Twitter has two states – ambient and active

After watching twitter for a few months, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has two states. Twitter was built as a short message many-to-many social network. Email does one-to-many easily just by creating lists. SMS already handled short messages. Twitter’s value is its ability to easily form communities and have them interact quickly in a web of short bursts.

What twitter has become is a two state environment.

When nothing of interest to a large number of people is happening, it is in an ambient state. While twitter is ‘idling’, a small percentage of twitter accounts are doing two things; telling their followers what they are doing at the moment, or posting links to something interesting that they have just found on the web. The first group loses me immediately; but then I’m not the gossip girl demographic. The second, when they limit themselves to really useful information (yes, that is a subjective call), are performing a public service. However, too many people in this second group suffer from what a friend of mine calls the ‘ooohhh shiny’ syndrome, which I’ll now rebrand as linkurea – unusually frequent and excessive flow of links. They tweet 30-plus times a day about anything and everything they find interesting. I think it’s nice that they care to share. But the linkurea crowd needs to find some way of filtering themselves, otherwise the useful and useless combine to become background noise. Also, I made the mistake of having tweets go to my phone when I originally set up my twitter account, and was hit the next month with a $200 ‘twitter bonus’ on my bill.

A subset of these ambient twitterers are the entertainment twitterers. They include Ashton Kutcher updating you on his thoughts every 10 minutes, and people who tweet an aphorism or joke once or twice a day. This is an excellent use of twitter as a guerilla-marketing technique – they build and win over an audience through passive engagement, then can mobilize them as part of a marketing campaign or social initiative.

The second state is what makes twitter such a powerful resource as well as an interesting social phenomenon. When something of interest is happening in the world, twitter kicks into ‘active’ mode and is excellent resource for forming instant communities and spreading information. We saw this in Tehran after the election. We saw this after Michael Jackson died. We saw it during the recent fires in LA. When twitter is in active mode it informs large groups quickly, can suppress misinformation before it goes viral (unintended consequence – it can also rapidly magnify misinformation, making corrections extremely difficult), and it can go global fast.

Twitterfall is my favorite tool for watching Twitter in its active state. Twitterfall displays a cascade of tweets from all over the world that contain my search term. When there is a news event that I care about, I can input the search term and see what a broad cross-section of people are tweeting about it. It also has a “trends” list of the most common terms being tweeted at that moment.

A recent Harvard B-school study, which studied over 300,000 twitter users, found that “among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one.” The top 10% of twitterers account for 90% of the tweets; a much higher percentage, they found, than on other social networks.

An additional interpretation of their data is that when nothing much is happening, twitter is not yet integrated into the fabric of society to the point where it is viewed as a useful tool, the way email and instant messaging are. But when something is happening that a community cares about, people seek out Twitter, and it comes to life.


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