Yesterday my Twitter follower count ticked over 50,000 for the first time. And while I wouldn’t exactly call that a lifetime achievement or milestone, it has caused me to reflect a little bit on Twitter specifically and the Internet more generally, so I thought I would write down some of those thoughts here.
Off the top, let me say this: I really love Twitter. A lot. I use it every day — I don’t always post things (although most times I do), but I always read and discover new things — it’s become integral to me in a bunch of ways. I share interesting articles about technology and startups and politics and literature that I find. I link to my blog posts like this one. I ask questions, mostly about travel and technology. I vent about things (I’m looking at you @unitedairlines). I talk about TV and music that I like. I track a bunch of my friends and coworkers and how they’re doing. And I make a lot of dumb jokes.
What’s clear at this point is that I’m not a particularly typical Twitter user. As services evolve, they find their main use cases, their reasons for existing. You’ve got Facebook for interacting with friends in symmetric ways; you’ve got Quora for getting high quality answers to questions; you’ve got Tumblr for expressing a synthesis of media that in aggregate represents you.
Twitter has evolved, I think, into essentially a celebrity broadcast medium. Now, I’m using the term ‘celebrity’ a little broadly — there are the Biebers and Gagas, of course, but there are also the CNNs and NPRs of news, and the Saccas of the tech world, and the long middle part of the curve of bands and critics and pundits that have tens or hundreds of thousands of followers. It seems obvious to me at this point that this is really what Twitter is for: tracking our mega and mini broadcasters, being able to follow along in real time to see what they’re doing, writing and what they’re amplifying from others.
That’s part of how I use it, but I think that my use case is somewhat more complicated, which makes my tweets pretty atypical. My tweet stream is more like a mix of broadcasting, retweets, active conversations with friends, debates with other techies, and a bunch of snarky jokes.
I think there are a few reasons for this.
First, because I’m more of a “Twitter native” — that is, someone who’s been active on the system since the first million users, I’ve been part of the ‘figuring out’ conversations that have happened, mostly as a user. So I’ve gone through several generations of the product before it landed on celebrity broadcast as the center, and some of those generations of use case have really stuck with me.
Second, I developed a bunch of my patterns while I worked at Mozilla, a uniquely open organization where Twitter really fit. Because we don’t have a ton of internal systems for closed communications by design, we like to have conversations in the open, on public wikis, on open IRC channels, and on Twitter. And because I had management responsibility of a distributed, global organization, it helped me to kind of keep track of folks I wasn’t able to see every day. Beyond that, it let me have some interactions in a public way with people that I could model so that others would see them and (maybe) learn from them. In a lot of ways, I think of it as the modern equivalent of Managing by Walking Around, popularized by Hewlett-Packard long ago. It’s easy to brush off this use case as not real, but I really did use it a lot for helping to manage at Mozilla.
And while Mozilla is obviously unique in its openness, in a lot of ways the Silicon Valley ecosystem shares some of the characteristics, with lots of actors who are decentralized and distributed, working in different ways but able to share public communication channels like this.
The third reason I’m quirky in my use, I think, is that I make so many jokes on it. I’ve always been a guy that’s most comfortable at the back of the classroom making jokes. It’s not necessarily the part of my personality I’m most proud of, but it’s what I do. I’m happiest in the back, scribbling semi-related ideas to what’s going on, making jokes to myself or friends. Twitter gives me a pretty good way to do that sort of thing without being disruptive, and it’s fun for me.
I guess last is the fact that a lot of close friends also spend a fair amount of time on it, so keeping up with them and interacting with them there is fun and rewarding.
As I’ve moved up to 50k followers and past, I think it’s going to start changing how I use it a bit, for better or worse. It’s becoming somewhat more of a broadcast/audience thing and less of a group-of-friends thing. It remains extremely useful and integral to me, but probably will be so in different ways.
Anyway, enough for now — just thought I’d capture a few thoughts here that wouldn’t fit in 140 characters. 🙂