The Power of Twitter in Information Discovery

Posted on Dec 20, 2010 | 72 comments

The Power of Twitter in Information Discovery

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 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.

  • Adrian Bye

    this doesn't mean twitter will be a wildly successful business.

    digg/reddit for example are aggregate link collections curated by the masses, just using different methodology. and neither has been very financially successful.

  • mrjain

    Excellent as usual. Yeah, I get the same thing from people “who wants to hear about Eddie eating a bagel.”

    It comes down to who you follow as you rightfully said…”I have 609 people who send links out on a regular basis to articles that they find interesting or that they themselves wrote.”

    Recently, when the new Flipboard was released after seeing 6-7 tweets saying how great it was, I downloaded the app and experienced it myself. Twitter is how I find news/information these days.

  • jonathanjaeger

    “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.”

    That's exactly right and a point I think many people don't get. Twitter is the butt of many jokes on late night television shows and other places simply because celebrities say boring or asinine things on Twitter. For the average person who doesn't have a particular sector to follow on Twitter, it might not seem useful at first glance because of that.

    The two taglines on Twitter's homepage right now both center on discovering updates on information that is important to you rather than giving your own status updates. So at least Twitter is correctly portraying the message you're describing.

  • Ohhjohnny

    This also presupposes you know who to follow and are interested in certain topics like tech and politics. Additionally, you find out about news on twitter because I'm guessing just as valuable

  • Tyler Beerman

    Completely agree… Twitter is my most valuable information resource! I think there is a misconception from the masses, that all you do on twitter is update pointless/personal information. However, I don't think this generalization of the platform and its purpose could be farther from the truth…

  • Ohhjohnny

    Guessing you're on it a lot of the time

  • Subsri M

    Mark, you are awesome!!. Thanks for sharing an excellent article

  • Gavin Costello

    Well this is interesting. It's a bit elaborate of course, but with the advent of Smartr yesterday, it's rather serendipitous as well, don't you think?
    I've been using Smartr for a day, and see how it might entirely replace my use of RSS.
    Firstly I have created a semi-curated feed of people I follow who are continually sharing links
    Secondly, I have created fully curated private and public lists (Smartr are bound to add support for lists, favourites, RT etc.) full of people I trust and therefore content I trust
    Lastly, I've lost control of my RSS Feeds, even despite the beauty of Feedly managing my high value feeds so well.
    Twitter has become my information channel, filtering out the junk and feeding me trusted content. It's more than just a conversation for me now, it's where I read and learn.
    P.S. I also am interested with how Boxee integrates Video from my Twitter Feed, though they have a way to go with their UI.

  • paramendra

    A good thumbs up post.

  • Josh Webb

    Just today I read an excellent blog on information discovery, information curation, and their evolution (I saw it on Bill Gross's twitter, coincidentally):… it is exceptional, I highly recommend it!

    Lots of people find twitter's asymmetry to be a feature. For me, it feel like a weakness. The asymmetry means that I do not know my audience. I do not know why they are following me. Sure, if I am a football player, an actor, or otherwise wildly well-known for a single aspect of my being, then I can assume that they are following me because of that. I can, in turn, provide value to my audience, much like a blogger might (most bloggers do have a consistent topic or perspective throughout). As a regular old joe schmoe, twitter is me just talking in a room full of strangers (and no one has agreed or communicated why we are all in the same room). Do they care if I am making quiche, or if I just downloaded a new iPhone app, or if I just read something funny that someone they don't know just posted? I don't know! Does twitter want me to not care?

    Personally, I think it is more valuable to reach out and engage people and have meaningful exchanges. Or understand what conversations others are having. In blog speak, sometimes the context of the post is not relevant til you see how others responded to it (especially if you are new to the topic). Yet Twitter seems to go out of its way to make conversations difficult to have (it gets lost in the noise) and harder to follow (it still amazes me that conversation threading has not been solved).

    It serves a purpose, sure, but I am quite certain that I pull more value out of my RSS feed (google reader). I have it separated by category and again by feed. I can read them when I have a moment, I know what to expect from each (so I can determine how much time will be consumed), they only pop up once per post, and the writers have committed some meaningful time to saying something of value. For me, I have built up and pared down my feed over a long period of time to include things that I want and exclude things that I do not. Perhaps I am too stuck in that mode of thinking?

    I would like to be a more active twitter user/participant but I still haven't been able to derive a great deal of value from it. I think my next move on this path is to unabashedly start following people without concern for the additional noise or efficiency. Perhaps the secret for me will be _in_ the noise instead of the well trimmed follow list.

    In short:
    Every user seems to post-to and cull-from twitter in a different way. I think that is the genius and the idiocy behind the service (and people seem to be at either end of that spectrum, there is little more polarizing than twitter). A lot of it comes down to whether someone embraces the concept of “use-it-how-you-want-to-there-are-no-rules-here”. I haven't yet, but I would like to.

  • Alan V

    Hi Mark,

    Nice post — to me, it's mind-boggling that certain people don't appreciate the value of twitter, especially from an information consumption angle.

    However, I remember reading an article from CNN (hyperlinked infra) talking about the power of twitter regarding purchasing products on recommendation of celebrity tweeters. The scientific method is fairly non-existent in the article, but you might find it interesting:…#

  • Dhiraj Kacker

    Agreed – can't add anything valuable. But I have couple questions:

    1) I definitely use twitter as the jump off point to read, but how do you (and so many others) follow 600+ people, does it not get cluttered.? I am only at 80+ (and some lists) and already feel there is too much chit-chat

    2) Time consumption: many many moons ago I switched off cable TV because as Seinfeld once said “men are interested in what ELSE is on TV”. My biggest hesitation to trying FB/Twitter was how I saw people getting addicted – my mental down time (even at airports) is extremely important for me – even if I spend it thinking about work. And then add family time. I now make it a point to logout both on my BB and laptop (so that getting back in has some friction) and try to have designated times to go through my timeline. I wonder if others feel the same level of “addiction” that was once reserved for surfing channels? How do you work with it?

  • William Mougayar

    Amazingly well articulated synopsis on Twitter's ever growing value.

    Twitter has flipped the old information distribution chain on its belly. We've all become content emitting nodes in the new galaxy of information.

    I'm glad you've implied that Twitter (and social news to a large extent) have augmented but not replaced more deterministic ways of finding information.

  • SteveD-

    Another great post! I wonder if the lack of pr is because the information sharing aspect of the service is an unintended pivot?

  • Russ Dollinger

    Mark, you have an enterprise background. How useful do you think Twitter is in increasing awareness of new products or approaches that would be purchased by large private or governmental organizations?

  • Lola A Vanslette

    I just wanted to say I enjoy your article. I think Twitter is just beginning to come into its own. I don't spend all my time on Twitter. I'm rarely there much at all since just about everything I do, read, post or comment on ends up there anyway through links to just about everything I am doing. Actually, its a bit scary. I believe I understand how celebrities feel about their private lives going public. But all-in-all, I have to say Twitter is definitely good for business and for locating interesting articles such as this, which is how I found you.

  • sambirmingham

    I remember the exact moment that I came to realise the power of Twitter…

    As I was stepping off a plane and turned my phone on, the first thing I did was check my Twitter feed – up to that point, my default action had been email, FB, luggage.

    For me, that subconscious decision really hit home that *wow* THIS is where I'm discovering what I want to discover!

  • MichalIllich

    Twitter is fine – I'm using it just as a consumer in the way you described. It's been several months and now I'm beginning to think to use it for my own statuses as well.

    But what I don't like is the usage of URL shorteners – it seams quite archaic and cryptic. Twitter should better use full urls (but display only “link” or the domain only) – but of course not limit the size of the post by counting all characters of the URLs. This will have several benefits: user will see if he already visited that link, see to what web it goes and it will provide Twitter better statistics (what links are most tweeted).

    PS: I know that URL de-shortening can be done by Firefox extension (I'm using it), but it's sad that this benefit is not by default for everyone.

  • Sylmobile

    Yep. Tapping into the stream is my instinctive reaction when coming back online.

  • Jetwick

    Great! Found via twitter / jetwick

  • lisahickey

    It’s a huge mind shift to know that the important news will come to you instead of you having to seek out the important news. And the thing I like about Twitter is that is has a “conversation built right in.” The power of Twitter is that it is both a broadcast device and a personal communication device. That’s what gives its speed. People who go seamlessly between “getting information” “sharing and talking about it” “acting on it” “distributing their own information” will be the ones who “get” Twitter.

    Jeff Jarvis described serendipity as “unexpected relevance.” And I’ve long said that Twitter “accelerates serendipity.” So when news comes in to me these days, it’s exactly the news I was hoping for. News that adds to my world view, goes deep into topics that I am interested in, and is attached to a community of people who want to talk intelligently about it.

    The other thing I like about Twitter is meeting complete strangers and then going through deepening levels of engagement with them. Early on in Twitter I sent this tweet: “How friends are born. Stranger > follow > @ > dm > FB > email > phone > meet > Friend.” That tweet often gets tweeted around the world, and it really came about from me just trying to figure out the sales cycle of using Twitter as a business tool. I follow a lot of people so that I can get that “unexpected relevance” of making new connections along with getting the information I desire.

  • Mark Essel

    Agreed on all counts. But where do we go next? Can twitter be challenged by an open protocol/channel like Evan and others believe with ostatus? I believe so, but the relationship between identity and feed source needs to be resolved. When I retweet a post the context and relevance of @username has significance in the twittersphere. Outside of twitter webfinger to becomes a symbol for Mark Suster.

    This is the design issue I got caught on while working on an open social feed reader and it's non-trivial. I plan to follow up and keep working it as resources allow.

  • lisahickey

    Yes, that link you shared was great. I just commented on that as well. One of my favorite insights: “Google proved the thesis that if you find a strong signal (the link), and curate it at scale (the search engine), you can become the most important company in the Internet economy. With both, of course, the true currency was human attention.”

    Read more:

  • jptucker

    Twitter is also the first step (or maybe just the most recent) in a long chain of events that leads to…SkyNet. Maybe that's why some people are reluctant to adopt. Haven't you seen the Terminator movies?

    Seriously though, I was a Twitter skeptic, and then I realized it's a faster and more reliable news aggregator than any of the major networks. As you put it, I can get first-hand accounts, pictures, links, etc. for any major occurrence way before the major outlets have had an opportunity to vet the official reports that will go online or on the air.

  • markslater

    how then does this become a meaningful business. There are a host of stories of companies that did precisely what you mention above and failed or were financially insignificant.

    I'll argue that the deep and incurable problem for the twitter business model is that it has galvanized a billion users around making 'noise' and not taking action. Sure that is huge value in mining the noise – as you explain – but where there is no action there is no transaction.

    Twitter and for that matter foursquare gathered around the noise tempest – were it should have been deep in their DNA to construct an action based service.

  • MITDGreenb

    I agree fully. I'd add one more thing: Twitter as customer service platform. Great companies realize they have to respond quickly to customer complaints on Twitter because everyone can see them. Those companies also realize that a public, positive response or resolution of the problem has a much better ROI than most, if not all, of their PR and marketing efforts. And abuse of this power is limited: the abuser's actions are judged too because the abuse is also in public view.

  • msuster

    Nowhere in my post did I argue whether Twitter would be a valuable business financially or not. This was more about individual utility for consumers.

  • msuster

    re: Flipboard – exactly. That's how I found out about Flipboard in the first place (as with most new applications now)

  • msuster

    Agreed. But I think they could be more aggressive on the PR front to keep up a constant campaign reminding people of that. Even if you're not sector focused, it's a great way to keep up with news, sports, breaking info, politics, whatever.

  • msuster

    Finding out whom to follow takes time. I always tell people to start with: some news sources they like, some leaders they respect, some comedians they enjoy and some friends. You get a good cross section. I tell people to err on the side of following a few too many people and prune those that are too “noisy” or boring. I wanted to follow Steve Martin really badly. But boy was he bad at Tweeting. I had to turn him off!

  • msuster

    Actually, not. I tend to log on in the AM, in the evening and on my mobile device when I'm waiting in a coffee shop for a meeting or similar. I try not to get distracted during the work day.

  • msuster

    Asymmetry is the power of Twitter. The symmetric following model means that many people I'd like to follow I wouldn't because they don't know me well enough (examples: Steve Case, Bill Gates). And the same is true in reverse. If I followed every single person who followed me I'd lose sight of the stuff I want to see from the people I want to follow. Asymmetry rules.

  • msuster

    Thanks for the link. Interesting read although I don't agree with its premise. I think it's misguided.

  • msuster

    1. If any of the 609 gets too noisy I unfollow. Over time I've found the right 609. I'm sure it will go up over time. The narrow your follower base the narrower your information sources. It's a tough balance, for sure.

    2. I, too, restrict myself. Sometimes I'll leave my BB in the car when I'm with the family so that I'm not tempted to check it. When I have it, it's hard not to! It's true, all information sources are addicting.

  • msuster

    Definitely augmented and not replaced.

  • msuster

    I think it's because many tech people are anti PR / marketing. If you look at Google's history they placed very little emphasis on it for years. I'm guessing it was part of Twitter's founder's ethos. I think it's time to go on the offense now.

  • msuster

    Very. It's surprising how many senior influential people (in business & government) just act like normal consumers so they tend to shop on Amazon, buy music from iTunes and learn how to use new information sources such as Twitter.

  • msuster

    For sure. It's a lot more fun than checking email – that's for sure !!

  • msuster

    Yeah, URL shorteners have some downsides. But mostly pretty harmless. And some better sides have their own personalized shorteners (like NY Times) where you know more about where you're going.

  • msuster

    Great comments. Agree in entirety. Esp re: “how friends are born” That's awesome.

  • msuster

    I had friends who built integrations where if you Tweeted an @ sign and sent to Facebook it converted to your Facebook name. It's true that we need a better integration across namespaces

  • msuster


  • msuster

    My main point of contention is that Twitter hasn't more aggressively promoted third-party developers to monetize on their platform. I think if they did that the market would figure out how to make it a useful business and Twitter would secure it's place as platform of the future.

  • msuster

    Yes, for sure. That was in my original Twitter 101 outline. Agreed.

  • Christian Hudon

    I hope for their sake that Twitter's marketing department is reading this article. That's one of the best explanations for why people should be on Twitter that I've read. (Writing this as someone still not on Twitter… Planning on registering, but all the good usernames are taken now.)

    One other thing might help in terms of marketing is if Twitter dropped their strict 140 limit on messages. Because it seems to be the one thing that sticks in people's mind when they haven't used Twitter and don't know much about it. And it has nothing to do with why Twitter is successful. (Short messages, yes. 140 character ones, no.)

  • Alex Calic

    Mark- definitely agree with your post (as usual) but there still is a need/place for RSS or some type of capture/curate service (summify., etc.) to be able to review what content you missed. If I'm travelling, in meetings all day, etc. I fall back to my Google Reader to catch-up on the day's events. Thoughts?

  • bsiscovick

    Amen! I've been describing Twitter as 'the human curated newsfeed' since I joined two years ago (…).

    At the time of my blog post, I estimated receiving 75% of my news from Twitter. Today I would estimate it is closer to 90%. The power of Twitter in action.

    As for newbies to Twitter, companies like Sulia ( do a fantastic job intelligently distilling signal from noise on Twitter to present super relevant and focused content on just about any interest topic.

  • markslater

    agree totally mark but there in lies the paradox. when this whole thing started there were investors with bullhorns screaming to anyone who would listen that OPEN is the future. Let people in to your service VIA an API and let them create! Well that occurred and was a very big reason for the take up of twitter. But now they are faced with “eating their young” as people took their invitation and came up with innovative ways to make money.

    But what is the happy medium between “platform of the future” and “money maker”?

    my bet is – now that they have the scale that their app ecosystem in large part gave them – they start to canibalize the apps that occupy an area that they have hypothesized as a money maker – and leave the more benign outliers alone. they are doing this already.

    Its deeply flawed and comes from a strategic set of positioning errors made when someone convinced someone else about user count nirvana and they whored themselves out to the quickest path to achieve that.

  • Yogesh Ramesh Sharma

    Yet another really good post on Twitter & its uses. Beyond the theme (i.e. Easy infor sharing aspect of Twitter) I agree with you on some of the side-points you mentioned – Trending topics are meaningless & we as 'consumers'. It is by far the largest information source I have EVER used.

    IMO, you're a little too optimistic about 'Twitter as a discussion board' — non-threaded replies are a pain to walk through.

    & finally – I have never posted what I ate for lunch or how I spent my day playing basketball 😀 😀

  • kidmercury

    but if it can't sustain itself financially, then it will have difficulty financing its operations, and will be outperformed by competing services. users may wish to consider this, otherwise they will be crying like the delicious users.