Filtering the Firehose: the usefulness of Twitter

Over the years I’ve been using the following rule as a kind of litmus test: if the mainstream media is baffled by a technological innovation then the odds are that it’s a significant development. So it was originally with the Web (“the Citizen Band radio de nos jours” was how one British newspaper editor described it to me in the early 1990s), SMS, blogging and social networking. And, of course Twitter. I’ve lost count of the number of sensible people who made a point of declaring themselves “baffled” by Twitter. So now it’s amusing to see them creeping, tentatively, one by one, onto the service, and setting themselves up to follow me plus a few genuine Twittercelebs — Alan Rusbridger, for example, or Stephen Fry. All of which explains, I guess, why Twitter has put on 100 million new users in 2010.

The standard line for the Twitter-sceptics is that they cannot for the life of them see what they would use it for. My standard response is to explain why I find it valuable: it enables me to plug into a thought-stream that I find useful and valuable. This is because I follow only two categories of people: those whom I know personally; or those whose thoughts I find stimulating, informative or wise. I also point out to sceptics that when one has a reasonable Twitter following, it can be a good way of getting intelligent answers to questions like “How do I [statement of technical problem]?” or “Has anyone had this problem with [software package]?” or “Does anyone know of a reference for [quote]?” Generally, though, my interrogators do not seem to find these explanations helpful and they go away shaking their heads in wonderment at the peculiarities of geeks.

For me, the WikiLeaks controversy has highlighted the usefulness of Twitter. It made me realise that essentially it has become a human-mediated RSS feed. The people I follow on the service are essentially filtering the firehose for me. And hopefully I am doing the same for them.

As usual, Dave Winer — one of the wisest filters in my stream — has interesting things to say about this.

Twitter is useful, imho, for two things:

1. As a way to share links.

2. As a way to speak your mind.

These days I use it almost exclusively for #1. Very little of #2.

People just aren’t that interested in what other people think. And it’s damned difficult to speak your mind 140 characters at a time. Most of the time you can anticipate in advance what the misunderstandings will be, and self-edit. Then self-censor. Why bother going through all that michegas.

But as a link-sharing tool, it is really excellent.

(I respectfully disagree with his claim about people not being “that interested”. I am generally very interested in what he thinks.) But, being Dave, he has gone the extra mile with this idea. First of all, he publishes a link archive which has all the links he has published since 2009. He’s also been flowing his links into a special WordPress blog.

“Maybe”, he muses,

I’m mostly using Twitter the way people use

Maybe there’s a lesson in there. Perhaps if we figure out how to decentralize, we’ll be on the way to decentralizing Twitter? Maybe all needed was to become realtime, and it would have become Twitter?

BTW, I often have the same idea about Flickr. It’s a gem, with a huge and influential user base, to this day. With a little love and care it might blossom into something really wonderful.

Yep. But it’s already pretty good.

LATER: There are rumours that Yahoo is planning to shut down Hmmm… another reason to be suspicious of cloud computing. Dave Briggs has just published a good post about this.