On Twitter.

May 10th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink

Last Friday, Alex and I went to the keynote speech and alumni reception of “Blowing up the Brand“, a conference put on by our old department at NYU, partially to say hello to some old professors and bum a few free drinks from the University. The keynote, given by Rob Walker of The New York Times Magazine‘s “Consumed” column, focused on how one can, and whether one should, think of oneself as a brand. The genesis of Mr. Walker’s remarks was a question posed to him at a conference some months ago, wherein he suggested, off-handedly, that one ought to think of oneself as a brand in order to market oneself in–I think–the employment marketplace. His speech delved into the consequences of this for personal life and, to some degree, civil society in general.

However, what struck me most about the talk, was how often–especially during Q&A–the topic turned to Twitter, the social network and online communication tool du jour. Questions went something like “What do you think of x marketing campaign on Twitter?” “Can you think of any company using Twitter effectively?” “Marketing consultants say you have to be on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, is this true?”

The questions, and their answers, indicated a greater truth than the effectiveness of any given usage of Twitter: Nobody knows how to use Twitter. Absolutely nobody. Sure, there might be interesting individual usages of Twitter that integrate with a billboard in Times Square, or through which customer service representatives respond to complaints. But nobody has a very good idea of how one ought to use this new tool. It got me wondering: what’s different about Twitter when compared with the last big online hit, say, Facebook. My thoughts go something like this:

Twitter is searchable

This is a pretty big deal. Facebook is only searchable insofar as individual users allow you to search their names or selected metadata. Twitter is full-text indexed for all its users’ content (except those users who have closed their updates to the world). What’s more, it’s not natively categorized. Sure, there are a few attempts to get users to include metadata in their posts, like hashtags, but when posts are only 160 characters long, there’s not much space for anything other than the most distilled content you can cram into one. Twitter does make arbitrary-text searching easy and fast, though, so a given company can easy find the latest instances of “Comcast” or “Skittles”, and use that data in some other application.

Twitter is conversational

Twitter engenders public discourse in 160-byte chunks. Find a post you agree with/disagree with/love/want to roundly excoriate? Reply @to_the_user and you can, instantly, in public. The only thing is that there are no conversation threads, like on a message board, no “Reply All” as in email, just your own voice added to the multitude. Combined with searching, this is a new way to get an idea of the general zeitgeist on a particular topic.

Twitter encourages integration

Twitter feeds and searches can be exported in XML and integrated into any application you like, from the simple (witness the twitter feed on this page), to the complicated (a billboard in Times Square that responds to tweets). Facebook and MySpace don’t allow for such fast data export and re-use over their global populations of users.

Yet, with all that, there is no specific, canonical usage of Twitter. Twitter is somewhat unique in that it is simply a tool for moving data around and searching and slicing it in interesting ways, then shipping it off to be used elsewhere. On the small, user-scale, that could be a few friends talking about where they’re going for drinks via text message. On a global scale, it could be used to pin down a global conversation about a product, service, company, politician, and so on. There are no rules, just a loose framework. Every company with a marketing budget is, apparently, trying to figure out how to use the tool to its best effect, but, to date, don’t seem to have come up with a consensus. This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s like asking “how do I use the Postal Service?” You use it however it’s useful–do you want to send a package, a letter, do direct mail, register with the Selective Service, or contact a pen pal? The postal service does all of that. Twitter is just a mechanism for moving data — it can be used as effectively as one wishes. The sooner marketing consultants realize this, the better.