix personal and societal news sources.  A twitter account could include your mom and dad, as well as Shaquille O'Neal, Tina Fey ("I don't know why I bother chewing corn anymore") and other celebrities.  It could include links to your favorite blogs or columnists.  I am also intrigued by other uses of twitter, like letting you know whether a drawbridge is up, or when a plant needs water (each of these is now available).

Finally, I don't really use twitter.  Why?  I only have 8 followers and 8 following.  Facebook on the other hand, I have close to 200 friends (although most of my friends have much more), and I use it all the time.  These tools are only as useful as your social network. 

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