Social Enterprise

Sanity check: Is Twitter the most important development on the Web in 2008?

Learn what Twitter is, why it might be the most important development in the Web in 2008, and how IT leaders can use Twitter to become better connected in the tech industry. Plus, learn about the unique IT challenges that the Twitter site is facing.

For those who have never used Twitter, my biggest challenge here might be giving you a concise definition. Here are some of the common ones that you'll hear:

  • It's micro-blogging
  • It's a 140-character note about what you're doing
  • It's an up-to-the-minute status update for all your friends
  • It's a great way to keep up with what your colleagues are working on
  • It's a very timely source for news and links
  • It's like being part of the Borg but you choose your own Collective

Here's how I explained Twitter to my mom a couple weeks ago:

"It's like a text message or an instant message -- limited to 140 characters -- that you send to everyone on your buddy list. You use it when you're doing something interesting, you have some news to share, or you have a Web link that you want to bring to people's attention."

If you don't think that sounds very exciting or useful, you're not alone. A lot of the most active Twitterers I know didn't take to it right away. There's an interesting phenomenon with Twitter where a user gives it a first try and then sort of abandons it, while still occasionly checking on the messages posted by the people on their contact list. Then, the user eventually starts doing and seeing stuff and thinking, "I should post that Twitter." Pretty soon they actually start remembering to post that stuff, either from a Web browser or a cell phone, and before long they are hooked.

Five reasons why Twitter matters

  1. Twitter provides a method for tapping into the brainwaves of people whose thoughts and opinions are valuable to you.
  2. It can help you catch breaking news very quickly. It's the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth.
  3. It can allow you to communicate and network with people that you've wanted to meet.
  4. Twitter lets you keep track of colleagues, see what they're working on, and better understand what they do.
  5. It can serve as a messaging tool to quickly communicate with multiple contacts.

Twitter for IT

I primarily use Twitter for three things:

  1. Posting a lot of the stuff that doesn't make it into my blog. That includes links, breaking news, thoughts on current events in the tech world, and occasionally a few off-topic notes about digital living and civilization as we know it.
  2. Keeping up with current and former co-workers and other friends and colleagues -- mostly people in the IT industry or the media business. I've learned more about some of my co-workers from Twitter than I did by working with them in the same office for years.
  3. Responding to thoughts and notes from my network of contacts and get to know some of my contacts better in the process.

You can find me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jasonhiner.

Because so many of the early adopters of Twitter are techies, it can be a valuable tool for IT leaders, who can not only follow pundits like me but can also follow like-minded IT experts. In this way, they can build their own custom community of people of interest for IT. That's the greatest strength of Twitter, and that's why it will end up being the most important development on the Web in 2008 -- the year it really started to gain critical mass.

There's another reason why IT pros may be interested in Twitter, and it has nothing to do with its use for communication. As an online application built on RubyOnRails, Twitter has run into scaling problems that have recently led to several outages of the service and repeatedly dogged its IT department. In fact, the outages have become so common that they are -- dangerously -- becoming one of the distinguishing characteristics of Twitter. There's even a recommendation to put ads on the outage page. Check out the TechCrunch article Twitter At Scale: Will It Work? and this blog post from the Twitter staff to get up to speed on the issues involved.

Further reading

For more on Twitter, take a look at these articles:

Bottom line for IT leaders

While Twitter launched quietly back in mid-2006, 2008 will likely be remembered as the year that it reached critical mass. In fact, the masses have grown to the point that Twitter's infrastructure can't keep up, which has led to almost-weekly service outages and outrage from users. However, whether Twitter itself is the brand or product that survives, the phenomenon of group messaging that it pioneered will undoubtedly continue. It has already hooked too many users, and there are lots more joining every day right now. IT leaders should join the party, too, because they can take advantage of Twitter to become smarter, more timely, and better connected.

UPDATE, May 26, 2008 at 9:10 AM EST:

One other effective use of Twitter is for following your most valuable RSS feeds. It's not a replacement for a full RSS reader, but it is very useful for keeping track of your most-watched feeds (if they are on Twitter). Once you add them to your list, the new posts simply show up in your Twitter stream. Here are some RSS feeds you can follow on Twitter:

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

87 comments
Scott K.
Scott K.

For me, Twitter is about expanding my personal network and learning new things. It is a service that is so dead simple that most people don't get it. I didn't a year ago when it first opened and I joined. Twitter has THE people doing and building the tech we all use and love. I have actually had conversations with people that I could never get to as some IT guy with a blog. Even if I went and commented on their blogs it wouldn't be the same. I'm not even on Twitter all the time and yet I find all kinds of news before the wire services have it. I've had beta invites to things before the masses find them on techmeme. I've been alerted to articles in magazines I don't normally read that I might be interested in. On and on. Daily. Briefly, 2 things to help you 'get it': Set your reply settings so you can see ALL replies. At least at first. This lets you see who people you are following reply to and then you can decide if you want to follow them. This is NOT the default and I think it should be. Second, learn about 3rd party applications such as Summize which provides search of twitter. Summize lets you build a search and even updates your page if new results come in if you leave it open (I have a firefox tab I leave open to certain searches). Last, if you want to jumpstart, you can look at Twitter Packs wiki which shows people in various categories you may be interested in following. http://twitterpacks.pbwiki.com/ Scott http://twitter.com/techlifeweb

dherde
dherde

Question .. Is anyone willing to start a linux users twitter for when you are playing around with your new OS/Program/device (pick one) and want to share the success and look for guidance (eleviate the frustration)?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't really like the premise of this application. However, I also don't feel right commenting on something I haven't used, so I created a Twitter account. After creating a username and password, I was prompted to enter the e-mail addresses of any contacts I have. The search tool was limited to checking the address book on any of the major free web-based e-mail systems. Since I don't have an account on any of those, I skipped it. Next I was shown a text box to enter my reply to the question, "What are you doing?" I had no clue what to enter, but there were two other options at this point. One allowed me to "Turn on my mobile phone to update my friends", but since I don't have a cell, I was left with "Find some friends and follow what their doing". Unfortunately, this went back to the previous web-based address book search. This time I did notice a tab allowing me to invite others by manually entering their e-mail address. Since everyone I communicate with by e-mail is a co-worker or relative, I didn't see any purpose in substituting Twitter for e-mail as a method of communication. There's a search box to locate other Twits (sorry, couldn't help it) but since I don't know anybody who does this besides Jason (and I don't really know him), I didn't find anybody. It does appear to work well; I didn't have any trouble locating Jason's page using it. There's a Settings option to configure a simple profile (name, location, home page URL, phone number, IM account, etc.). While attempting to investigate the "Replies" and "Archive" tabs I got a "Twitter is over capacity" message. A refresh brought the site back up and I made the mistake of hitting the "Everyone" link. Apparently a list of the most recent posts, it was every bit as a uninteresting as I'd feared. "Ten minutes from home." "Trying to understand Blogger templates." (Twittering about blogging; talk about pointless.) "Wish I could take a nap." "Drinking espresso." "Fifteen minutes and I can go home." We're back to my original suspicions: I don't have any social contacts that I care to keep updated with my every waking move; none that I care about what they're doing at any given moment; and not doing anything I think anyone else would care about my doing, even if I felt like telling them. At least now I've tested it, sort of, even if I didn't actively post anything. Since what I was doing was testing Twitter I don't think that's worth posting, especially since it's better documented here. I feel very much like I did when I tried Blogger: nothing to say I'm interested in entering or think anyone would be interested in reading. I see XP SP 3 is done loading and ready for a reboot. This experiment is at an end; I deleted my account. I still don't see what Twitter does that other communications tools don't already do, except impose a 140-character limit.

chas_2
chas_2

If Twitter manages to attain cult status like MySpace it will only be because the masses become obsessed with it. Since Twitter's actual 140-character messsages can't be personalized the way a user's Twitter profile page can, some of the ego-driven appeal of using it is lost. MySpace was a big hit because it tapped directly into the ego. Twitter allows for some of that, but many iron-clad egotists will probably say, "I don't get it!"

armstrongb
armstrongb

Messaging technologies are fascinating but ultimately no one person can do them all. I use IM and text messaging with friends, email for work and cell phones for work and play. Twitter may work great for many who use the service but it seems to be tied to the expectations of the person using Twitter. Most blogs and the twits I have read at Twitter are a complete waste of my time. That does not mean that someone else would get no value, all it means is that I derive no value and my customers have me ban IM and soon I will be banning Twitter on their networks since no one has presented a compelling business case. Twitter could be the "Microsoft Bob" of the 21st century or it could evolve into a tool that scales beyond the basements of the Web 2.0 unemployed cheerleaders who seem to be the only ones with time to invest in Twitter.

dtrnelson
dtrnelson

Yes, Twitter is the most important development on the Web in 2008. Which says a lot about Web development in 2008... BTW, in 2009, Twitter gets named as the most over-hyped "technology" of 2008.

dsgee999
dsgee999

Except for those in the 'blogosphere", Twitter is a colossal waste of time. Way too much press has been given to this site.

shreeg
shreeg

I think this sort of thing comes in very handy during disasters particularly when frequent updates for a specific area/problem needs to be made and people subscribing could benefit from it. Its the ham radio equivalent when integrated with a mobile device. Sometimes, I find it easier to get through to people with SMS than with calls. This is a group SMS equivalent.

patmurray12
patmurray12

It's an old idea (that was abandoned eons ago) with a silly name.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If I have something important to share with my fellow techs, that's what email is for. If I need immediate help, that's what a telephone is for. And I don't have time between calls to Twitter; I'm either driving to my next call or updating the call center. I just don't see the need to provide the world with a stream of consciousness replay of my life. I've seen a bunch of blogs like this, and I strongly suspect the majority of Twitter will eventually sink to the same level: Woke up and ate breakfast Went to school. boring came home from school. Played beat x bosses got y gelt z exp shortcut to Boss, turn right at the tavern and take the left fork in the path, need whip to swing across ravine because bridge is out, no enemies here went to bed. At some point, we will reach the logical extreme, where the interested ( ?:| ) party receives a play-by-play of the day: woke up late cause mom didn't call me on time no time to shower ate breakfast I like corn flakes went to school I hate first period took a dump, wiped, didn't wash my hands shook hands with my second period teacher, laughed when he wiped them on his pants... I'm probably missing the point completely, but who flipping cares?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

http://dotsub.com/api/smallplayer.php?filmid=3066&filminstance=3068&language=none Enlightening, but it doesn't look like Twitter will be of use to me. I think my lack of use for this utility goes back to my apparently relatively low level of social interaction. It's probably the same reason I don't 'get' social sites. I guess I just don't care what my limited circle of friends are eating, reading, watching, hearing, or doing with their every waking minute. Since I don't care about these aspects of others lives, I translate that into a lack of interest on their parts about my life. It's all related to how much one needs to feel connected throughout the day. I don't feel enough need for connectivity to even have a cell phone. There's also the same issue I had with keeping a web log: I'd rather be actually doing stuff than keeping others updated about what I'd be doing if I wasn't updating them. As a society we're spending more time communicating about what we're doing than doing it. I looked at Jason's Twitter page but I really hated the format. I found the 'stream of consciousness' style difficult to follow. Comments injected by others were often out of context (rouge access points, something called Scoprah, ryanblock thinking 'the same thing'; same as which of J.'s comments? I didn't care that J. was working on the original article for this post; I was only interested in reading the finished work. (By the time many of you read this, most of the comments will have been pushed off the bottom of J.'s page, but I'm sure other, equally mystifying ones will have appeared.) I'm not picking on Jason, but his is the only Twitter page I've seen. From what I've seen of his, it will probably be the last. The video does a great job of presenting the 'vision' behind Twitter, but I just don't care about "What are you doing?"

skerns_z
skerns_z

I find it interesting that the author of this 'article' feels the need to defend it at least three times so far. Twitter is just the web's version of CB radio in the late '70s. Mindless babble.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Jason, I read your list of reasons why Twitter matters, and what you do with it. Oddly enough, those portions of the article apply just as well if you replace 'Twitter' with 'e-mail'. Once again, I'm failing to see the advantage of another new communications tool over existing e-mail systems. Isn't this another case of communications overload? Now in addition to reading e-mail, social web pages, blogs, text messages, etc., we now have to track "twits" (or whatever the polite term is for a Twitter-delivered message). How do you determine which medium is appropriate for your content? What goes out via e-mail vs. text vs. Twitter vs. phone call?

lpress
lpress

I'm a professor -- do you know of anyone using Twitter in teaching? What might my class do with Twitter?

michealrand
michealrand

Twitter is only useful in business if you can't manage your workload and colleagues, an excuse for being lazy. Text is not as useful or accurate as a phone call and will in general only generate a question that requires a phone call or a meeting. Twitter will always be a thing of 'when I get round it, it is not a direct communication to the people you need to talk to. Water cooler talk or a bulletin board.

info
info

I think Click2Call VOIP is a more important and user friendly development, have you seen www.2Callus.com click2call technology...it generates better overall results! IMHO

hugh
hugh

Frank is a bit of a stick in the mud at times ...

pivert
pivert

If you think twitter is the most important thing in 2008 I think you need a sanity check. It's "texting via the web". If blogging was the hype of 2007, twitter will be that of 2008. Just another channel for the information overload. But I guess I'm not into bloatware, hypes and shiny new things...

clever_boy
clever_boy

Hi Palmettto I'm afraid you are bucking the trends here. Don't you know that the real significance of technology in our world is the enablement of self-aggrandizement? Think of it this way, with Twitter you get to build your own secret EMPIRE! All leaders of EMPIRES need followers who dote on their every word and act. (See Social Networking, MySpace YouTube, Facebook) Twitter is the next logical step (as you kinda already pointed out). Now we need a GEO-IP, webcam-enabled, passive infrared, Iphone enabled mashup/solution. Oh Wait, they have one for me!!! Joy Joy! Its going to help me locate a paytoilet and charge it to my Discover Bright Idea Card. Maybe all my friends can home in on the porta-potty and we can have a soiree and exchange text haiku versions of our fave lolcats. - LOL - Now, more seriously, you better get with the program! Your future in Decision Science is at stake here. TWTTTER ON!

Marquisem
Marquisem

And for those of us who really don't see the point in MySpace...? I've got a page, but it's mostly to share pictures with friends. Other than that, I fully admit it is a HUGE waste of time. One that I stay away from at *work*.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is that during a disaster the electric system is one of the first things to go down. That reduces you to sending and receiving messages by cellular communications only, competing with everyone else for bandwidth on an overloaded system until the cell tower backup batteries go dead.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm waiting on the news coverage of some idiot who was updating his blog or Twittering while skydiving, with the predictable final result. More realistic, I waiting on a lawyer to subpoena a defendant's communications logs to prove he was blogging, IM'ing, Twittering, etc. at the time of the three-car pile-up. I'd add more to this, but I've got to use Twitter to tell everyone I'm logged into TR right now.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

Because I initially dismissed it, too. But, I've discovered ways to make it useful and wanted to get the word out. If you pick the right people to follow, it can become a great tool, especially if your e-mail inbox is so full that it is quickly becoming useless.

bsmi021
bsmi021

I can not agree more with you, people are just looking for and useing something new and think it is better. There is way to much info overload today.

DagnyTaggart
DagnyTaggart

I completely agree with what you've written: I have a hard enough time keeping up with email, cell phone and land-line voicemail when I've got several projects that I'm working on. The last thing I need is another service to keep track of. Honestly, if you're an IT professional and you have enough down-time to check a site like Twitter a half-dozen times a day just in case something neat shows up that would be useful, you probably aren't collecting the kind of practical job-oriented experience I would like to tap into. The only advantage I could see is the ability to reach out to people who you don't work with or know already, but that's what sites like TechRepublic are for: it's not geared toward instant-gratification answers, but people do check the forums often enough and I don't feel sucked into any kind of need to check it multiple times a day.

lance.atchley
lance.atchley

To me it sounds like another excuse for people to avoid making decisions on anything until they hear what everyone else thinks. If a person has to check the blogs or Twitter list or email before doing anything, either personally or professionally, then they probably shouldn't be doing anything to begin with.

FBuchan
FBuchan

They could do the same thing that everyone else is doing with it: waste time. It may be harsh of me to say, but anyone checking into Twitter and thinking it valuable has to be gullible in the extreme. Quality communication requires forethought, planning and an environment with little or no distraction. Anything else gives you the kind of slapdash communication that is so common today. Twitter (and dozens of site slike it) are essentially time drains that provide a sense of accomplishment the same way a dose of candy provides energy -- its an illusion. I feel saddened for the IT industry that we embarrass ourselves by buying into this tripe.

jjvolk
jjvolk

Facebook has "the wall" on which random thoughts can be posted. I don't see how its any different than Twitter. In fact, I've heard of MySpace and Facebook, but never heard of Twitter before today.

jc@dshs
jc@dshs

I can see a niche market here - bird calls for your different twitter "friends." You could have different calls for different friends, or subjects - that way you can quickly screen and prioritize your twits (messages). And bird graphics to show when you fly a message out onto the net, with a bird soaring across your screen or coming in to land when messages are incoming. You could photoshop your face onto your favourite bird as your avatar. And then link it all together with IM and Facebook and your MySpace account. OMG, the potential is enormous. (and to think I felt guilty wasting the last 120 seconds writing this response)

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

I said the same thing. But it's helped me get inside information, discover best practices, and connect with some valuable contacts. I've actually found that it helps me fight information overload, because I can scan it for a quick read on stuff and people. I even know some people that will use Twitter instead of sending a blast e-mail because they know everyone they really need to reach is on Twitter - especially if it's not super-important but they need a quick response.

TechrepLath
TechrepLath

To me twitter is best described as "brain vomit". Writing down information in a way that it makes sense to others and can be used as source of knowledge is hard work. Putting random thoughts on twitter is a waste of time. But not quite as wasteful as actually READING it.

CkITout
CkITout

I agree. Not at the top of *my* list of important Web developments, obviously someone else has a different list. I don't need another open information channel for marginal use chatter, develop an intelligent filter then and I might be interested.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

to state that I have no clue what "lolcat" or "Decision Science" mean.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

if the cell towers are still standing. :0

DagnyTaggart
DagnyTaggart

then it sounds like the very last thing you need is MORE crap being thrown your way.

cant_drive_55
cant_drive_55

But isn't that the complaint that everyone makes about our current President? The man made a decision based on info from a few close advisers and he will be excoriated about it until the end of time. what is wrong with getting plenty of info before making a decision? Sometimes snap decisions need to be made and you need the huevos to do so, but if you have the luxury of time, do your research and make an INFORMED decision...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

At least, that's what we called it in the Army. It's the reluctance to make a decision because you're afraid you're missing just one more piece of data. In after-action reviews someone usually reminds the over-analyzer that, "Not making a decision is a decision in itself: it's the decision to do nothing."

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Give the man a cigar. The emperor has no clothes after all.

michealrand
michealrand

This is true. the growth of IT, telecomms etc has *INCREASED GLOBAL TRAVEL* I have worked for a number of the world's biggest telecomms and electronics companies and at the end of it all, someone gets on the phone and kills the streams of email, or they get on a plane and we meet up. Microsoft, bless them, sent someone half way round the world overnight to sort out a problem I had with their mobile software with a European client - Seattle to Paris in less than a day. Don't Microsoft say the internet is good? Not as good as a plane, it seems regards

netjet02
netjet02

Amen brother. I love watching people waste valuable time with all there great gadgets and services. I remember getting more done with a typewriter and a telephone. Paperless is just around the corner, LOL.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

on Twitter you see a lot more useful stuff, such as breaking news, instant analysis of current events, and insights into people and events that you don't typically get. I'm on Facebook. I check it maybe once a week. I check Twitter at least half a dozen times a day (and I'm honestly just a casual user).

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

the posts of the people that you choose to follow. If someone posts to much or rarely posts anything useful, I drop them from my list.

Marquisem
Marquisem

Your job is to stay up to the nano-second current. Mine isn't. Heck, I'm reading this article more than a day after it was sent out because I've just now had time to get to it. If my leader would pay me to go find the "experts" to talk to, take a day to get set up and wouldn't mind me being on the web a dozen times a day (even to read 140 words or less, that's 5 min), I guess I might think about it. Do I care that someone I worked with 2 years ago is reviewing firewall logs? Uh, no. Does anyone care that I gave a presentation to new hires? Uh, no. Email, IM and the phone have given me enough ADD at work. I can't imagine any more will make me more productive. Sorry.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

better ways to sort through the crap and get to the most important and useful information. Believe it or not, Twitter has helped, although I definitely still have to do some filtering on Twitter, too.

MargaretI
MargaretI

Use it to build repport with your customers (current or potential) by providing useful information such as interesting websites/news that you come accross. Then remind them of your product at times and issue news releases on new versions, upgrades, etc. Basic good marketing.

cant_drive_55
cant_drive_55

Actually, I don't see myself using Twitter, but I think that there is business opportunity in Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social media sites. As a purveyor of technology, it is my lot in life, if not my duty, to try and figure out if this is something my clients can benefit from and if so, how. Does anyone else see how a person selling any product could use social networking to stay "sticky" with their clients without becoming overbearing and annoying?

DigitalFrog
DigitalFrog

Twitter is more of a gossip mill approach. If you are going to make a serious decision, do the research in depth. Twitter seems more to me like the President asking the Sec Def what tie he should wear.

bgnewtech
bgnewtech

I was thinking about the status feature in both tools when reading this article. Is there a sub-plot here of limited scaling for RoR?

jason
jason

Just to toss this in - Facebook's status updates function the same way as Twitter, so it could be used in a similar way for communication.

Somewhat anonymous
Somewhat anonymous

In fact, there are a lot of things my friends do during the week that I would rather not know about.

jc@dshs
jc@dshs

As soon as I, a useless poster of absolute trivia who suffers from literary diarrhoea realise that you have cut me from your list then of course I instantly stop posting all my cr@p and congesting the internet, along with all the other twits, to let the more important stuff go on. Sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but really... Isn't there enough demand on the internet without adding another form of time wasting for morons to it - like MySpace and Facebook and all those other crocks that the kids here at my school are continually wasting their time and our bandwidth on? If I want the latest news on various subjects I go to reliable web sites and read their articles.

ShaneD
ShaneD

...it's just another website I have to block so our staff actually work instead of telling all their friends they should be working... The buzz will die off of it once all the advertising dollars have been sought and more workplaces ban it. Mind you, it's great for mushrooms who don't work and have no actual social skills (or perhaps to be fair; those who can't get out through no fault of their own). If they can get those mushrooms to buy lots of stuff from Advertisers.. then it may grow into something huge. I am not sure if I am in a minority, but I couldn't give crap what all my friends are doing during the day every day.. if I already know everything about everyone, what the hell would I talk to them about on weekends when we catch up face to face?

n-solis
n-solis

I totally agree. I'm extremely selective with who I follow and who I allow to follow me. If you're looking for a calculable ROI on Twitter, you're not likely to find it. I got into Twitter when I started a new job, working with a dispersed team. For me, Twitter became the digital watercooler, so when I called to follow up on a bug, I could say, "So your son just started softball? What does he play?" In that way, it helped me be much more effective at my job.

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