Suddenly it seems everything’s about twitter. The mainstream press has caught on, running features on it, catching up with a phenomenon that newer, more tech-aware media like outlets like newmatilda.com have been following for some time.
A lot of the coverage seems to be asking what place it can have in our media landscape, and how it fits into the social lives of its users. To its growing user base the answers to that are fairly evident, but if you’re not on it and you’re asking yourself the same question, consider what happened last Monday afternoon right on peak hour when a blackout caused Sydney to grind to a halt. Sirens rang out and 140 traffic lights blinked out across the CBD when a 132,000 volt electricity cable, which dives under the harbour between Lane Cove and the city, failed.
Radio and news sites eventually reported on the chaotic street scenes. But it was Twitter.com, a three-year-old website without an Australian office, let alone a Sydney one, that first reported the ensuing drama. When terrorists struck in Mumbai, when a plane miraculously landed in New York’s Hudson River, as bushfires raged in country Victoria — Twitter led with updates on these events too.
Soon after Twitter’s 2006 launch, IT blog TechCrunch said the "side project" didn’t add much to its parent company Odeo’s offering. Three years later, and Twitter is repeating the meteoric rise of MySpace and Facebook.
Dot-com boom veteran Stilgherrian — his real name — has been using the social media website since early 2008. The 48-year-old former ABC producer and frequent media commentator for outlets like newmatilda.com runs IT business Prussia.net from a large red brick house in the inner-west suburb of Enmore. He discovered Twitter several months earlier at a podcasting conference in Perth, where colleagues were using it "extremely heavily". He was underwhelmed, but, later, on the strength of their recommendations, reinvestigated.
It’s a common story. Twitter’s a simple application. You have a maximum 140 characters, and what you write is called a "tweet". You can follow anyone’s tweets, and anyone can follow yours.
"There’s a penny-drop moment," Stilgherrian says. "The first reaction is: ‘I don’t get it, why does this matter?’ Once you get to a point — it seems to be about 50 people in your network — you start to see something like a flowing river of these tweets. You start to see patterns ripple out."
A chuckling man with a crew cut, and a big round face, he needs to use a variety of metaphors to explain the way Twitter works at a personal level, and how it fits in with a user’s time and attention budgets, and gives them something back — the question that’s at the heart of every social networking development. "A lot of people starting out [using Twitter]just sit and watch, and wonder why they’re bored. It’s like if you walk into a bar you’ve never visited before: you quietly have your beer until you work out what’s acceptable. But" he adds, "then you need to talk."
"Look at one person’s Twitter stream and you’re seeing just one half of a dynamic conversation, and a tiny fraction of what makes the site useful. It’s like at the end of the week someone has sent you a transcript of one person’s contributions to water cooler conversations at your work. But look at specific moments, and you see discoveries, solutions for problems, social connections."
It’s this grid of "water cooler conversations" that has attracted interest from Google, among others. Think for a second: The potential to analyse patterns of emerging issues and trends; what people really think of products and campaigns.
It’s not just good for business, though. Just as Amazon recommends other books you might like when you buy a book from them, Twitter has a similar payoff, according to Stilgherrian.
"Because I’m tweeting about the whole range of things in my life, including where I’m going for a drink, the shape of my days, and what I think of things, it means that if I ask a question, people already have a lot of the context. If I say, ‘I’m in Newtown, where’s good for a drink?’ They already know what kinds of places I like."
"I spend a lot time in this room," he says, looking around the office. "But it’s my connection to the rest of the world."
Alt-tabbing between screens on his laptop, Stilgherrian says he can tell at a glance if something is happening in his environment that he needs to know about, and in that sense the site’s name is particularly apt: "It’s really like stepping out into the forest and hearing the birdsong — you can tell in an instant if something’s up."
Several kilometres away, in a house on a sleepy Leichhardt street, Stuart Buchanan, 38, is getting organised for a short trip home to Scotland. Unlike Stilgherrian, Buchanan tweets using separate profiles for his various projects, including Community Engine, which develops social media websites for community groups, and the upcoming Creative Sydney festival.
Sitting under an awning in the backyard, he says he had "no idea" what to do with Twitter at first, and left it alone for six months. But then something clicked and he started using it again.
"It might seem mundane when people say things like: ‘I’m going to the shops’ or ‘I’m watching TV’. But knowing that sort of thing actually enhances the relationship you have, because you feel in touch."
It turns out "feeling in touch" is really useful. In 1992 — just a couple of years before the birth of the commercial internet — anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a theory — that the size of a part of our brains, the neocortex, governs the size of our social groups. It gave rise to the idea that of a rough limit to the number of people an individual can maintain sustainable relationships with, a maximum known as "Dunbar’s number". If the group gets larger than this number — around 120 to 150 people — we struggle to keep track of the day to day details that make social networks tick.
"I arrived in Sydney six years ago," Buchanan says, "and when I look at my so-called friends list, well, I don’t have 300 close friends. My close friends are probably in the single figures, but it’s good to feel connected to that group of people. If I bump into them, I kind of already know what they’ve been doing. It’s a completely different style of relationship than you could have had a generation ago. People might argue that the quality is lower, but it’s just different."
Buchanan sees a dividend for Twitter in its ability to respond quickly to events like the Sydney blackout and the Victorian bushfires. "The thing I like about Twitter is that there’ll be a catalysing event that throws all these people together in the same space. They disperse again soon after, but you’ll find two or three more people to follow. It brings people that are completely disconnected together, it’s something that just can’t happen in the real world."
Twitter is just the latest success in a string of social media applications stretching back to Sixdegrees.com in 1997. Looking at these developments it’s tempting to focus on each new "app", and there’s a new one at social media blog Mashable.com every day. But if we look back to the start of the automotive age there were a lot of experiments, many which have since disappeared (like the early cars that had tillers, like boats, instead of steering wheels). Are we witnessing the same kind of compressed evolution now?
"It’s easy with hindsight to say why Twitter is successful," says Buchanan, "but I wouldn’t have said it was going to be the next big thing a year ago, even though I’d signed up and was on it. Both MySpace and Facebook lasted as long as people thought they were the only thing that could perform that function in their lives. Twitter likewise. Maybe we’ve already signed up to the next big thing?"
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