The Power of Twitter in Information Discovery

Posted on Dec 20, 2010 | 72 comments


It surprises me how many really smart people I meet still doubt the power of Twitter.

It seems the urge to be a naysayer of Twitter is really strong for some.  I think some of this stems from the early days of Twitter when it was presumed that it was a technology to tell people what you ate for lunch.  Twitter never seemed to really take the offense in PR and marketing.  I guess it wasn’t in their DNA.

Right now the most important role to hire in Twitter would be a seasoned marketing professional who could proactively change the conversation about Twitter and educate people about its significance as an information sharing tool.  They need a stronger campaign about consumption rather than sending Tweets.  Consumption, consumption, consumption.

I’ve written extensively about Twitter’s use cases, but it’s biggest power is in information sharing.

1. First, A Primer: Portals, RSS, Feed Readers & Delicious - When the web started we needed directories to find information and thus Yahoo! was born.  Actually, it was originally called “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” (true story) – it was basically a way for newbies to find information that had been curated by experts.  We went through portals to find information and thus those that ran the portals determined what we saw and were incredible valuable.  They had a lock on “distribution” and were named AOL, Yahoo!, Excite, Netscape & MSN.

When we found stuff we liked we “bookmarked” it so that we could come back to the website later.  We visited portals or the handful of websites that we could remember.  Then came RSS (Really Simple Syndication) widely credited to Dave Winer for driving the spec & adoption.  The idea was that websites (think news, blogs) could push out a regular “feed” in an open, XML format that could be read by an RSS Reader otherwise known as a feed aggregator.

And the company that helped websites publish RSS?  Feedburner, founded by now-Twitter-CEO Dick Costolo.  As the standard gained popularity more people started “subscribing” to output of their favorite content – either as an email newsletter or as an XML feed into their RSS Reader such as Google Reader.

But this issue of “how to consistently find the good stuff” is such a hard problem.  It’s at the core of what Delicious was.  As you traveled the web and found stuff you liked you could “bookmark” it (sound familiar) so that you could find it again.  The delicious bookmarking was open so that anybody could see what you had bookmarked and commonly bookmarked things could rise to the top.  That’s why it was called “social bookmarking.”

And because Delicious was bought by Yahoo! (a place where most innovation goes to die) the next round of innovation had to come from elsewhere – places like Instapaper, which is a beautiful service for … bookmarking!

2. Twitter as Curated RSS – So what then is novel about Twitter?  For all the people who tell me that they don’t want to publish their status all the time I tell them that you get so much value out of Twitter even if you’re just a “consumer” of information.  As you know, Twitter restricts you to 140 characters so many people use it to publish links to other content.  In the old days it was Jerry & David who curated our links – now it’s anybody who YOU choose to curate your links.  That’s Twitter.

I still have my Google Reader and it brings me the news and content that I asked it to find.  But on Twitter I have 609 people who send links out on a regular basis to articles that they find interesting or that they themselves wrote.  I don’t have to remember to log in to everybody’s blogs – if I forget I see the best ones Tweeted and Retweeted on Twitter.  In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to click on “Retweets by Others” and just see what things are getting retweeted a lot.  It’s serendipitous, “delicious” Twitter.  It’s way more valuable to me than “trending Tweets” which are mostly silly & meaningless.

So think about it – if I follow really smart people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests they tell me what to read.  It’s the ultimate “wisdom of the crowds.”  I find myself reading so many new sources of news than I had ever read in the past.  I read all sorts of blogs that I never even knew existed.  I pay attention to people I trust & respect and let them be my guides.

These people curate my content for me in the way that TechMeme does every day for tech news.  Twitter curates even wider.  Twitter is my curated RSS feed.  It’s how I widen my sources, widen my perspective and discover new people & topics. It’s how I met Brian Sierakowski from the Greater Baltimore Tech Council who organized an entrepreneur lunch for me when I was passing through town last week.  And how I met Tristan Walker as I chronicled in this post. It’s how I met and became friends with Mike Duda, Keith Rabois (when he challenged me over Twitter that I was wrong about Facebook) and many others.

When I got in some public Wikileaks debates I was surprised that everybody didn’t see the world the way I did.  I’ve always respected Mike Alfred of BrightScope so I was surprised we didn’t agree on the topic. I knew I must be missing something.   I decided to understand the other side of the argument.

I didn’t want to go to NYTimes, WaPo, HuffingtonPost or any other news site – I wanted to find out what my Twitter feed was telling me.  I clicked on several links from people who didn’t agree with me. Through this I really got to read both sides of the debate.  I sent a DM to my friend Steve Raymond who always has better information sources than I do and asked what he was reading.  He DM’d me back with an intellectual discussion of the issue.  Ultimately I liked this short article from the Economist.

3. Twitter as a Generator of Back-Catalog Information - The other great thing about Twitter that isn’t often talked about is its ability to surface up “back catalog” content.  In the old publish & subscribe days of blogging people read your content when you wrote it and then it lay dormant until discovered by somebody performing a Google search.  If they found it and read it things pretty much ended there.

Twitter resurfaces things and can drive old content viral.  Tim Ferriss once read an old article that I had written about whether it’s Time to Earn or Time to Learn and tweeted it.  Suddenly I had thousands of people visiting a post I had written months before.  In fact, every day when I look at ChartBeat I see old posts trending and can see a BackType link that somebody shared on Twitter.

Simply adding a Twitter share button on your blog or website can make your back catalog go viral.

4. Twitter & Real-Time Information – I think we all now know that Twitter serves up real-time information that is an order of magnitude quicker than traditional media.  It’s where I find out it when public figures die.  It’s where I find out the latest sports happenings (and I stay off it when I’m recording a game to watch later).  It’s where I found out that About.me was bought by AOL.  In fact, it’s where I find out about most M&A deals, most fund raising announcements, most airport delays, upcoming concerts and where all of my friends are traveling.  Twitter is information discovery.

5. Twitter in Driving Application Distribution - Twitter has become the new source of driving viral adoption.  Almost every application you see these days is trying to hook in Twitter as a viral feedback loop.  Look at Quora.  When you type in answers in Quora it not only pre populates a message to send to friends but it puts it into 140 characters or less and adds a short link.  I now view more Quora messages through Twitter than through discovering them in Quora itself.  Twitter has become application distribution.

Where do I find the most Instrgram pictures? Twitter.  The most FourSquare check-ins?  Twitter (people seem to mostly push their airport check-ins to Twitter and keep restaurants inside FourSquare).  What reminds me that I haven’t logged into NameSake in a few days?  Twitter.  Hackernews,  new music, latest app I have to try: Twitter, Twitter, Twitter.

6. Twitter as a Discussion Board – And to those naysayers who don’t want to post “what they ate for lunch” – I have to tell you just how valuable it is to be able to watch discussions on Twitter.  While not always easy to see the entire thread of a conversation – I do often click to follow the whole Twitter conversation back-and-forth between two people.  I get a sense for who are friends with each other.  I find out when people disagree on a topic.  I get a sense for what is being whispered around the water cooler.  I dip in and out.

I’m not worried if I catch every last bit of information.  The most beautiful thing about being a Twitter consumer to me is that just reading Twitter is now a new source of information and entertainment – even without clicking on the links.  It is, in and of itself, news.  And entertainment.  When I’m stuck between meetings, at an airport, waiting for a movie to start – I pull out my mobile device and start flicking through the stream.

  • http://www.kidmercuryblog.com kidmercury

    definitely siding with slater here in the battle of the marks…..IMHO twitter has no choice at this point but to eat their young. their lack of a mission statement contributed to them whoring themselves out for user count, targeting celebrities, and having an unclear identity (technology company or media company? both? if so, what are the rules of governance?)

    twitter is trying to make itself the profit center and its API community the cost center. in reality the situation is supposed to be the opposite — the platform core (twitter) is cost center and the edge apps are the profit center. for this reason i think twitter is a backwards platforms.

  • http://www.joemedved.com joemedved

    Perfectly illustrated. Twitter should hire you to run their PR.

    Twitter is my newspaper.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Like the new avatar, P.

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    “most important role to hire in Twitter would be a seasoned marketing professional who could proactively change the conversation about Twitter and educate people about its significance as an information sharing tool…”

    Why do so many emerging companies seem to miss this? I wonder how many cutting edge companies might have been more successful if they understood the significant role of “education” as part of marketing strategy. Or had a better developed understanding of the role of marketing?

  • http://aaronwhite.tumblr.com aaronwhite

    I use Twitter as my curated RSS feed, and haven't missed a beat, but it suffers some serious problems that prevent it from being a reliably high-value experience:

    – specific noise from applications (location based applications, picture takers, etc)
    – specific noise from users (back and forth chatter, etc)
    – irrelevance (tweets w/ links, but not relevant to main theme of tweeter)

    Scratching my own itch, because Twitter isn't going to solve this for any of us, I co-built a utility called Proxlet (http://proxlet.com) that works w/ Twitter.com and popular clients (iPhone, Tweetdeck, etc). Proxlet is a kind of “social middleware” that helps correct these problems, and provides a platform for solving more pains.

    Specifically, it can filter the stream of noisy apps and irrelevant hash-tags, and most usefully I built an “RSS mode” option that filters out all tweets unless they contain a link.

    I'm biased, but I think the curated RSS experience can be far better than it is today.

  • http://analyticasystemsinc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for addressing this topic. It made for interesting reading as your evolution as a Twitter user seems to have mirrored my own to some extent. Early on I was one of the people who didn't quite “get it”, but over time began using it to connect socially shortly after I transitioned from the corporate sector and leaped into entrepreneurship. Presently I use Twitter less socially and more for consumption and keeping my finger on the pulse. It will be interesting to see how users define Twitter and how/if it will continue to evolve.

    Great stuff as usual!

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Excellent post…the links sent in this social platform will evolve beyond connection to the big pubs. Just in case you miss it, here is a 'builders' vs. 'boss/leaders' you'll like http://bit.ly/8yEj1N

  • http://graysky.org graysky

    Great post. Perhaps it is too early to evaluate Twitter as a business and whether it will earn it's $3.7B valuation, but I'm similarly bullish on Twitter as an information discovery service.

    In the much-maligned interview with Ev at SXSW, the thing he said that really stuck with me is that on Twitter now there are conversations happening about *everything*. As you say in the post it is about “consumption” of information, but most people think of Twitter is a place to go to write despite the reading as being more valuable. When I have to explain the value of Twitter to people who have never used it, I describe basically what you've written above and more often than not their eyes light up at the thought of finding the articles, conversations and people related to their interests.

    I think the challenge for the power users on Twitter is that there is a S/N issue despite all the good content. It looks like Mark follows ~600 people now; why couldn't he follow many more? (I wrote some about that here: http://bit.ly/hxnsqz) Twitter will likely remained focused on the new user experience and getting the marginally engaged up the ladder. For those of us who are highly engaged, there will be a new crop of tools (like Proxlet, Postpo.st and others) to help more efficiently distill and suggest relevant content from Twitter.

  • mediasift

    Sign up for DataSift Alpha – We reckon that if you're into finding alternative uses for Twitter Data then this might actually be what you are looking for. It creates the curation layer that you speak of in the article above!

    We'd love to hear from you and find out what you think of it!

  • http://twitter.com/kfriedson Katelyn Friedson

    Great post- hits every high note of why I think Twitter is one of the most undervalued products on the Internet. What's not fascinating to me is the slow-moving mainstream adoption. What is fascinating is that nearly 50% of my geeky, techy counterparts are also Twitter skeptics..

    I'm so tired of trying to sell the value of Twitter and getting blank stares or eye-rolls- but it's a shame that more people aren't experiencing what I think is truly a monumental transformations of the way people share and consume information.

  • http://twitter.com/lmoliva_ Leandro Oliva

    I liked this post since it reflected the way that I myself use Twitter. Primarily as a source of information, but also discovery and entertainment. The fact that early adoption came from the tech savvy and journos has shaped the organic growth — the real growth, not the one-time account registers. And, really, Twitter is as dumb or as intelligent as one makes it, but the one constant — the magnet — is that users inevitably talk about what they think, and more importantly to commercial interests what they like and dislike.

  • http://www.pooled.in Arun Puri

    Hi Mark

    I have always seen Twitter as pre-cursor to a service yet to come, which works around the issues Twitter has. The issues would be S/N Ratio (Very Low), Information Hiding (Hidden links behind URL Shorteners), Velocity of Innovation (Very Low), Financial Model (Weak), Cost of moving to alternate provider (Low), Fun v Utility(Lot of fun, not much utility to a random individual, though some would disagree). I am just waiting for the better service, and I am sure it would come. Maybe, I would be the one who would invent it.

    Arun

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/Susie28751#about SusieBlackmon

    Finding links on Twitter leading me to posts such as this one says it all. Thank you!

  • http://www.justinpirie.com Justin Pirie

    Mark

    You should check out Feedera- it sends you a daily summary of what the people you follow RT on Twitter- automatically doing point number 2 for you. It's largely replaced RSS for me as the best stories nearly always make it in there.

    http://feedera.com

    Justin

  • http://twitter.com/edwinmoh Edwin Oh

    Mark, this is the most helpful post I've seen to understand Twitter. Thanks!

  • Dave

    i think this is right on. i always look at the valuation delta between twitter and facebook and am very surprised. both platforms are great for information discovery but twitter has something that facebook doesn't which is the influence graph. on facebook i typically follow friends (and sometimes colleagues) — its sometimes fun and funny to what they recommend but the folks that truly influence my thinking (what i read, what products i try, even where i stay/eat when i travel to other cities) are folks that i follow on twitter. once the company learns to harness that and puts a strong economic model around it — the 'promoted' stuff is BS — i think twitter will be unstoppable…

  • http://technbiz.blogspot.com paramendra

    Thanks. I was hoping someone would notice.

  • http://twitter.com/sal_matteis Sal Matteis

    as usual Mark – you hit the nail on the head.

    without a doubt – Twitter is and will be amongst the most powerful Media consumption hubs and distribution platforms in absolute – PERIOD.

    Like Mark – hundreds of millions of netizens, use twitter for ALL that you mention above – and like him many start using it on PASSIVE consumption mode.

    Media companies start to understand that twitter plays an in important role as an echo-chamber of the great content they produce or syndicate.

    More and more twitter plays a role that search NEVER was built for. a PUSH gateway to all that is most relevant to you and the people like you.

    Mark – I have given it some thought and would love to share in person.

    twit @sal_matteis

  • Drew M

    I couldn't agree more! I used to be one of those haters that thought Twitter was a small invasion of privacy but now I have joined the Twitter world and see the true potential. Maybe Twitter isn't the future but very similar applications will be.

  • http://twitter.com/MrCristianjoe Cristian Joe

    I've avoided joining yet another social network (I see them as massive distractions), this post made me join…you will be the first person I follow.

    I'll give it 2 months

  • http://twitter.com/cmschultes cmschultes

    Information management and not getting distracted during the working day! Seems like the key to me… :-)

  • http://twitter.com/babyRayFunHi RAY

    On this article and the imput of several people I have rejoined twitter (my account was hacked) and am getting into it.

    I always wondered why twitter took off while feed burner and other such services did not. Upon analyzing it, the game dynamics of twitter are indeed much better.

    The instant nature of it, the limit of 140 characters (which is a game in and of itself) and it's cute image make for much better game dynamics. Now I see why it's newsfeed took off in the midst of the facebook voyeurism hampster wheel. They really are two different games all things considered.

    I also now see that twitter is like a cross between human language and computer language, with elementary elements like the hash mark etc..

    Twitter can indeed make bundles of cash. They must delve further into gameification, not shy away from it as they grow. Their attempt to get people to affix a location to their tweets is a nice try but people won't “fall for it” unless they integrate game elements into it, or integrate it into the game elements rather.