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 Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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