August 2nd, 2007

Twitter Is A Publication


Here’s a theory that’s emerged from my web communication experiment: Twitter isn’t a communication tool, it’s a publication.

That’s not to say there isn’t a strong communication element to it, just like there is in the comment sections of blogs (on the occasions when commenter actually address each other’s comments). But the communication that occurs on Twitter combines with all of the other information that passes through Twitter to create what at times is a mesmerizing, often addicting publication.

Why am I using such an old term for such a new form of information flow? Because I don’t see any point in throwing out old words — better to adapt them to new realities. (And my blog is called Publishing 2.0, so give me a break.)

Twitter is a publication because it provides me with a flow of information — some it fascinating, some of it entirely useless, some it deep, some of it trite, but it’s a classic example of the whole being SO much greater than the sum of it’s parts — and you can’t appreciate this until you are following the right mix of people whose thoughts, ideas, sentiments, life experiences, and totally random banter are interesting to you.

And you have to see it in the right format — Twitterrific is one of the many great applications that has been built on the Twitter API — it shows you Twitter updates from all of the people you are following in real-time — like a news wire.

Twitter was originally conceived as a platform for sharing what you’re doing, i.e. your current status, from anywhere on any platform, but, like any great platform, its users have conceived of applications far beyond what it was originally intended.

What’s fascinating about following the flow of tweets (assuming, again, you’re following the right people) is that they contain an unbelievably broad range of content, including:

  • Ideas
  • Problems/issues/complaints
  • Links
  • Links + comments/observations
  • Questions & answers
  • Greetings
  • Deep meditations
  • Dopey nonsense
  • Jokes

And, of course, status updates about what people are actually doing, from the mundane to the exciting.

Despite the incredible diversity of content, a Twitter publication has a surprising coherence, which is made possible by the 140 character limit, which at first I thought was crazy, but now I see is brilliant.

What’s fascinating about my own use of Twitter is that it has made my mind work in an entirely new way — so many thoughts that never would have been communicated, on the blog or even to another human being, have been captured on Twitter. These thoughts range in quality from reasonably interesting to complete garbage — but that’s the beauty of it.

Twitter has a fascinating element of serendipity to it, which wouldn’t work if people were setting too high a bar for their tweets. So taking the bad with the good is part of what makes the whole so interesting.

What people do with 140 characters is, at the same time, as lame as many critics imagined and also far more compelling than even the creators of Twitter may ever have imagined.

My experience with Twitter isn’t exactly mainstream, because I follow mostly tech/media types who also blog and enjoy personal publishing — but even if this was just friends taking about their lives, I still think I would classify it as a publication, because even when it’s used as communication, the net effect for other people following the conversation is like reading a publication.

(It’s worth noting that you will inevitably see only one side of a conversation in some instances, because the people you’re following are following other people, and if you try to follow them, then you also need to follow everyone they are following, and everyone they are following, ad infinitum — unless you get a bunch of friends together and decide we’re ONLY going to follow each other and THAT’S IT.)

Here’s a definition of “publishing” that fits Twitter:

the communication of something to the public; making information generally known

What Twitter essentially does is reduce the barriers and friction to “making information generally known” — even more than blogging software.

The result is a form of publishing and an emergent “personalized” publication that “mashes up” MANY different forms of information in a way that has never been done before.

Twitter is the ultimate participatory medium — the entire publication is just us. We get out what we put in.

OK, I’m done with this riff — it’s just a theory mind you. And I don’t know whether this vision of Twitter has mainstream potential. Rex Hammock just tweeted as I was writing this post:

Observations – 1. real people have never heard of twitter 2. I can’t explain it to real people

If I’ve failed to explain Twitter to you, that probably means you’re a real person.

You can find me publishing on Twitter here.

  • Very good article.

    Twitter combined with Jaiku, Tumblr, Digg, Reddit, Nowpublic, Newsvine and Youtube can even be called a media imperium.

  • Great post! When my husband noticed the tab for Twitter always open and frequently updated, he asked me what it was, and I described it as a "group instant message" . It is everything you mentioned, and I must admit, I love it! The immediacy gives more of a feeling of intimacy, and I really like that.

    I found your post through Susan Reynolds' "Arty Asylum" link.

    Thanks for your insight - hope you have a wonderful day!

  • When I get asked "What is Twitter?", I usually describe it as 'pseudo-blogging' or a headline news-type service where you can post short quick thoughts. That makes sense for the individual who wants to get into it.

    It's also how I personally Tweet.

    As for companies who ask, I use a similar description. However, I am more and more turned on by the opportunities of using Twitter as an add-on to deliver quick tidbits of information surrounding a specific campaign.

    For example, I *love* how the Live Earth people used Twitter to communicate new environmental tidbits every 10 minutes or so during the concerts. I also like how organizations like JetBlue and the LA Fire Department are using it as a headline news-type service. You wouldn't post this stuff to a blog, but it's perfect for a quick hit medium like Twitter.

    Michael E. Rubin
    Manager of Emerging Media
    Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Call me -- 312-787-7249 x212
    Tell a friend -- fight destructive spin! http:///
    See what I’m up to --
    See a picture of an orangutan --

  • Absolutely...its a content aggregator, and in todays value chain that a publisher. Because of the etremely low cost of transacting, "classified ads" have moved (stooped?) to this level.

    Of course, another function of the aggregator is to provide the channels and program guide.....

    10 million channels and nothing on :)

  • @everyone,

    The theory is that twitter is the fist application to create coherence around totally homogenous bits of information. A news ticker is isolated, unrelated bits of information. But the communication element of Twitter, and the fact that we're all following each other, makes it all connect in a mysterious way.

    It's that surprising and unexpected coherence that makes it feel like a publication.

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