04 June 2009

Twitter -- Illustrated and Illustrative

Obviously I'm as shocked as anyone that this article appears in Time Magazine.

But it's not only the best article on Twitter that I've read - it's also one of the best descriptions I've ever seen on the massive changes that are occurring right now on the internet, in technology and communications and in consumer behavior.

Honestly, this could (and should) be turned into something that explores these topics in far more depth as there are some incredibly important details that are simply hinted at which are in and of themselves worthy of exploration in depth. But... that would be book length probably in that case.

You should read the whole thing - but following are some thoughts that I think are worth covering (in brief).
In short, the most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it's doing to us. It's what we're doing to it.
People say "Twitter is a platform" a lot - but I feel like the vast majority still think of it as a website. It's not. Twitter is far more than a website. It's far more than a website plus a bunch of APIs. I'd argue that the website is in fact nothing more than a short-term valuable customer acquisition tool. By common definition - Twitter is in fact a true Platform.
Injecting Twitter into that conversation fundamentally changed the rules of engagement. It added a second layer of discussion and brought a wider audience into what would have been a private exchange. And it gave the event an afterlife on the Web. Yes, it was built entirely out of 140-character messages, but the sum total of those tweets added up to something truly substantive, like a suspension bridge made of pebbles.
You could argue that the invention of hyper-text brought contextualization and reach and exploration to the formerly static experience of reading.

I would argue that Twitter is doing the same thing to conversation.

By adding a layer of conversation not only about a topic, but about the conversation about the topic - and by doing so in real-time (and on a global scale) -- and by leveraging the asynchronous nature of the "follow" model -- Twitter not only opens conversations wide, it provides for a huge number of new ways to debate, understand, explore, share and learn.
But watch a live mass-media event with Twitter open on your laptop and you'll see that the futurists had it wrong. We still have national events, but now when we have them, we're actually having a genuine, public conversation with a group that extends far beyond our nuclear family and our next-door neighbors.
It's not just the real-time nature of Twitter (a current focus of attention) that is so vital. It is the combination of it being a platform, it being real time, it having a massive audience, it being used contextually - and it having multi-variant communications (one to many, one to one, many to one, many to many).

This is truly revolutionary -- not just at a technology level. Not just in terms of media, or the web. This is revolutionary on a human and global scale. This changes behavior.
This is what the naysayers fail to understand: it's just as easy to use Twitter to spread the word about a brilliant 10,000-word New Yorker article as it is to spread the word about your Lucky Charms habit
The social distribution network is going to profoundly impact marketing world wide over the next 12 to 18 months. I've written about this before - but I cannot express my belief strongly enough.

This is why Bing is pointless - and why Wave has incredible potential.
This is why traditional Ad Agencies are going to find that the pain is just beginning.
This is why companies like Bit.ly are so amazingly well-positioned.
The history of the Web followed a similar pattern.
I would, in fact, argue that the best way to look at Twitter as if it were the second coming of The Web. Seriously. It and Facebook. In fact, you would not be far off if you were to say that the two of them are battling for the future dominance at a platform level (while companies like TweetDeck and Seesmic battle in the next coming of the Browser Wars).
How could the forecasts have been so wrong? The answer is that we've been tracking only part of the innovation story.
This is the part of this article that I love the most.

For too long we have looked at "Innovation" through a skewed lens and measured innovation by arbitrary metrics.

From Umair Haque's belief that Innovation must create financial returns to IBM's measuring Innovation through patents granted - we've missed the point.
In the race to innovate, most organizations forget a simple but fundamental economic truth. A new process, product, service, business design, or strategy can only be described as an innovation if it results in (or is the result of) authentic, durable economic gains.
This incredibly myopic perspective would (for example) result in us saying that Netscape created nothing Innovative. CERN (in fact) created nothing Innovative. Mozilla... no Innovation there. Xerox PARC... move right along, no Innovations to see.

The thing is - Haque's perspective is in fact something that is held as an unstated belief by a huge number of people in the business. And this belief (for it is not factual, merely faith) has crippled us in too many cases and blinded us far too often.

This has resulted in us not understanding what Innovation truly is - and thus not understanding where it is truly occurring.

It's meant we have failed to even understand how Innovation happens.

And it means that we've valued innovation entirely incorrectly. We've looked at phenomena like Twitter and said "they will fail because they don't have a business model" - have mocked them for their lack of focus on revenue streams - and have thus failed to see not only their Innovation but more importantly the enormous potential they have created -- not just for themselves and their future business model(s) but more importantly for the potentially tens of thousands of businesses that are and will be built on top of this platform (and the potential billions of dollars of revenues those businesses will generate).

Twitter.... it's important.


At 11:40 AM, Blogger simon + alice said...

Chris, totally agree. I'm generally a little overtwittered these days, but this was an excellent perspective & left me feeling enthusiastic about the spirit of invention that continues in this great corner of the world!

At 12:05 PM, Blogger chris said...

At a gut level, this "feels" as big as seeing Mosaic for the first time.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Gong said...

i have designed software interfaces (and some very mission-critical) for, um, 15 years. the design philosophy (if it can be called that) is the IDA model (insight-decision-action) - it's a loop. a FEEDBACK loop. IDA is not just to describe user interface design, but the design of all SYSTEMS. all systems simple or complex rely on feedback loops to adapt to external and internal inputs, and all systems have outputs.

twitter is a conversation "system". it is a technological platform to facilitate conversations. 140 character limits are a constraint of the system, and the simplicity and constraints allow it to grow grow grow.

why i like twitter so much is that it epitomizes IDA (read a tweet {insight}, decide to ignore it or read the tweet or embedded link {decision}, retweet it/comment on it {action}. but also, take a step back. this is not the same IDA of, say, word processing. this is IDA for user's intelligence (however you may define that).

twitter = insight/decision/action conversation machine for user's intelligence.

i will be so bold to say that twitter is actually making people....SMARTER. (and doing so faster, with a feeling of shared connectedness, etc)

if there were ever an innovative social engineering technology...you are looking at it. it's beautiful, and since it's design is so elegant, i feel it will also evolve and be extended elegantly.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger David Meyer said...


At 7:38 AM, Blogger mary hodder said...

I wonder about the conclusion of your last point re: Haque. That "durable economic gain" applies only to the maker of the technology and not to those using it. I think it makes more sense to reframe that and broaden Haque's rule to those who use the technology.

In other words, if there is durable economic gain for those who benefit from the innovation, then because twitter allows services, companies and those people who also have businesses to communicate better with customers, to be better found, to share ideas better, to change and enhance relationships with those they do business with, to truly converse instead of spinning/broadcasting only, and to easily see when someone is talking about them to hop into the conversation, that their ability to do business and achieve economic gain is better and more efficient.

I've never before talked with Whole Foods, Jet Blue, Southwest, or the Bellvue Westin where I just stayed for a Microsoft Event, except with rank and file employees who can't necessarily take my feedback back effectively to those in charge. But on twitter, I can ask questions, get info, and frankly feel much better as a customer of these entities because we converse and they put people in their twitter conversations that do have more ability to report back what folks are saying.

I think twitter and the simple ability to communicate it provides is very powerful and innovative.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger chris said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger chris said...

Regardless of whom the economic gain may apply to - and regardless of it being direct or indirect gain that is created - by saying "if it doesn't create economic gain it isn't innovative" not only do we change the way we define innovation (narrowing it unreasonably) we actually change the way we MEASURE innovation.

And that's a major issue.

Innovation is not a purely economic phenomena. And Innovation is not about Gains.

Innovation is about change - Innovation is about improvement.

If we're going to debate the definition of Innovation, I'd argue for exploration not around it's economic impact - and not as it relates to our American value of "more is better" - but rather around how much change, what kind of change and what kind of improvement it created. Is incremental change something that can be innovative? Must innovation be disruptive?


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