Evan Williams revolutionized blogging in 1999 by making it simple. His software, Blogger, asked for only one thing: text. It was easy for anyone, and blogging quickly became an activity more popular than many had believed possible.
Other blogging software adds more and more features, and even Blogger allows for optional titles, but Twitter takes Blogger’s single-required-field simplicity and takes it down a notch. No titles, and now with a 140 character limit.
Jack Dorsey started in 2000 with an idea for tracking “status,” a feature of the LiveJournal software he was using at the time. Over the next six years he refined and polished the idea, and finally wrote it with Biz Stone and a contract programmer in two weeks in March 2006. The concept moved from stat.us to twttr.com to twitter.com. Twitter asks just one question: What are you doing?
You can answer that question at twitter.com, or at m.twitter.com on your mobile device, or via instant message (GTalk, Jabber, or LiveJournal for now), or by sending an SMS from your phone. Because there is an open API, dozens of third-party applications are available, too.
SMS, by the way, is the reason for the 140 character limit. SMS allows 160 characters, but Twitter subtracts 20 for a username. Twitter has shortcodes in the U.S., India, and Canada, and they’re very enthusiastic about SMS especially.
Less Than Public, More Than Private
Instant messenger is one-on-one communication, while a blog is available for all to see. Twitter occupies a place somewhere in between. While tweets can be “protected,” they are generally available for everyone to see, but only those who choose to “follow” you are likely to see them. Tweets can still be directed to individual users, creating lengthy conversations, and followers of one twitterer but not the other will see only half of the conversation, eventually likely having their curiosity stirred.
Not Enough For Some
There are competing services, most of which seem dedicated to the idea that Twitter would be much better if it just had… whatever. Just as many Blogger competitors found the sweet spot for a certain group of users by adding features, so too will some of Twitter’s competitors find that Twitter+images or Twitter+podcasts or Twitter+video works well for them. Of course, Twitter’s API also makes it easy for competitors to become partners instead, delivering images or podcasts or video using Twitter in conjunction with their own website or software. In an interview with BC Magazine, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone stated that the Twitter API serves 10-20 times more traffic than the Twitter.com website.
Twitxr is an example of a site competing with Twitter, while TwitPic attempts to deliver pictures within Twitter. One interesting byproduct of this is that Twitter users frequently encounter links to TwitPic while using Twitter, which may help boost the growth of that service.
A Work In Progress
I’ve noticed small refinements to the Twitter.com interface over the last few months, a feat that seems incredible given the simplicity of the concept. Biz Stone says that what I’ve observed are “updates towards a better user experience,” and suggests that there is “plenty more room for improvement in that area.”
For the most part, the folks at Twitter seem content to watch how people use the service and use that a springboard for adding new features. The form of directed messaging known as “@replies” came into being that way, for example. Users self-organized around using @username to address each other, and it eventually became a formal part of Twitter, which automatically directs @replies to the appropriate users stream of tweets.
Another feature that seems to be growing in popularity that is not yet adopted by Twitter officially is #hashtags, which enable tweets on a given theme to be aggregated.
Difficult to Explain, but Easy to Understand
Twitter is about the life that happens between blog posts and emails, say Lee and Sachi LeFever at CommonCraft, and they created Twitter In Plain English (aka “Twitter in 150 Seconds”) to explain.
Others have a slightly different take on Twitter, with Pete Cashmore of Mashable suggesting that Twitter was the 2007 paradigm for cat-blogging.
Meryl Evans suggests that “Twitter doesn’t work if you lurk, post updates, and do nothing else.” She also offers seven tips to a good Twitter experience.
I didn’t think I had room in my life for yet another web service, and indeed my first effort to use Twitter foundered. Then I began to use it as a “mini-blog,” a place to record the notes too short or personal for a full-length article. I made an effort to “follow” friends and acquaintances from around the web and plunged right in. I quickly found that what seemed trivial or pointless from the outside became an indispensable part of my online life.
As Essential As Oxygen
A service that inspires passion as Twitter does, and attracts dramatic growth as Twitter does, faces a singular challenge. Twitter has had to relocate and re-architect several times to deal with increased load, and each major shift potentially leaves people without access to one of the key parts of their day. Changes behind the scenes caused tweet delivery to seem unreliable the day before this week’s U.S. Presidential primary Pennsylvania, sparking concerns and even anger.
In the midst of this, Biz Stone told me, “We have a vision of Twitter as a reliable communication utility around the world,” and added, “We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Still, even criticism often includes agreement that Twitter is generally very reliable.
In addition to issues of scalability, I asked about the long-term viability of Twitter, a free service with no advertising or any obvious means of support. They have received quite a bit of funding, but surely a viable business model is needed, I suggested. Biz responded, “Yes, scaling Twitter as a company and as a service is a challenge that we have decided to take on. Sustainability is certainly part of scaling Twitter as a company. We’ll comment on the business of Twitter when we’re ready. Right now our focus is on growth, reliability, and creating a good experience.”
Go ahead, sign up for an account. Let the site search your email address book to find people you know, and follow them. You might be surprised what you learn about people you though you knew! You might even find yourself talking about things not many people know about you, too.
There is an official blog for the site, as well as Twitter accounts for each of the company’s principals. For more information about some of the neat things you can do with Twitter, also visit TwitterHolics.