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What is Twitter?

I saw an interesting blog post from Andy Leonard (@AndyLeonard) recently on what he thought Twitter was. I'd started my own post here, with some thoughts, and had to go back and rewrite things (Thanks, Andy!). He got me thinking, and I agree, it's something completely new.

I had started, as Andy did, with a "what Twitter is not" section, but I decided to not save the punch line. So I'll start with what I think Twitter is.

  • Twitter is a series of sidewalk conversations
  • Twitter is the democratization of the sound-bite

Those are the two best descriptions that I can come up with, and I'll give you a few reasons why I think so.

A Sidewalk Conversation

It's the world's longest sidewalk, with an infinite length, able to hold an infinite number of people, but everyone's moving so fast, you're never quite sure if you're talking to anyone, or just yourself. You might engage a person, or a group of people, in conversation. You can send tweets back and forth, by replying to someone. They'll get . You can whisper to just one person in a direct message, or you can just broadcast your thoughts to the world.

Who may or may not be listening. People might "follow you" and hear what you say, or they might miss it in the clutter of other people talking to them. People might even block you, the equivalent of putting their hands over their ears when you open your mouth. Of course, you can do the same thing back.

It's a new way of interacting with a group of people, but a group you can't completely control. Or at least, I'm not sure you want to.

The Democratization of the Sound Bite

A sound bite is usually a short phrase taken from someone's speech or writing, intended to convey their meaning in a short form. It should be the main thrust of what they were trying to get across, but as we've seen in the media, it's often what's the most interesting, funny, or attention grabbing.

Usually only famous people (politicians, movie stars, athletes) have their words repeated in the media. With Twitter, anyone's 140 character sound byte is broadcast to the world. And with a retweet, people can re-broadcast your words along Twitter's ability to act like a telephone tree.

Anyone can be famous in 140 characters or less.

A Longer Explanation

I get wordy, so if your curiosity is satisfied, stop here and move along.

You kind of have a relationship with others using Twitter. They're online, they're connected to you (or you to them), and they can interact with you. It's more like being in a large conference or event where even though you might not personally know everyone you pass, they have some tenuous link to you.

We all have name badges, like @AndyLeonard, @SQLDBA, or @Way0utwest (me), or @Oprah, and anyone can view who's behind those badges. At least to the extent you've published something about yourself. Twitter can act as a host and handle the introductions, by allowing anyone to get that information that you put in the profile about yourself.

You can say something, with a "tweet", that might be directed directly at someone, or the equivalent of broadcasting a note to those within earshot. The difference is this hallway has an infinite length, can include an infinite number of people listening in. It's also logged, but that's a separate issue (and something to be cognizant of).

Just like you have those people in the real world that talk too much, some people appear to "tweet" too much. Some people want to sell you things, like . Others give coupons through promotions, like Zagg. John McCain publishes thoughts as well as notes about what he's doing (including rooting for basketball teams), President Obama has staffers dropping notes for him. Sarah Plain lets us know what's happening in Alaska, which bills she signs, and sure does thank a lot of people for their work.

In short, it's what you make of it.

Wikipedia says it's "micro blogging", but that leaves out the interactivity of it. I have had conversations with people, like the coffee v tea battle. I have seen tech support given out by Paul Randal. A NBA player was admonished for tweeting during a game, and another posted tweets during a recent suspension.

It's a answering questions at the world's largest press conference being held just for you. Everyone shouting at the same time that's interested, and you answering those that you want to.

Or not answering and just talking about what you're doing, and what you're interested in.

Twitter is unique, it's unlike any interaction I've ever had with people. It's fun, interesting, and inspiring. It connects me to friends near and far, and enriches my life. I'd urge you to give it a try and let me know what you think.

The Voice of the DBA

Steve Jones is the editor of SQLServerCentral.com and visits a wide variety of data related topics in his daily editorial. Steve has spent years working as a DBA and general purpose Windows administrator, primarily working with SQL Server since it was ported from Sybase in 1990. You can follow Steve on Twitter at twitter.com/way0utwest


Posted by nwlibrarian on 21 May 2009

A friend of mine's comment regarding Twitter was that it was one giant chat room. For me I envision a giant platform overlooking the world. We all take turns walking up to a single microphone and make our announcements to everyone. Those interested in what we say make note of our name and follow us; the rest ignore us. Our followers keep watch for when we step up to the podium again and vice versa. In the very beginning I didn't get the concept, nor have a handle of how it could work for me. Once I came up with this analogy I had a better handle on things, and now I'm a big fan of it, and I have been encouraging others. (It also disappoints me to an extent that it is filtered at work and declared unacceptable by our AUP because I do use it for professional reasons.) I agree with you Steve, Twitter is unique because it's not like a traditional chat room; so I don't necessarily agree with my friend's label, but it has been a useful tool to me both professionally and socially. Take care...

Posted by Tim Mitchell on 21 May 2009

"Twitter is unique, it's unlike any interaction I've ever had with people."

That's either the draw or the turnoff.  Some people (myself included) enjoy the unique communication experience on Twitter, and can see a number of fun and even practical applications.  On the other hand, because it is unlike any other conversation vehicle, lots of people are turned off by it, or simply won't give it a chance.

Posted by RBarryYoung on 26 May 2009

Well I finally singed up even though part of me worries about the distraction level.

Posted by Dooza on 27 May 2009

I use Twitterfox, its a pop up window within Firefox. I set it to update every 30 minutes. So I get a brief glimpse at what is being tweeted. This gives me a chance to get on with my life without it taking over.

Posted by adam.godfrey on 27 May 2009

Updates every 30 seconds popping up in Firefox is not distracting to you?  That would drive me crazy.  I had twitter, and I found myself spending way to much time checking it, and I was frustrated when I missed a day of checking it because I was so behind on what people were saying.  I think twitter is a big distraction, and although it does have some professional uses, or even good uses for some people, it should not be used in a professional setting because it is very distracting and if your checking it every 30 seconds then you are not very focused on your work.

Posted by mbkweb on 27 May 2009

read it again adam.

Posted by mbkweb on 27 May 2009

and breathe!

Posted by Chris Campbell on 27 May 2009

I was really skeptical when I started using Twitter but I tried it because someone I worked with talked it up.  I'm not a user of other social networking sites so I really wasn't sure about what I would do with it.  I think I use it differently than most people.  I use it like a "dynamic search engine".  I use the Twhirl client and I save several searches (e.g. "SQL Server", "Business Intelligence", "Performance Point", etc.) and as a result I see tweets from people I don't know about topics I'm interested in.  I don't need to keep a huge list of people to follow and I see mostly tweets that are of interest to me.

Posted by SQL Noob on 27 May 2009

i started with one account that i've played with over the last year. after following 200 or so people it gets ridiculous. so i'm at 5 accounts

alent1234 just for regular chatting with MVP's and other sql people

alent1234_news for following newspapers, cnn and other news media

alent1234_ppl for celebs, ceo's, etc

alent1234_tech for tech news


alent1234_fin for financial news and bloggers

i only post with my main account. the others are for reading. Twitter is a pretty good replacement for RSS for reading news and blogs

Posted by bob.willsie on 27 May 2009

How do you filter "the wheat from the chaff?"

It sounds very similar to the early days of email with no spam filters, or even worse just before a large seminar session where you have hundreds people around chattering away some on topic and some off.

Can you filter on content and not just on who's tweeting?

Some of the tweets I've seen posted border on ridculous, but the people sending them might occassionally have something to say worth listening to.

Posted by SQL Noob on 27 May 2009

twitter has an API, but every client i've seen is not even at version 1. it'll probably take a year or so before we see filtering in twitter clients. lately i've seen people tagging some tweets with # before the tag name for easy searching

Posted by Steve Jones on 27 May 2009

Some clients have some "searches" that run. I tend to follow a few people, and then get notified when someone follows me.

There are some crazy ones out there. Following Dave Winer now, but might stop soon. He uses it as IM sometimes, with 4-5 tweets to get a thought across, which is annoying. Following THE_REAL_SHAQ as well, which can be humorous.

Mostly I have a circle of SQL tweeps that have short conversations throughout the day, like hallway conversations.

I've also gotten some interesting links out of Twitter.

Posted by nwlibrarian on 27 May 2009

I use Twitterfox as well, and although I have it update more frequently then 30 minutes it's not a distraction. I hear the notification sound and see the pop up, but if I'm focused on something I'm focused. I know new tweets have come in; it doesn't mean I have to read them at that very second. I'm busy. Then, when I can take a breath, I'll take a look at the tweet(s). It's a multifaceted tool, and like any tool it is what you make of it. I get value from Twitter. No value out of Facebook, and it is why I haven’t an account for Facebook or MySpace. To me those are excessive ‘fluff’. I am on LinkedIn, but I haven’t quite figured out how to get the most out of it yet. ‘Hallway’ conversations are a neat way of describing Twitter. I also think ‘water cooler’ conversation is another good analogy. Yeah, they can be about the previous night’s game, movie, or dinner, but someone can also drop the line, “I’m having trouble with…” and someone else can provide a fix, “Yeah, that happened to me. The way to fix it is…” One should never discount the value of ‘water cooler’ conversations amongst professionals. It is where real-life experience/learning/mentoring begins once we leave the classroom. I think Twitter has provided that ability for those that don’t necessarily have water coolers.

Posted by Andrew Peterson on 27 May 2009

Yea, an endless sidewalk conversation sounds about right. Or perhaps, a big block party. A very big block party!

Posted by Jeremy Wright on 27 May 2009

I agree with the 'water cooler' aspect.  I have found a lot of information through other people's tweets that I wouldn't have found (unless I went out and actively did searches for them). When you follow people with similar interests to you (or do what Chris Campbell suggested), you can find a lot of useful info.  Plus, it is pretty cool to tweet about that night's Red Sox game with other Sox fans around the globe.

It could become a distraction if you allowed it to, but so could your run of the mill web surfing.

Posted by John Mitchell on 9 June 2009

Sarah Plain?  Was that a Freudian slip?

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