What I’ve Discovered About Twitter

I first started thinking about using twitter during a very loosely organised but wildly interesting talk from Phil Long (@RadHertz) nearly two years ago now. In the course of a one hour talk that wasn’t called ‘Cool Stuff I’m Excited About’ but should have been, Phil told us about TED talks – showing us the first ten minutes of the awesome talk by Hans Rosling – then he showed us twitter, and he finished by demonstrating the Livescribe Pen.

He was pretty fired up about all three of them, and I was immediately fired up about the TED talks too. I went back to my office and showed the Rosling talk to John and Martie-Louise, then found a bunch more and started using them in my innovation courses.

I was less certain about twitter. Phil said “When you start on twitter, your reaction will be ‘what the hell is this?’ But if you start using it, after a couple of weeks you’ll decide it’s ok, and after a couple more weeks it will suddenly click, and you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it.” That pretty accurately describes my experience, except that it took 18 months for me to get to the second step.

My main problem was that I couldn’t figure out a way to fight through the noise to get to signal. I subscribed to the feeds from a few of my friends and also to a couple of the twitter stars. Like me, my friends had little to say on twitter, and ultimately, I’m not very interested in famous people (even if they’re only internet-famous) – so I just let my twitter account sit there for a while. I was pretty happy just working away on my blog.

Then a little over a month ago I read Trust Agents (reviewed here) and I suddenly realised what my problem with twitter was – I didn’t have a good strategy for what I would add to the conversation. I was talking with my PhD student Sam around the same time about the blogs that I read and he asked me how someone could be like me in terms of the links that I passed on. I told him that anyone could aggregate the same set of blog feeds as me through RSS, but no one would filter them the same way because I connect things up uniquely based on what I know and have experienced (my aggregate, filter & connect web strategy). That’s not unusual – everyone connects things up uniquely – but the strategy seems to work pretty well as a way to find interesting things to say on the blog. So that was my new twitter strategy – to use it to tell people about connections I had made that were interesting, but which didn’t merit a full blog post.

The first thing that I discovered about twitter is that you can’t find the signal in the feed until you learn how to send a useful signal yourself. When I was only sending noise, all I could find in twitter was noise. As soon as I started sending signal, I was suddenly able to find the signal in twitter. It almost perfectly reflects the spirit of the internet – you don’t get anything until you learn how to give ideas of value.

I quickly compiled a list of people to follow that were talking about things that I’m interested in – innovation, complex systems and networks. Once I did that, I realised that twitter was powerful for aggregating high quality information. By itself, any one person’s feed might be interesting, but the second thing that I learned about twitter is that value in twitter is an emergent property of the network you construct (so maybe it really is a complex adaptive system!)

This makes all the talk about monetising twitter problematic. The value isn’t in individual tweets, or even individual feeds, but in the collective stream of information that you are able to put together for yourself. This also means that you can’t monetise your own particular stream very effectively, especially if that is all that you focus on. Back in my days as a quant-oriented marketing manager, that would have driven me crazy. But now that I have other avenues to generate value from my ideas, I’m ok with it. I’ll just keep tossing out ideas, and we’ll see where it takes us.

That’s the last thing I’ve discovered about twitter – you can’t think of it as a road to drive on to reach a particular destination. You’re much better off thinking about it as the wind, which will take you wherever it blows. You might be able to direct your path a little bit, but you never know for sure where you’ll end up. Enjoy the ride.

Now I just have to figure out how to use that stupid Livescribe pen!

(this is part of the #MonTwit experiment, where several people are talking about the same idea on the same day. @VenessaMiemis came up with the idea, and @ekolsky is compiling links to the posts here.)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “What I’ve Discovered About Twitter

  1. Tim,

    I like the sentiment about not being able to find the signal until you send a useful signal yourself. I agree! It seems like we’re tuning ourselves to each other, and the better we tune our tweets to what really matters to us, the more we attract people who share our interests.

    Here’s a link to my insights: http://emergentbydesign.com/2009/12/21/how-to-use-twitter-to-build-intelligence/

    So now we know this…… what do we do with it?

    – @venessamiemis

  2. Thanks Venessa. In some respects I think that the answer is just that we keep doing what we’re doing. The thing that concerns me most at this point is what to do as the connections start to scale, but then, that in part is what you’re talking about in your post…

  3. Great “witness” to the journey of experiencing Twitter. It was much the same for me–and your insight about sending useful signals is right on.
    I was struggling for a while about how much to actively expand my network to a higher scale. I have been hovering around 500 for several months with no specific effort. Then I found myself recalling some of the thinking of Edward Tufte around patterns emerging with greater clarity at higher resolution–and some of my own concerns over the relative signal/noise balance calmed down a bit. Because it’s the emerging patterns that intrigue me, particularly when a “random” insight upsets the apple cart. So I’ve been learning to scan more efficiently (the new Twitter lists are incredibly useful here), sometimes based on the source (either original or RT), but other times just by what catches my fancy.
    Honestly, of all the social media tools, Twitter, in all its mechanical simplicity and conciseness, really has come to represent a genuinely “fractal” media.

  4. That’s really interesting about the Tufte idea Ken. I hadn’t thought of more posts in the feed as being higher resolution – that’s a fascinating insight!

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