It is hard to believe that the Twitter phenomenon is only four years old, but it’s true that the Twitter.com service went live on March 21, 2006. It has enjoyed a meteoric rise into common consciousness, such that even people who never use it know what (more or less) it is, and have heard celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Spacey talk about it. Vanity Fair magazine recently did a photo shoot on society’s most influential tweeters, lifting it out of geekdom, at least for a moment. While usage is far from universal, it’s pretty fair to say that Twitter has reached the mainstream.
I can assess its impact very personally. Twitter is where I found out that Barack Obama would be the next President of the United States. Twitter is where I heard the anguish of unrest in Iran and the fear during the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. I saw tweets from a minor earthquake in Seattle 6 seconds after it occurred. I’ve been able to follow goings-on at conferences I have not been able to go to, and experienced real world conferences in different and deeper ways. I have met people I didn’t know before in far off countries, and refound old friends. It provides me with ideas and the idea that I am connected with people whom I respect. Twitter on my phone fills the moments when I’ve already read my email and run the risk of having nothing useful to do for a few seconds as I wait in line or for the lift to arrive.
Twitter also contains lots of dreck, is easy to misunderstand, and provides the venue for thousands of petty and uninteresting spats. Luckily, tools and techniques for avoiding those are easily accessible. If irrational grudges and meaningless arguments are your thing, then Twitter provides a relatively harmless place to indulge in them. I remain positive about the overall effects of social media, but I am happy to see people taking a more serious look at the potential downsides. Anything powerful can be misused. Knowing about the potential pitfalls is the best way to avoid them.
Beyond Twitter, the concept of microblogging has been slower to catch on, but it’s coming. Frequent, small updates can provide value within the enterprise just as it provides amusement and entertainment outside of it. Microsoft this week launched a test version of Officetalk, to test some of its ideas about enterprise microblogging. It takes guidance, thought, and a bit of discipline to use enterprise microblogging effectively. Since these are still not common attributes of many corporate social media projects, it will not catch on everywhere.
As for Twitter, it has become so widely adopted that it has become fashionable to deride it, a sure sign of a breakthrough. I still Tweet and monitor what people are saying but usually find that I get better feedback and comments from what I post on Facebook, perhaps because that circle of people is more restricted than the Twitter megaphone. Twitter still has to prove that it can make real money, but I am confident that it will, real soon now. Given its growing role in society and popular culture, this is getting easier not harder as time passes
Perhaps the worst effect of Twitter is the preponderance of Tw-words it has spawned in the spirit of bad puns. Please see the title of this post as ironic. Please.