IT creates value by applying technology to information to answer questions. Some websites answer lots of questions. Google, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, etc.
Twitter is a one question startup. That question: "What are you doing?"
For the uninitiated, Liz Lawley on Many-to-many sums it up best
"If you haven’t tried it yet, Twitter is a site that allows you to post one-line messages about what you’re currently doing—via the web interface, IM, or SMS. You can limit who sees the messages to people you’ve explicitly added to your friends list, or you can make the messages public."
What makes Twitter interesting is its multiple use cases.
First, one can use the service either actively or passively. When used synchronously, users view new messages in real time. Whereas asynchronously, users glance down every so often to get a general impression of what's going on.
Second, the one-line format lends itself to two distinct styles of communication. The first possibility is that the value of a message is in the information conveyed. For example, if I tell my friends where I'm at then they have the ability to come find me. The second possibility is that the value of the message comes from the message itself, its presence. That is, when your friends send a message like "hi!" or "poke!", the value comes not from the content but rather from merely knowing that your peeps are thinking of you.
The combination of synchronous/asynchronous with information/presence leaves us with four possible distinct possibilities. To borrow some descriptive vocabulary from Rheingold's Smart Mobs and Ito's Personal, Portable, Pedestrian, I'd say the use cases look something like this
|Information||Smart mobs||Virtual communities|
|Presence||Telecocooning||Lightweight digital refreshment|
Smart mobs and virtual communities should be self-explanatory. Telecocooning is the term used to describe people who are physically separated, but who inhabit a common virtual space using mobile wireless. The idea is that these people exchange "presence pokes" with their three or four closest friends several times a day to create the illusion of togetherness. Lightweight digital refreshment is a term used to describe mobile entertainment used intermittently throughout the day. The idea being that one glances down from time to time without interrupting the state of flow any more than, say, taking a sip from a cup of coffee.
To quote again from Liz
"What Twitter does, in a simple and brilliant way, is to merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage—personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages—into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private."
The rich and variegated use of Twitter seems to be a case of technological constraints forcing creativity. One can't help but wonder, "At one point does less become more?" When adding new features we worry about increased cognitive load and reduced usability; should we worry about damping creativity as well? And is it possible to purposely restrict functionality to encourage ingenuity?
Maybe Twitter hit the jackpot by accident. But maybe not. Perhaps there's a lesson here worth learning.
See Also: The Asymptotic Twitter Curve