Twitter – A study

This is a tale of Twitter, about what it is, what it does, what people think about and what people have done with it. It’s more of a case study, pulling together lots of posts and articles out there already. Yes, I could use a bookmarking tool to collect them, but I need to put together such as case study , so into the blog the information goes. And it’s long! So skip this post if you are tired of it! And if you Twitter and read blogs you’ve probably seen most of it anyway 😉

What is Twitter?

Twitter was “born as an interesting side project within the offices of Odeo in March of 2006.” It’s a free service that sits astride SMS (texting), IM and the web; after creating an account you can post your stream of 140 character posts, small snippets of consciousness, detailing the minutia of your life – or more important stuff. I’ve seen travel information, social meet-ups arranged, engagements and pregnancies announced.

You can send and receive from any of the three channels depending on your preference. Work across all 3 or just choose one. Personally, I just use the web interface; if you go for the text version either choose your friends carefully or make sure your plan can take volume.(although from a UK perspective, paying to receive SMS is weird) Or you may end up twittering something like this.

JasonCalacanis: oh sh@#$%@#$%t… jsut checked my tmobile bill: 2,367 extra messages… $236.70 in extra charges!!! does tmobile have unlimited?!?!?!?!

Subscribing to Friends?

Did I say friends? Yes, as with other ‘web2.0 tools’ you can make your own network of friends. Know their Twitter address? Then you can subscribe to them and receive all of their messages – see the FAQs for details. When you subscribe, the system sends an email/text to your target and gives them the offer of subscribing back. So you will share what they deem to share’ with some people it may be once a week, others many times a day.

Why Twitter and not a blog? Or Dodgeball?

Dodgeball is a similar SMS system, where you can subscribe to friends and they can follow you, but it is focused on locations, letting people know where you are. Check into a place and it will tell your list, so they can find you and you can get together for social activities (or work!). And a blog is usually longer length and usually works across one channel only, the web, although there are hacks to get the info on other channels. The rational and emotional reasons behind using Twitter seem to be different. Dodgeball is geographically constrained to cities where it has a presence; blogs are perceived to take work (and should). Twitter is easy, global (with the IM and web), thoughtless in that you can just post a stream of thoughts. It’s just easier

The Growth of Twitter

Twitter has been going about a year, with a public life of about 6 months; it had its one year anniversary during this years SXSW, a tech conference that undoubtedly gave the service the push that it needed, taking it a tipping point. Andy, at, has take a look at the growth of the service, using the message IDs of Ev Williams to chart the number of messages being sent over the service. Andy also provides the raw data for you to manipulate as well. And read the comments, some interesting insights/guesses into how the back end is working as well as challenges to the analysis.


There’s another set of growth numbers from Data Mining. So far I have not found any numbers for subscriptions, how many people are joining up, but they are probably following a similar curve. But they are growing faster than anticipated:

Our growth projections were too humble!
Things are a bit slow over the web parts of Twitter until we add more dedicated machines

And today the inevitable chart site popped up, looking at the top 100 users – go and take a look at Amongst certain types (who know who they are!) this will promote the battle to be top, to be seen to have the most ‘friends’, the most followers, the most readers and subscribers. But size (of followers) is not everything. Dunbar’s number gives a level for how many people you can interact with comfortably; whether this applies to Twitter I’m not sure, but it shifts the use of the service from an interaction between people who know each other to a broadcast mechanism.

Top Twits

Looking at the numbers, you can also track the connections. Starting off with Scoble in the centre, here’s a visualisation of all the circles (for which I can’t find the original reference, just the image…).

Posting to Twitter

It’s pretty easy to post your thoughts to Twitter using the three main channels, but there are a growing number of tools that allow you to post exactly as you want to.

a Mac widget, it allows you to both read and post your tweets to the service.
Twitteroo: a similar widget for your PCs.

Both of these allow you to post and read from a desktop without having a browser window open. If you are working in a browser but don’t want to open the Twitter page, you can always try the Firefox Search plugin from Ludicious, the treats the search window as in input tool to Twitter. I like the warning they have, reminding you to switch back to your normal search engine, just in case you tweet your next search term.

Twitter Users

It’s not just you and me that have a twitter channel. News organisations, conferences and services all have feeds available, such as the BBC, CNN. The Press Association is going to be feeding headlines from the UK budget into Twitter, as well as Second Life. Politicians are also using it, as one of the many ways they are tapping into social media – take a look at John Edwards.

And if a suitable feed is there, you do not have to wait for the organisation to put their own twitter out there. Tom Morris has taken the output from the London Tube delay announcements and turned these into Twitters to which you can subscribe. Kosso has also done some interesting things in posting; the first is an anonymous posting interface called confession. As expected, the tweets can get rather extreme at times, don’t subscribe if you are of a nervous disposition. The second one takes advantage of the @sign that has emerged as a way of responding to people. Use that to send a tweet to dictionary with a word and it will go and look up the word in the Urban Dictionary and provide the first definition back to you (as long as you are subscribed). Try looking up the word twitter (nsfw!).

Using Twitter Streams

The presence of an API has allowed plenty of mash-ups to be made. Kosso is feeding tweets in and out of Second Life using BlogHUD. And take a look at the work that Dave Troy has done. First of all, TwitterMap (no longer active) which plots you on Google maps and shows your and your geographical neighbours tweets. Next up is Twittervision (no longer active, which shows tweets from around the world in a never ending stream of useless info on a map. It’s fascinating! Dave has also thrown up Twittersearch (no longer active), allowing you to search for terms across the public stream. And if you want to see what links people are sharing across the service, here’s Twitterbuzz.

The Reaction to Twitter

You love it or you hate it. You find it banal and useless or the best thing since sliced bread. You feel that the competition that is sneaking in is spoiling the community or you want nothing more than to get read more people and increase your numbers. Go search posts on Technorati or delicious. Posts that have caught my eye (mainly from people I read anyway):

Luis at with post about how Twitter can help build networks and relationships. Like many, it appeared his opionion changed completely after he had started to use the system,

here is a weblog entry that I have put together where I have listed 10 reasons why I strongly believe that Twitter is actually a very empowering social software tool that would help knowledge workers improve their already existing social networks. Yes, that is right, 10 good reasons why you would want to continue make use of Twitter or why if you haven’t gotten started with it yet, it may be a good opportunity to do so now.

danah gives her thoughts on the geek use and likens it to MySpace use of bulletins amongst peers. Bringing up the text restrictions from a US perspective gives you some of the problems that the system may have trouble with a wider adoption in this age group (and a great comment explains why the US system is so stupid with receiver paying)

The techno-geek users keep telling me that it’s a conversation. Of course, this is also said of blogging. But i don’t think that either are typically conversations. More often, they are individuals standing on their soap boxes who enjoy people responding to them and may wander around to others soap boxes looking for interesting bits of data. By and large, people Twitter to share their experience; only rarely do they expect to receive anything in return. What is returned is typically a kudos or a personal thought or an organizing question. I’d be curious what percentage of Tweets start a genuine back-and-forth dialogue where the parties are on equal ground. It still amazes me that when i respond to someone’s Tweet personally, they often ignore me or respond curtly with an answer to my question. It’s as though the Tweeter wants to be recognized en masse, but doesn’t want to actually start a dialogue with their pronouncements.

Tara explains her passion for the service with a detailed post about how and why she uses the service.

Do I think Twitter scales? Nope. I don’t think community ’scales’, either. I look at my long list of friends and feel I need to start switching some off (although it’s an insanely difficult decision because I’m actually interested in learning more about the people who update rarely as well). I have found it insanely helpful as well as entertaining. It IS crack. It IS distracting. It has also created an awesome ‘efficiency’ in my life…an emotional efficiency so to speak, where I have 140 characters to vent and get to connect with others that do the same.

The comments also include one of the best soundbites from Alan :

is Twitter therefore just Hello! magazine for the geeks 😉

Kathy Sierra has a brilliant post on how Twitter could be the final straw in breaking the brain bandwidth and rounds up a lot of the reaction.

We’ve all been at the brain bandwidth breaking point for the last five years. Email is out of control. IM’ing sucks up half the day. And how can we not read our RSS feeds, post to our blogs, and check our stats? If my Cingular cell phone sends me a MySpace alert and I’m not there to get it, do I exist? But email, IMs, social networking, and blogs are nothing compared to the thing that may finally cause time as we know it to cease. I’m talking, of course, about Twitter.

The future of Twitter

It’s made the Wall Street Journal. It’s hit the mainstream. It’s the number 1 search on Technorati today.

Twitter on Technorati

The volume of posts in last week has at least quadrupled.

Twitter Posts on technorati

What this means, I don’t know. Does anyone yet? Somewhere there has to be monetisation, running this type of service with this type of growth needs some revenue from somewhere. Showing it to colleagues today there was confusion about why, questions asked about what it can be used for, could it be used for advertising, would the most subscribed start monetising their stream of tweets – so instead of Pay per Post you get Pay per Tweet, micropayments. (A step I definitely don’t agree with). But could it be used the other way, as part of the attention economy. Put out what you are after and let the advertisers find you? Whatever is in the future, the immediate problem is scaling; the system is flaky at times and has been down a few times today. But this could be seen as a good problem?

Keep an eye on the Twitter blog for more information, plus links to more opinions about the service. Or try the (unofficial) wiki. One thing that does appear to be on it’s way is grouping of contacts; not sure whether that means on the sender or the receiver end yet, just have to wait and see.

8 thoughts on “Twitter – A study

  1. Nice overview… certainly one of the most difficult thing about twitter is explaining it to skeptics — those who haven’t yet decided they hate it, but can’t see why they’d use it. I’m sure this post will be one I refer people to often,.

  2. Thanks for the comments..I was trying to capture the essentials of what, where who so that I can use it to refer people to. Read the post and the links and then discuss it. It’s a good start, but reading it again realised I need to link to my previous post about it being the insta-gossip model.

  3. Wow. It seems like as everyone is coming back from SXSW this is all they talk about. Thanks for consolidating all of this in one place.

  4. Thanks so much for this excellent study. I started using Twitter at SXSW, and it was really very handy for keeping up with who was going to which panel/party. Now that it’s over, I’m seriously wishing I could choose how to receive tweets on an individual basis. There are a *few* people I’d like to receive SMS updates from, but not many.

    The SXSW Twitter explosion was interesting. They encouraged you to sign up for a Twitter SXSW group, which I did. They broadcast the tweets on plasma screens around the Austin Convention Center, which was cool. I wasn’t getting those tweets, though. Turned out you’d only get tweets from your friends, and from the 3 Twitter developers, who I suspect weren’t even receiving (if they were, they weren’t being responsive). This did me no good – I didn’t need 3am updates on their whereabouts. It got me using Twitter, which I suppose was the point, but it left me a little cranky with the developers.

  5. From reading a couple of reports, it seems that groups are definitely on the way, which will help you target who you receive from (I hope).

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