Putting Twitter in Context

Twitter can be a confusing place if you don’t really understand what it’s all about. It’s time to put Twitter into context.

TwitterLike it or not, Twitter is becoming more and more integrated into all of our lives. From twelve year old girls to major mainstream news corporations, it seems like Twitter is everywhere and that Twitter users are riding the wave of the future. This can be extremely frustrating for people who just don’t “get” Twitter. Maybe they’ve created a Twitter account, just to see what all the hype was about, and did not get any farther than that. Maybe they have been resistant to Twitter since its inception, and have never taken the time to give it a chance. But when tweets are now being archived by the Library of Congress, it’s really time to start paying attention and realizing what this whole Twitter thing is all about.

A Brief Explanation of Twitter

In short, Twitter is a form of blogging known as a “microblogging.” It allows users to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, but restricts these posts to 140 characters or less (thus the prefix micro-). Originally designed as a sort of text message mass communication tool, it has since evolved into so much more.

The power of Twitter comes not from the website itself, per say, but through the vast number of ways to utilize the system and the large number of complimentary services Twitter can interact with. Updating Twitter is now available via the web, text message, and through numerous desktop and mobile applications. There are services that allow you to attach images or video to your Twitter posts, shorten URLs to fit into the 140 character limit, and easily view specific key words or browse global topics. The entire Twitter experience can be altered depending on the application in which you choose to interact with Twitter.

If you don’t have a correct context with which to understand Twitter, it’s easy to get lost in the misconceptions. I still hear comments such as:

“I don’t want people knowing what I’m doing all the time!”
“Why would I want to hear that so-and-so eating a sandwich?”
“Twitter is the exact same thing as Facebook, but with less functions.”

And you know what? All of the above statements have the potential to be true depending on how you use Twitter. It’s that versatile. If you write about every little thing you do, people will know what you’re doing all the time. If you follow people who tweet about every meal they eat, you’ll be reading a lot of sandwich reviews. And it’s actually quite easy to view Twitter as a simple status update engine and nothing more. But I would argue that you’re completely missing the point.

First of all, we need stop looking at Twitter as a social networking platform. Which can be hard to do, since that’s exactly what it is, a social networking platform. But Twitter is a different form of Social Networking, one in which we haven’t seen before (which is exactly why its popularity has grown exponentially over the past two years). When people think of social networking, websites such as Facebook and Myspace come to mind. These websites involve creating a web page using numerous tools (pictures, status updates, lists of interests, games, what-have-you) and then interacting with other people and their individual web pages.

Twitter is completely unique in the aspect that it does not revolve around a user’s web page at all. In fact, you can have the full Twitter experience without ever visiting Twitter’s website. Twitter is innovative due to the lack of a main centralized main page for each individual user. There is no profile page to spend hours editing and fixing and changing around. There are simply posts. Messages that you send out into the Twitter Universe, and messages from the Twitter Universe you choose to have sent back to you.

Viewing the Internet as an Organic Creation

The Internet itself is a living thing. It grows organically, with both users creating brand new websites and services, and people building off of infrastructures that already exist. Much like the modern evolution of audio recording. WalkmanIf a person wants to listen to music today, they have a wide range of media from which to choose, from vinyl to cassette tape to compact disc. These are all different steps in the evolution of modern audio recording and playback, and most would agree that each new innovation has more pros and less cons than the previous.

The same thing has happened with different services available through the internet. As an example, a Yahoo’s Geocities homepage was one of the first free, popular, and easy to use ways to create your own personal website. Today, Geocities no longer exists, but one could easily argue that this service has evolved into the modern day Blogger or WordPress platform. Another branch of evolution for the Geocities platform could be a Myspace or Facebook page. All of the above are offer different and modern ways to do exactly what Geocities helped so many people to do: easily carve out a small piece of the internet for yourself.

Homo heidelbergensisSo, much in the same way that scientists believe that Homo heidelbergensis branched into both Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, the internet can branch into different but related services and features. Almost every website we visit is an advanced form of a feature available during the first few years that the internet was publicly available.

In order to understand Twitter, we need to take a look at where it fits in with the evolution of an internet service. Giving Twitter context allows us to understand and appreciate it, even if we have absolutely no need for it’s services. Yes, it is possible that you have absolutely no need for Twitter, even if all your friends are imploring you to join in. Maybe you know in your gut that Twitter is not for you, but you just can’t explain why. Giving Twitter some context will help with that.

Evolution of Twitter

One of the first popular forms of communication within the internet were the Usenet newsgroup forums. It’s very possible, if you were active in the online community when the Internet was starting to become mainstream, you were an frequent poster in an alt.interesting-topic group. These different forums were broke into different topics, and allowed a user to either post a message or respond to a message. Newsgroup forums were located completely outside of what we would now consider a web browser and was a complimentary service offered to those with an Internet connection and a separate newsgroup reader application.

Next, and even more popular, was the chat room. While available in many different forms, it was first to the mainstream public by American Online (AOL). There was a seemingly limitless list of chat rooms topics to choose from and someone was always online ready to chat. This live communication, a feature not available through Usenet newsgroups, was an evolutionary step for this service.

These chat rooms branched into a more focused Instant Message service, such as AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk and numerous other platforms. Many of these services offered group chat rooms, but the focus was instead focused on one to one chat rather than a virtual room full of people talking.

This is where the group chat room took an evolutionary pause. There were no major changes made to the chat room platform, and many group chat room regulars abandoned these rooms for newer and different services, such as Instant Messenger programs, Friendster, Myspace, and eventually Facebook. Most people totally forgot about the chat room.

This this is where Twitter comes in. Twitter is the old fashioned chat room, redesigned for the modern day Web 2.0. As soon as you realize that Twitter is basically an evolved form of the once popular chat room, it makes a lot more sense. But Twitter is so much more than the simple chat rooms from back yonder, because the options for customization are almost limitless.

Joining the World’s Biggest Chat Room

Global ChatYou can begin your journey into Twitter by realizing that everyone who has an active Twitter account is already participating in one giant chat room. This chat room is so giant that it would be impossible to interact without narrowing the amount of users down a bit. In essence, when you create a Twitter account, you’re creating a smaller, personalized version of this giant chat room. Every time you follow someone new on Twitter, you’re inviting them into your personal chat room. Every thing they say will appear when you open your Twitter application or sign into your account on the Twitter website. And anyone who chooses to follow you will be able to see everything you say in their customized chat room.

Unlike chat rooms of the past, which had numerous different rooms dedicated to numerous different topics, Twitter itself acts as one giant room, with every single user talking at the same time. When you join Twitter, you don’t immediately get dumped into a real time chat room like those found on AOL. It would be physically impossible to keep up with every single post on Twitter, from over 190 Million users. Instead, Twitter starts you off with a completely empty room (your Twitter feed), and it’s your job to root through all the users on Twitter to find the ones you want to bring into your chat room. These can be friends, celebrities, or even companies. Once you “follow” these Twitter users, their posts will appear in your feed.

The great part of this new and evolved chat room is that you can take it with you where ever you go. You can jump on and see all the messages from everyone you brought into your chat room anywhere, at any time, as long as you have a mobile Twitter application such as Twitter for the iPhone (link opens iTunes). From here, you can easily post, reply, send direct messages, or perform a number of other features. The main point being that Twitter, the giant chat room. is available all the time, any time.

Is Twitter for me?

Only you can answer that question. There’s a distinct possibility that the answer is no. That’s great, and unless all your friends are on Twitter and use it to plan lots of social events, it probably won’t have any major impact on your life at all. In fact, you can even take advantage of Twitter as a stream of global consciousness search engine without even joining. It’s up to you what to do with Twitter.

Once you delve into Twitter, there are a lot of different ways to interact with people, such as @Replies, Direct Messages, Hash Tags, and many more (which I’m not going to detail here). If you are interested in joining the world’s largest chat room, I would recommend getting to know a few of these features (it’s not that hard) or just jumping right in and picking things up as you go along. Twitter is a fun place where you can interact with friends and celebrities, get breaking news stories, and even get regular updates about what people all over the world are talking about at any given moment. But remember, it’s also an extremely appealing procrastination tool, so join in with caution.

Twitter’s versatility has given the service a reputation for being either useless or a simply a tool for people who over share every detail of their lives. And for some people, that’s exactly how Twitter functions. But it would be a shame to miss out on all the positive aspects of Twitter due to simple misconceptions. I really believe that once one actually understands the context of Twitter, they’ll have a much easier time joining the conversation. At the very least, people will not be as opposed to it as they once were.

Or maybe they will. Maybe the only difference is that now they’ll have accurate reasoning to support their opposition to Twitter.

Related Posts: