Friday, February 15, 2013

Twitter is not a social network: or is it?

I've posted earlier on the inherent problems in trying to define "social media."  (here and here in case you're interested)  Take for example Twitter, which most observers consider to be part of the social media environment.  In 2010 one of Twitter's vice presidents took pains to explain that the micro-blogging network was not a social network service, but instead was all about news, content and information.  That same year a team of researchers at KAIST reported findings of an extensive study that showed empirically that Twitter was more of a news medium than a social network.  Among their findings was that unlike most social networks, "following" on Twitter is not mutual.
Twitter has been likened to a news headline service and my own experience suggests that is an accurate characterization.  The 140 character limit itself suggests a headline, rather than even a short article.  Furthermore, the enforced brevity of Twitter messages is ideally suited to quick messages disseminated over mobile devices while a person is going about the daily affairs of life.  Likewise, Twitter's recent venture into short videos is more likely to make it some sort of video headline service than a direct competitor to the likes of YouTube.
My personal interest in news led me to make it the focus of my doctoral dissertation and first book, Television's Window on the World.   Since that research was conducted back in the heyday of the industrial mass media era, I have always been interested in the dissemination of news, most especially via television and the newer digital media.   Although the following observation is anecdotal, I have a sense that it would be shared by many other observers.  The mainstream media, including major television news organizations like BBC, CNN and others were very quick to embrace Twitter, both as a means to measure audience sentiment and opinion by following their tweets and as a means to promote their own particular brand of news.
I suspect that my first reaction to Twitter, after its launch in 2006, was similar to that of many who read this post.   I first thought of a bunch of chirping, or "twittering" birds and then associated the name with meaningless or idle conversation, much like that at a cocktail party.  One industry website has, in fact likened Twitter to one giant dinner party, with countless conversations going on.
Twitter has also been described as an SMS service for the internet.  In fact, the name Twitter came out of a day long brainstorming session at a podcasting company.  As described by Wikipedia, those who named Twitter were inspired by SMS services.  For a fascinating account of how Twitter was originally conceived and named, see this article in The Los Angeles Times.  The following excerpt is especially revealing: "We wanted to capture that in the name -- we wanted to capture that feeling: the physical sensation that you’re buzzing your friend’s pocket. It’s like buzzing all over the world. So we did a bunch of name-storming, and we came up with the word "twitch," because the phone kind of vibrates when it moves. But "twitch" is not a good product name because it doesn’t bring up the right imagery. So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word "twitter," and it was just perfect. The definition was "a short burst of inconsequential information," and "chirps from birds." And that’s exactly what the product was."

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