Accepting the Endless Twitter Stream

Has Twitter mania peaked or not? I truly thought we’d hit the tipping point about six or eight months ago, when a few hip-ish journalists started using it in earnest, and to good effect. After that, a bit of a lull could be felt in Twitterville. Then, starting a month or two ago, every journalist, spammer, and johnny-come-lately marketeer decided that now was the time to test the water.

This is all fine. As many of us old-twimers could tell you, there’s a formal elegance to Twitter. It’s stripped down, yet, like plain text, you can do almost anything with it. The developers had the foresight to develop a robust API that is still being exploited by a growing number of 3rd party twevelopers.

Ok, enough twordplay.

I’m continuing to discover the power of Twitter search, which has shown me the true potential of the platform.

Want to find friends who are interested in, say, AIG? Search for the term and dig in. Then, respond to someone’s tweet that “Rachel Maddow is right, if you haven’t read that Matt Taiibi [sic] article on AIG and the bailouts, do.” Follow those Twitterers who are witty and likeminded. Then search for another term, rinse, wash, and repeat. The stream is endless.

You can’t possibly follow it all. You probably don’t want to. But searching this way can be an infinitely useful way to keep on top of current conversations and to add your two cents when appropriate.

But here’s the important part: you can never own a Twitter conversation. You can’t flood the zone in the same way that an A-list blogger like Andrew Sullivan dominated the blogosphere in the runup to the 2008 election. The Twittersphere changes too quickly, and is too diffuse, for anyone to grasp it for too long. And that’s why it’s great.

David Weinberger addressed this problem recently, in 4.5 points. Here are the first two:

1. Twitter in its native form assumes we’re ok with not keeping up with the abundance. Tweets are going to scroll by when you’re not looking, and you’re never going to see them. Twitter assumes you will let them go, the way most of us cannot leave unread the messages in our inbox.

2. Social asymmetry addresses the scaling problem. At Twitter, the people you follow are not necessarily the people who are following you. That’s exactly not how mailing lists and weekly status meetings work, and Twitter’s approach impedes the back-and-forth development of ideas. But, maybe that’s not what Twitter is primarily about. And the asymmetry means that some people can have lots of followers but still participate as listeners.

Coming from an organizational standpoint, your superiors may ask you to quantify your successes on Twitter. If they do, you may be in trouble. Short of tracking the number of clicks on tweeted URLS (which you can do, to limited effect), there’s really no data that will show if your conversational skills are directly affecting the performance of your group. But over time you may see a difference in awareness of your issue or organization. More people will retweet your links, or tweet them yourselves. They’ll carry your message for you without even asking. Kind of like a stream carries solid objects downriver… it’s impossible to control, so just go with it.

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