Micro-Blogging: To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

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With blogs so commonplace, it is not surprising that something new has come along to engage Internet users and faddists – micro-blogging. Wikipedia defines it as “a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (usually 140 characters) and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by … text messaging, instant messaging, email, MP3 or the web.”

The first and best-known micro-blogging service is Twitter, which surfaced in 2006 and continues to grow in popularity, with a 1300% increase in traffic from June 2007 to June 2008 (Compete.com). Others have joined in, including Pownce, Jaiku (now part of Google), and Plurk (currently a distant second to Twitter in the micro-blogging realm).

What is it about micro-blogging that makes it so successful? After all, with a limit of just 140 characters, what could one possibly say that would be so interesting and engaging? When I first started using Twitter, I just couldn’t fathom how it could draw so much interest. Before long, however, the allure for me was a mixture of fascination learning about people’s lives moment-by-moment and satisfaction from being so connected with breaking news and chatter from my industry. Further, it amazed me that with a little imagination it was possible to pass on just about any message in those 140 characters. Still, I wondered what leading adopters of micro-blogging had to say about its success and where they felt the technology was headed. Since Twitter has the largest following, I decided to contact four leading Twitterers for their viewpoints.

Barry Schwartz (aka RustyBrick) lives in the Greater New York City area and is the News Editor at Search Engine Land and the Executive Editor at Search Engine Roundtable. His company, RustyBrick, specializes in custom web application development.

Darren Rowse (aka ProBlogger) resides in Melbourne, Australia and works from home as a blogger. Darren is also one of the founders of the blog network b5media.

Justine Ezarik (aka iJustine) is a social media maven with a wide variety of active social media profiles. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, working as a freelance graphic/web designer and video editor and co-hosts the online show GeekRiot.

Steve Rubel (aka steverubel) lives in the Greater New York City area and is Senior VP of Insights for Edelman Digital. With over 15 years of digital marketing experience, Steve is often in the press and was chosen as one of Forbes.com’s 2007 Top 25 Web Celebrities.

Ross: What is it about Twitter, Plurk, and similar services that you think have made them so popular so quickly? After all, we have email, IM, SMS, as well as the old standards of snail mail and phone for keeping in touch. Why are people willing to integrate yet another application into their daily routine?

Barry: The main difference between email, IM, SMS, etc., when compared to Twitter, Plurk, and similar services is that they are more open in nature but at the same time very selective. By that I mean there is a big distinction between IMing and emailing when compared to Twittering or a Plurk response. I would never imagine myself sending out a mass email about baby spiders invading my home, but Twittering it or placing it on Plurk seems very natural to me.

Why? Well, I can’t force someone to get my Twitter or Plurk notifications – they have to express interest in me by subscribing to me on those social networking sites. By them expressing interest, I know that, (1) they may be interested in spiders invading my home; and (2) if they are not, they can always unsubscribe and not get future notifications. If I mass email my friends about that, there is no way for them to unsubscribe from that. The great thing about the social sites is that they also bring in friends of friends, so even if I mass emailed my friends, my friend’s friends wouldn’t see that. But if someone replies to my Twitter or Plurk, their friends will see my initial message and may join in on the conversation – and I may have made a new friend. Clearly, Plurk and Twitter are not for everyone. But for someone like me, who loves to blog and share, social networking tools are fun and smart.

Darren: Social media services like these have a number of factors going for them:

  • Immediacy – if I tweet a question now, I can have 50 or so responses quickly.
  • Wisdom of the crowds – together we know so much more, and social messaging taps into this collective knowledge.
  • Belonging – we all like to feel that we belong and that what we do matters. These tools can be very social and communal.
  • Voyeuristic – there’s something a little voyeuristic about these services. People like to know what others are doing – these tools give a glimpse of this.

Justine: I think what has made Twitter so successful is its simplicity and people’s curiosity about what others are doing. Some of the more popular blogs are just purely gossip about what other people are doing. Why not get the info directly from the source from people you care about?

Being able to get updates from your friends anywhere and everywhere appeals to a wide audience, using tools we already use on a daily basis. People are extremely busy and don’t always have the time to read lengthy emails and blog posts. With the 140 character limit and multiple ways to receive the updates (IM, SMS, desktop application, web), there’s just no reason not to be using it to stay in contact with your friends. Also, having the open API means there are constantly new applications and fun tools being developed to enhance the Twitter experience.

Steve: Micro-blogging has become popular because we are moving from a one-to-one world to a one-to-many scenario. It’s more efficient and effective sometimes to communicate to lots of people at once, and that’s what these services are all very efficient at, especially since they integrate with IM and SMS.

Ross: What is your opinion on the ability of this type of service to jump the rift between early adopters and the more general public? Which factors are going to be crucial to ultimate success in the marketplace?

Barry: Good question. These tools are really meant for early adopters. Can I ever see my friends using Twitter on a daily basis? Honestly, no – never. Some use Facebook, but they don’t use it the same way you or I would use it. In fact, they simply don’t see the point to Twitter-like applications. Many people are simply not looking to be so open with their daily lives. For a blogger to jump into Twittering is not a major hurdle. But for the average-Joe non-blogger to make that leap? I just don’t see it.

Darren: As I look at services like Twitter or Plurk, I do wonder just how far they have to go until “normal” people adopt them. To be honest, I’m not sure if my family or non-blogging friends will ever make that leap. Perhaps one factor that might help some of them to do that is when – and if – these types of services come as standard installations in devices that they buy (phones, computers, etc).

What I think is important to keep in mind is that these services are being used by a fairly influential group of people. While my family might not Tweet, the journalists that they read in newspapers do, the bloggers that they read do, some of the politicians that they vote for do. So perhaps indirectly there’s some potential for Twitter to impact the general public that way.

Justine: You’ll always have the early adopters to any service, and I feel a lot depends on them if it’ll succeed or not. Many of them have friends that are, as us tech kids like to say, the general public. Will they pass along the info on their newfound service to them? My grandmother has been on Twitter since December 2006 and still is an active user. This is a great example of a service being user-friendly enough for everyone. One of the main factors in being successful is actually having a great product. Really, that’s what is most important.

Steve: Right now, by all accounts, these services are very niche. They are concentrated with early adopters and the press too. However, certain elements of these tools exist in more mainstream applications like Facebook. I believe the primary driver that will continue to thrust micro-blogging and status updates further will be generational. For college students and Gen Y, this is the way they are being raised to communicate.

Ross: Twitter especially seems to have filled a void that many people had no idea needed to be filled. With that in mind, in your opinion, what functionality will the next-generation application need in order to capture the attention of those who have avidly adopted Twitter and similar services?

Barry: If I knew, I would build it. ;-) FriendFeed is one excellent example of a tool that is incredibly useful. In fact, I can see FriendFeed being used by the masses. FriendFeed, as many of you know, is a method of subscribing to an individual across the web. So for example, my FriendFeed URL is friendfeed.com/rustybrick. If you go there, you will see my Twitters, my blog posts across Search Engine Roundtable, Search Engine Land, and my personal blog at CartoonBarry.com. You will also see my videos at YouTube, my Flickr photos, my delicious tags and so on. This is a centralized location to find my updates across the Web, all in one place. That is filling a huge void right now, as new services continually are launched and information overload keeps getting worse. But as to the next-generation application, if I knew, I would build it myself.

Darren: I’m barely getting my head around the current applications and am trying to work out how to make them work for my own situation, so I might not be the guy to ask on this one J. However, one thing that I think we’ll see more of is the integration of multimedia. We’re starting to see services like Plurk and FriendFeed draw in video and image – this will happen more and more. I think we’ll also see this type of messaging integrating more and more into other types of websites. This has been happening with blogging (blogs are looking less and less like blogs and are becoming just one element in a website).

Justine: Time will tell what service will hit it big next. There are so many services being launched that our tolerance for these new services is lowering. If it doesn’t strike a chord the first few times you visit, then we move along to the next.

Steve: I believe we are beginning to see this already with FriendFeed – a site that aggregates all your social networks in one place. If they add similar status-updating capabilities that are integrated with your existing tools and continue to scale and add new features, they have the potential to rival Facebook and MySpace.

Conclusion

I would like to thank Barry, Darren, Justine, and Steve for taking the time to contribute their thoughts on micro-blogging. After looking through their answers, I find it refreshing to know that even web mavens such as these are not certain what is coming next. Now, I wonder if I can fit all this combined wisdom into 140 characters?

About the Author

Ross Dunn is CEO of StepForth Web Marketing, Inc., a respected leader for 13 years in providing SEO, research, and consultation services. Contact him at [email protected] or visit www.stepforth.com. Read more at news.stepforth.com.

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