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The Twitter Kool-Aid Is Much More Than Just Sugar Water

Why the 'Real-Time Web' Matters -- a lot

By Published on .

Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
@cshirky Sorry for saying I don't care about your passing thoughts (or mine, or anyone else's). Apparently, I do.

That was a tweet I sent out the other day, linking to the New York 140 Character Conference. Actually, the tweet was more like a caw, since I was eating crow. Back in 2008, I'd been trying to get NYU Professor Clay Shirky to explain to me why anyone could possibly give a crap about strangers' or friends' (or for that matter fantasy-sex-partners') micro-news that, for instance, they'd just boarded a plane to Tulsa.

"As much as I like you and respect you," I said to Clay in a radio interview, "I absolutely don't care moment to moment what you're doing."

Because, look, whether at 140 volumes, pages or characters, trivia is still trivial, no?

Well, as it turns out -- no. In 2008 Clay had gamely tried to explain why I'm obtuse, but it took me a while to see the picture in focus. It took me, in fact, until the 140 Character Conference, hosted by Twitter evangelist Jeff Pulver, where I finally came to recognize the Three Pillars of Twitter and thus finally understood:

The so-called real-time web does matter. A lot. And, assuming Twitter survives as a business, it will soon matter much, much more.

World's-biggest water cooler
Maybe back when I insulted Clay, the Twittersphere of 200,000 early-adopter dorks was indeed just a mutual-tweetsturbation society. Now there are 70 million signed up, of whom 15 million are active, generating a billion tweets per month. So, for starters, it's obviously a useful utility for them. Pillar No. 1: For the tweet sender and receiver alike, communicating and, more precisely, communing fulfills a primal human need. Twitter's the world's-biggest water cooler.

We've all heard that idea expressed so often it sounds like a piety, but listen to Jeff Pulver tell his story. It's about a chubby, lonely 9-year-old standing agog as his ham-radio hobbyist uncle signed onto the air.

"And he says, 'CQ, CQ, this is K2QQM calling CQ.' And all of a sudden these squeaky voices started responding to my uncle. And I thought, 'This is pretty cool, that these strangers are now talking to my uncle.'"

So Pulver spent three-and-a-half extremely nerdy preteen years learning about amateur radio.

"And that taught me almost everything I needed to know about Twitter today, because as a kid growing up, I was otherwise alone. In high school, junior high school, I would spend 40, 60 hours a week on the radio. And that was my lifeline. That was where I connected. And all I had to say is I was Jeff from New York, and it didn't matter how old I was, it didn't matter what I did for a living. I had this.

"And now all these years later, six o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock in the morning, every day, wherever I am in the world, I'm online. But instead of saying, 'CQ, CQ,' I say, 'Good morning.' And a magical thing happens every day."

Aha. Irrespective of the subject matter, human connection isn't trivial; it is its own reward.

So that's Pillar No. 1. Pillar No. 2 is information. The world's-biggest water cooler is also the world's biggest heads-up engine. Thanks to the software that converts cumbersome URLs into abbreviated ones, it is an easy way to share links -- either to answer a question in another tweet, or just to give a shout-out to something cool (or horrible, or laughable, or whatever). Here's the last link fed to me:

HOLY heck this is hilarious. Intern from hell: http://bit.ly/9KQEzE.

It's a Gawker item documenting an e-mail exchange between a clueless internship applicant and the company offering the position. And, yes, it's totally worth checking out, especially if you want to cluck about kids today and their smugness (and especially if you want to savor the irony of the source being Gawker, which is smug-kid Ground Zero).

Of course, not all information is merely gossip-licious. Twitter has been a crucial lifeline amid chaos in Moldova, Iran and, most recently, Haiti. Pulver recounted an episode involving Ann Curry of NBC News at the Port au Prince airport.

"She had noticed that Doctors without Borders had a plane with some supplies and the U.S. Air Force wasn't letting it land," he said. "So she put out a tweet: '@U.S. Air Force, help Doctors without Borders land their plane.' I saw that, so I simply re-tweeted @U.S. Air Force, help Doctors without Borders land their plane.' And the crazy thing was, a minute after I tweeted it, the @U.S. Air Force tweets me back, 'We're on it!' I was like, 'Hmm, OK. When was the last time a government agency responded to you?'"

More prosaically, I sent this tweet out at 9:55 p.m. Tuesday to my 1,560 followers: "Help, please. Should I get arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus, or will the cure be worse than the disease?" I got my first response at 9:59. ("The cure is worse.") The second came at 10:02 ("Have you considered amputation?") Consensus: Let 'em cut.

But two-way exchanges are by no means the greatest source of information on Twitter. The biggest source is the entire Twittersphere, which is a real-time reflection of the activities, interests, actions, thoughts, sentiments and sometimes flight schedules of between 15 million and 70 million human souls. In other words: data. In other words: Pillar No. 3.

Let me try to frame the significance for you. Decision-makers actually rely on focus groups, which consist of eight to 12 random nimrods blathering on subjects about which they may not even have interest, much less knowledge, much less insight. That is not data; that is noise. A billion tweets a month, by contrast is a data mine. A data goldmine. Furthermore, each "data point" is a live human being. Recall Pillar No. 1: You can tweet back.

Or, when the situation demands, caw.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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