Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Last year, I wrote a post explaining what Twitter is and how it might be applied in museums. At the time, I was a Twitter non-participant, a lurker on the edges. Now, a year later, I’m using Twitter on a daily basis, and it’s brought up some new observations about participation on websites and in interactive venues like museums.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, Twitter is a service that allows you to send messages of 140 characters in length to a set of people (“followers”) who self-elect to receive your messages (“tweets”). A year ago, I wrote about the potential of Twitter as a platform-agnostic service; you can send and receive tweets on the web, on your phone as text messages, on instant message clients, and on a variety of downloadable applications (like Twitterific, which I use for the Mac). Each person with an account on Twitter effectively has two social networks—your outgoing set of followers (people who receive your tweets) and your incoming set of tweets from the people you follow.
Twitter is often categorized as “micro-blogging,” and for the haiku experts among us, you could post very short blog entries via Twitter. If you want to report live from an event or speech, you can use Twitter to send out individual chunks of information, a string of mini-pearls of insights and reactions. When I previously wrote about Twitter, that was the extent of my knowledge. I thought that Twitter was for broadcasting—a different but related kind of broadcasting from blogging. But now that I’m a Twitter user, I realize that Twitter is not (mostly) about broadcasting. It’s about conversations. If a blog is a lecture with a q&a session at the end, Twitter is a cocktail party, a stream of interrelated one-liners and repartees.
Consider, for example, this blog. It is not a cocktail party. I’d love Museum 2.0 to be a more participatory site with comment streams rampantly debating each post topic, but the reality is that my voice dominates the site. Each week, about 1,500 unique people visit Museum 2.0 and post an average of five comments. That’s lousy participation! If I told you I'd created a participatory website in which 0.3% of visitors add their own content, you'd probably send me to a dictionary to look up "participatory."
But this comment rate is typical for a blog. The format (I write a lot, you get to respond at the end) is a standard push content model. I read lots of blogs and very rarely add comments. My guess is that most of you come here to read content, not to get into a lively conversation. For some people, commenting on blogs is scary; for others, it's just not a compelling way to engage. For some, it's technically inconvenient: if you’re one of the folks who read this blog via email or RSS feed, you don’t even have easy access to the comments—either as a reader or a contributor (but please, do click through to the site when the spirit moves you to read and participate in the comments).
Twitter is different. On Twitter, I have 54 followers—1/30th of Museum 2.0’s weekly readership. And yet when I send a quick question out on Twitter, I often receive five responses immediately from different sources. On Twitter, my own content production trend is inverted--I more frequently respond to others' tweets than post my own. On this blog, I'm the voice of authority (albeit a non-traditional one). On Twitter, I'm one voice among many.
Thus for some institutions, Twitter may be a better choice than blogging. If your goal is to create an online space that encourages visitor participation, a blog with a 0.3% rate of visitor content production is probably not a good choice. Twitter is a hybrid broadcast/communication platform--part blog, part instant messaging system. It's more discussion-oriented than social networks because there isn't the other content (video, photos, profiles) to get in the way. In short, Twitter provides opportunities for genuine conversations with visitors.
What makes Twitter a conversational space? How can the aspects that make Twitter work be applied to other participatory efforts? Some thoughts on what makes Twitter tick...
There is no dividing line between producers and consumers. On a blog, users have clear roles: someone writes the posts, and someone else reads (and potentially comments on) them. On Twitter, everyone is a Twitterer. You may follow lots of people and rarely tweet, but very few people sign up as pure followers and never tweet themselves. It's like signing up for a social network--the expectation is that you will build your profile and then use it to link to others. Even if you sign up for Twitter in the beginning as a lurker, you quickly can get hooked into participating, just as some people get hooked on updating their Facebook status (which, incidentally, you can do from Twitter). This lack of a line also applies to authorities--I admit it gave me a thrill to know that Obama (via some 20 year old lackey, probably) is one of my followers. It's the same frivolous pleasure that comes from "friending" the City Museum on Facebook. It's a party where no cliques are closed.
The limits on expression level the playing field. In a world where everyone only gets 140 characters in which to express oneself, the trivial and the profound are on roughly equal footing. This brevity encourages the timid to participate and limits the long-winded from crowding the stage.
You are broadcasting to a network, not an audience. When you send a tweet, you know exactly which individuals are receiving it (your followers). This social knowledge makes people more comfortable tweeting personal content and observations. Blog producers are always looking outward towards a larger future audience. Twitterers are speaking to a known group, and may have more respect, familiarity, and interest in them. It's a party of friends and acquaintances, not an auditorium of strangers.
You get immediate feedback. When I send a tweet, I get responses within minutes. When I see someone's tweet of interest, I respond immediately. The short format makes it easy to feel comfortable just dashing something off--no email signature necessary. There are negatives to this; while a person may comment on a blog post months after it was created, tweets have a short lifespan. If you make a witty remark at the party and your friends were turned the other way, it dies. But when it sparks, the energy and chatter swells.
You can spend as much time as you like. If your institution starts a blog, you need a blogging strategy which hopefully includes frequent, high-quality posts. That can be hours of work each week. Twitter is not as professional a broadcast medium, and it's acceptable to use it intermittently (as the Obama campaign does) or inconsistently (flurries of tweets followed by low activity). While it's important to grow your following/follower network to have impact, the focus is more on attracting and engaging with people than producing content. Be a lively party guest and you don't have to host the shindig to command some attention.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Twitter. Not everyone wants a round-the-clock party running on their desktop full of guests announcing lunch plans and their new favorite web tool. But it's another tool in the spectrum of participatory web experiences, something worth understanding and putting in context alongside social networks and blogs. And it's one of the easier ones to get started with if you want to test the waters. If you've got your dancing shoes on, sign up and join the party. Open invite--BYO Insights.
Oh, and add a comment here sometime. We'd love to hear your thoughts.