Tuesday, 31 May 2011

What's Twitter?

I flagged a few interesting things to blog about over the last few days, and I realised there were very different views and news on Twitter. What's Twitter?

It's a social media platform where anybody can leave little messages of 140 characters. You follow the tweets you want in your feed, and then there's hashtags, @mentions, and retweets.

You know all this. But what is Twitter?

Is Twitter a published medium (like a newspaper) or a public conversation (like you and me talking and being overheard at a bus stop)? Does it have, or is it a responsible publisher? Is it censored or free? Is it social media or a marketing tool? Can it also be a payment method?

The 'conversation' on Twitter is pretty disjointed. Unlike on Facebook or forums or blogs, replies to a tweet can be easily lost or disconnected from the original source. It's very difficult to create depth when you're dealing with short statements that aren't presented in the conversation thread they were intended to belong to, like they would be on FB, a forum, or a blog. So most people (including marketeers) use Twitter as a flashing arrow instead: "Look what I did!" "Look what I read" "There's something cool over there!" "This thing is horrible". Tweets are gateways to other things, or comments on things that are common knowledge and need little explanation.

Sometimes, tweets reveal secrets. As a social media moderator, I've experienced that unlike Facebook comments, we can't remove @mentions no matter how much swearing or spam they contain. There's no editing and no filter. So it's a great place to get away with stuff. Or is it? Is Twitter responsible for the content they host? In a practical sense, how could they be? It is impossible to monitor all tweets, not to mention all externally hosted content that the tweets link to. So the creators of the content are responsible. But is Twitter published or is more like a fleeting conversation in a public place? There are arguments for both and I wonder where the legal line will be drawn.

Besides super-injunctions, Twitter can drum up interest in all sorts of things, and creative people never tire of using it in new ways, such as contests, crowdsourcing, recruitment, games, customer service, marketing... I found out about a very interesting way to use Twitter: as a form of payment. For example, if I write a song, I allow you to download it for free (no money exchanged), providing that you tweet about my song, leading others to 'buy' it too. I like this concept. For the producer of the product, it is a cheap way to kick-start viral marketing without costing a thing. Small-scale business can use this well. But what happens if everybody pays you with a tweet? You'd have no money coming in at all! There should probably be some sort of limit in time or amount of tweets. As a customer, there should always be a choice whether you would prefer to pay money instead, otherwise it's just a spambot. Would you pay with a tweet?

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