Top debunker Andrew Orlowski put the boot into Twitter and to poor old Rory Cellan Jones in a very entertaining way in the tech Private Eye The Register the other day. Orlowski’s kind of militant scepticism is useful. Everything new and especially fancy should be tested against an Orlowski figure (if you’ve got one handy).
And where an actual Orlowski isn’t available you should try to maintain a tiny internal Orlowski against which to test your more self-obsessed ideas (I have a tiny internal Julie Burchill who regularly comes to my aid if I drift off into hyperbole or solipsism. She’s been there since about 1979 and she usually tells me “that’s a load of wank isn’t it Steve?”).
But in this case Orlowski is actually wrong (my Burchill is quite often wrong too). Twitter is self-evidently home to a million Pooters: eager nobodies telling the world about their lovely sandwiches or their new sandals or their slight colds but they’re not important.
Twitter’s important because it’s a genuinely new mode of communication and it has characteristics that are going to be important for all the other forms of communication so we should make sure we study it carefully before we trash it:
- It’s cyberspace. Honestly, it is. I’ve written about this before but switching on Twitter in the morning is the closest to jacking in that I’ve yet seen. As you come online you become present to tens or hundreds of people (thousands if you’re super-popular) and the people you follow likewise become present to you. The minute-to-minute experiences, feelings, knowledge and opinions of all those people become available to you for the duration of your session but all those other people don’t press in on you or aggravate you (it’s not like The Matrix, there’s no actual risk to life). In fact, unless you’re paying attention you won’t know they’re there at all (and it’s a lot less painful than getting a jack-plug fitted).
- It’s access to human knowledge. Regular Twitterers will confirm that Google is the best place to find out the name of Salman Rushdie’s new book but that Twitter is the best place to find out if it’s any good. Likewise, if you need to decide which laptop or what kind of birthday cake to buy or even what to do when your business can’t get a loan or your dog throws up, Twitter is the place. Fast access to willing minds. Every Twitterer will provide a dozen examples of last minute advice sought and got, tech tips and recipes dispensed. It’s an awesome repository of group knowledge.
- It’s asynchronous (but not very). On the spectrum that’s got writing a letter at one end and sending an IM at the other, Twitter is close to IM but not right next to it. Responses are quick but not so quick as to make it a pain in the neck. Lots of users are now substituting Twitter (and especially Twitter direct messages which are seen only by the recipient) for email.
- It’s low pressure. I’ve never got on with IM. Too much pressure: a message comes in and you’ve got to bloody reply to it right there and then. Twitter’s totally different. Messages flow by, addressed only approximately (to a group of followers) and replying is 100% optional. In fact, I’d say that Twitter is close to the optimal contemporary comms platform, shaped to fit modern life perfectly.
- It’s entertaining. I follow two kinds of Twitterers: funny ones and interesting ones. I laugh out loud half a dozen times per day. I select Twitterers who amuse me and drop the ones who don’t. And people make an effort: being funny is a critical community.
Rory wrote his own blog entry about this here.
A very long time ago I ran a web-based email service (allow me to tell you about it one day). It was moderately successful and, before the latter unpleasantness it had well over a million users and substantial traffic and brand awareness. I learnt one really big lesson from that particular experience, though: never run an email service. It’s a mug’s game. The problem is that email is essential infrastructure.
For email users it’s like dial-tone. Pick up the phone: if you don’t hear dial-tone what do you do? Do you say: “Hey, no problem, I’ll try later”? No. You say “what the fuck’s wrong with the phone?” “Hey everybody! the phone’s out!” “Shit. Did society collapse? Was there a nuclear bomb?” and so on. No one is sanguine or relaxed about a phone outage. Likewise with email. If clicking ‘send’ doesn’t work first time or if you get no email at all for fifteen minutes you’re pretty soon popping veins in your neck.
Phone networks and email systems have to be reliable. In the telecoms world they call it ‘five nines’. They mean that a phone network has to up 99.999% of the time and they engineer their systems to deliver this. Email systems are now engineered to the same standards. And it’s not cheap because the 80/20 rule applies.
Keeping your network up for 80% of the time costs about 20% of your systems budget—piece of cake. The difficult final 20% costs 80% of your budget (and it’s actually probably more like 95/5). And that’s before you’ve spent a quid dealing with the legion of bottom feeders firehosing your servers with spam. Like I said, it’s a mug’s game. And this explains why email provision is consolidating fast and why even big in-house systems are being outsourced to specialists.
Which brings me to Twitter. As you know, Twitter’s clever for all sorts of reasons. I’ve gone on about Twitter here before: I think it’s the most important application to appear on the Internet for years—possibly since the web itself. Seriously, I do. But it’s especially clever because the Twitter experience has been engineered so that users aren’t really bothered if it’s not working. Even big users (I would count myself as a big user) can live without it for a few hours, even for a day or two.
Nobody uses Twitter for anything important and, although it supports direct messages between users, it’s principally about the buzz of daily life—so even a longish period of extreme flakiness like the one we’ve just seen barely spoils the experience. Twitter’s remarkable achievement is to be important enough to produce addiction but nowhere near important enough to produce a phone call to the complaints department. Twitter’s a long way from five nines and it doesn’t matter at all.