Monday, March 17, 2008

Whither Twitter? : The Culture of Chat Mediums

[This post turned into a thesis, so for your reading "pleasure" I've split it up into 4 parts of roughly unequal sizes to aid navigation... Good luck, soldier.]

Just been catching up with the latest AOL and Facebook strategy shifts via Joshua March. Can Instant Messaging really be making a comeback? Like Joshua, my IM "buddies" list (always hated that term) is generally on the decline - I probably use it to talk regularly to less than half a dozen people now, and I can't remember the last time I actually added anyone to the list.

The form that "chat" comes in is hugely important to who we are (and something I really want to link in to over on Sphereless at some point). What makes for a successful chat medium? What different opportunities and possibilities emerge from each medium? How do these mediums affect who we talk to, and what groups we form? In an oddly-technologically-determinist kind of way, I think all these questions have gargantuan impacts on the economy of Internet Comms, modern day politics, and what is it to be someone with friends.

Over on Twitter, Luke asks "Do we know that twitter won't find a mass market as email and search did, tho? It shares their simplicity..." Sure, the simplicity is important but not, I think, the be-all-and-end-all of the success of a medium (and, I guess, few people say otherwise). Here are some Other Things that need to be taken into consideration when thinking about innovation of this type of thing (and which hopefully dispel any rumours that I'm a technological determinist...)

Part 1: Spheres of Influence

1. "Cultural" determinism - or, to be more useful, Usage Environment (in the sense that our Culture determines where and when we use our Technology).

What makes Facebook and MySpace so popular? Simple - they're timewasters. And we, as a race, have far too much time on our hands. Except it's not free time, it's work time. All those students, all those people in office jobs - all effectively tethered to a desk for 8 or 9 hours a day, with only the web for comfort. You need something you can switch on and off at the flick of switch or a Refresh Button.

E-mail used to do the job, but it turned out to be too free-form (not enough structured comms), too limited (no functionality or apps) and too antisocial (no group-forming). IM had a go at replacing it for a while, and fulfilled some of the first, none of the second, and a lot of the third. Now Facebook is filling in the gaps. Now you can hang out in groups and play games instead of working.

On the other hand, Twitter has very little functionality and basically zero group-forming. It's similar, in terms of the amount of "investment" or "engagement" needed (relatively little), but the twittersphere is an infinite sphere, with every Twitterer their own centre of that sphere. It's an individualistic technology for individualistic, busy people. A melting pot where the main game is conversation, not Scrabble. And, as such, it's (currently) attractive to a very different cultural set.

2. "Practical" determinism. Or "functional"? "Positivist"? In other (more) words, the extent to which people engage with a particular medium depends on their relationship to the issue being discussed, or the action being prepared/taken, via that medium.

Thus, Twitter is great for answering "What are you doing?", but not so good for "How can we make a car?" or "Should we build a new football stadium?" (unless you're into One-Click Politics and StrawPolls). It's not a way to share photos. It's not a way to order or filter conversations. It's not a CMS or a Wiki. It has archives, but you tend not to search through them. It's temporary, dynamic, continuous. "What are you doing?" implies "Now". But conversations aren't always about "Now".

Nor are they always about text, or about links. Sometimes you want or need a "richer" conversation, or an accountable one, or a formal one, and different media permit or discourage these in varying quantities. Hence the comments here about Flickr doing Video are generally conservative - Flickr does photos, and many of the more active members want/need a place that concentrates on photos exclusively. To diversify is to lose focus, which is good for a site built on top of connections, but not one where connections are built on top of functionality.

From this, then, we can say that any services offering a diversity of functionality (i.e. those based on social links rather than a core functionality idea, such as Facebook or AOL or Mash or Tribe) will need to offer a correspondingly diverse set of mediums to take this into account. (This also highlights problems with, say, fitting political engagement to certain "trendy" mediums such as chatrooms or video logs etc.) The key question for a service then becomes: "How does functionality get split across these mediums?" How does one do this without detracting from the usability or the allure of the service?

Part 2: Find the Gap

The flip side of this weird aggregation movement (that is, sites that try to do everything) is also fascinating. Given a set of usage contexts, conversational mediums and technological possibilities, not only are there the combinations addressed by services which bring them all together, but there are also holes between them. These holes are places which no combination of existing contexts and mediums currently fills.

Places which try to replicate something from the "off-line" world (in the same way that instant messaging replicates a face-to-face chat), but which are limited to certain contexts or mediums. The key challenge here is: how can one set of functionality or of context be "ported" to another?

I see these holes as "conflicts" - places where an acceptable solution doesn't yet exist, and so everything that tries to fit into such a hole is still experimental, still looking for a good fit. These holes are the places where niches exist, where small companies operate, and where PR is everything, because if you didn't even know the hole existed, there's no way you'd know you needed something to plug it up. Holes are created on a daily basis, so competition is fierce around them.

This is the realm where culture and functionality do not naturally integrate, given the tools we're already using. Some examples from off the top of my head include:

  • Video on hand-held devices - because we like to both use our eyes while moving and because we're used to watching things on bigger displays. (Hmmm, in which case... Are large screen TVs killing the mobile video market?)

  • Handheld book readers - because books and papers are cultural and personal things - the feel, the turn of a page, the weight, the slightly-worn edges... Replacing tactility in technology is light years off yet.

  • Electronic Paper - similarly, because paper is generally disposable while electronics generally aren't, and because pens are analogue and freeform while computing generally isn't. Disposability - of ideas - is a cultural thing, and one which bit-based tech is gradually drifting away from.

Everything fits into a hole, really. It's just that some holes are bigger and a lot easier to fill. The interesting holes are the ones that start out small or difficult to fill, but end up being large and filled just-the-right-amount.

I don't have too much else to say about these holes at the moment, although I think they are an interesting way to look at the world. If you're looking for the Next Big Thing, I think there's mileage in the idea of conflicting contexts. Too many people wonder "How can we use technology X to fill hole Y?" But the important question is really "Which hole does technology X best fit?"

Part 3: Whither Twitter?

But let's bring this back to chat. When, where, and why do we chat, and can we use this to predict the success of a particular medium or service? Why is Twitter doing well but videophones aren't? Does anyone actually use Skype to make video calls?

In my eyes, Twitter does a job that nothing else does: it brings together SMS messaging (as a cultural action as well as a technology) with the web and, by extension, Desktop apps. Both are hugely popular, but for different reasons - SMS is quick, simple, and efficient while the web is rich, complex, and "functional". Twitter works because, unlike other services, it goes from SMS up to web, rather than trying to cram the web down to a mobile. This goes back to something I was saying before. (And maybe there's a hierarchy of availability to be explored here?)

But if we take into account the cultural context, maybe it's not enough for Twitter to just "work". To become bigger, it must become attractive to where people spend 8 hours a day, or people that are intent upon procrastinating. Maybe the problem with Twitter is that it lets you get on with your work too well!

Stepping away from Twitter, and in spite of the above paragraph, I think the real losers here are the mobile phone carriers. Their insistence on seeing everything in terms of voice damns them to a hellish world of working out just where their next quick buck is going to come from. Certainly in the UK, for mainstream users, functionality is limited to voice and SMS. There is generally no integration at all with anything else - I still can't forward an e-mail address to an SMS on my Vodafone account. I have an on-line bill, but that's about it. The Mobile Carriers are sitting right on top of a KISS Comms Goldmine, but their insistence on getting a) "big" content to drive business and b) customers to pay for anything they do on top of free minutes/texts is doing NOTHING for them. And, as there's no way Apple's iPhone or Google's Android are going to be anything but the reserve of businessmen and geeks, we're in stalemate.

Part 4: Predictive Text

So to return, what does my chat list do nowadays, and where is it heading? Would I use it more if all the people on my Twitter list were added to it, or if all the people stored on my mobile were on there? I suspect this would just be an intermediate stage (although a big one). Contact books are the important thing here. How you chat to someone depends on where you are and what you want to talk about. It makes sense then to synchronise lists across mediums - it makes sense that people would say "This isn't working on this medium - the topic has changed. We need to move to Medium X instead." Just like you switch to a big whiteboard when you need to hammer out an idea with someone.

Here's a prediction to end with: The iPhone will succeed in opening up the rift between mobiles and the web.... for iPhone users. Nothing will change for the rest of us. All-encompassing sites like Facebook will tie in text messages - probably as some kind of premium plan. Mobile operators (in the UK, at least) will make some moves towards integrating the rest of into the Twitter-like-verse, but in a half-hearted way which means it's still not economically viable. Something much akin to Twitter will come along, but aimed at non-geeks (e.g. all messages go to "your group" only, which need to be set up on the web via OpenID), and will probably do fairly well.

And Bill Gates will be banging on about voice recognition.

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