Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Power of Constraint: Why Twitter Works (For Me)

I admit it - I didn't get Twitter at first. I don't really update my Facebook status all that often and I couldn't figure out why anyone cared what I was doing at any given time. The truth is most people don't. So I ignored Twitter, letting all the cool kids have their fun telling each other what they were doing that weekend.

Then it happened.

My coworker, who did the bulk of the work on The Virtual Black Hole, was in China and the writers wanted to add Twitter icons and "Follow me on Twitter" links to the blog. So I dug in and got the templates updated and in the process ended up with a Twitter account of my own ( - You can see the feed on the right.) I followed a few people, began posting and suddenly I began to see why Twitter was so interesting:

It's not about what I ate for breakfast.

Twitter lies. It says right at the top of the page "What are you doing?" but people don't want to know what I'm doing. They want to know if I have any interesting ideas, links or insights. They may be interested in my response to their ideas or blog posts or simply to inform me of events that interest me. The point is that it's about bringing together like-minded people to share their interests and interact. It's about following a wide range of people and finding out what others think. And it's about interacting with those ideas and people.

The Power of Constraint

Twitter isn't a forum, a blog or a massive social networking application like Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn - all of which bring people together and allow interaction. But they do so in a noisy, chaotic and unbounded fashion. Which brings me to the key point of why Twitter works for me - It is constrained. It's constrained in two ways:

1) It does one thing and does it well
2) Each post is limited to 140 characters

Twitter doesn't have hundreds of applications you can add to your profile and it isn't cluttered with things all over the page. It is simply a feed of posts ("tweets") There are an increasing number of applications that use the Twitter API and expand its functionality, but Twitter itself is a simple, elegant application. It's easy to use and it's easy to understand - I read tweets and I write tweets. Advanced users may direct message, reply or retweet, but even the advanced functions are simple to use. Ease of use and application focus aren't the things that make it really useful, however.

The thing that makes Twitter really useful for me is the character limitation. With a blog post there is this great unbounded white space waiting to be filled. It can be rather daunting. There is the pressure to not only write meaningful posts, but write them with some regularity. It takes time, planning and discipline to keep up a blog.

Twitter has none of that. In fact, I don't have to write at all if I don't want to. However, when I do write, I can simply post a statement, link or question and not worry too much about spelling or grammar or even a general theme. I'm just myself and there is a great deal of freedom in that. I can reply to a tweet or even ask a question and anyone who is following me may answer. It's also a connection I may never have made otherwise. That's powerful.

But Wait, There's Less

From a reader's perspective, the brevity of the posts in Twitter also make it work very well. I know that I'm going to dedicate about 30 seconds to a tweet. If it contains a useful link (many do) I can follow it. I've actually seen a huge amount of useful information come from Twitter in the form of references. Using a tool like TweetDeck I can mark tweets as favorites, categorize people I follow and filter tweets to easily find what I'm looking for.

It's also interesting to note trends among the people you follow, find out what they're interested in and begin to make links between topics I never would have made before. And it's all (for the most part) personal. It's actual people posting actual thoughts. Yes, there are ways to automate posts, "retweet" and become simply a marketing machine. That has its place as well. But it's not what makes Twitter work (for me). It's the less is more principle and it's working pretty well so far.

Oh, and I often eat corn flakes for breakfast.

What About You?
So that's (some of) why Twitter works for me. Why do you use it? Or don't use it, for that matter? How do you use it and what are your favorite tools? I use TweetDeck almost exclusively and the mobile site on my Q. Below are some other people's reason why Twitter works.

Further Reading

Five Things I've Learned About Twitter - Karen over at posted a similar article. More reasons why Twitter works.

Isn't Twitter Just Too Much Information - Twitter's own succinct reasons why less is more.

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