First published: Mar 27, 2009, 9:26pm MDT
Last edited: Aug 18, 2009, 4:40pm MDT

I finally figured out Twitter

Update: oh man:

Initially, I was planning on delaying posting this article until I wrote the tool I describe near the bottom. Then I realized that neither would ever happen, and so I decided I should cut my losses and just post the article.

If you’re like me, you keep hearing about Twitter. Also, if you’re like me, you’re reading this and thinking “oh, no, not another thing to read about Twitter.” Even more, if you’re like how I was earlier this week, you’d be thinking “great, JT has sold out now, too.”

It’s true, I think I’ve figured it out. And it involved a paradigm shift in how I think about it.

For the entire history of Twitter, my attitude has been “stay off my lawn!” Here’s a product that is solely devoted to 140 character status updates? Worthless. And they can’t keep it running? Freaking amateur hour. What a joke. Like, I don’t get it. The status that I have up there already is my status. Why would I want to change it? There is this huge psychological barrier preventing me from changing my status. It’s my status, it didn’t change. It’s how I’m feeling. Furthermore, what a bunch of noise following other people’s statuses. I just didn’t get why this is cool. Why in the world would I want my status to be a “retweet” of someone else’s?

Well, this week, I decided this was no longer something to take lightly. Since my job is dependent on my ability to learn new technology and adapt quickly, I started to get concerned about how I was just not getting it, and I needed to figure it out. I’ve had a Twitter account since April 2007. I’ve had 7 updates since then. It just wasn’t interesting to me. But that’s two years of me not getting an (evidently) groundbreaking new communication medium. Uh oh. Is this just a personality thing? I mean, clearly I’m not getting something; John Mayer chose Twitter over Jennifer Aniston.1 Somehow some engineer figured out the magical, albeit totally confusing, formula to appeal to the rest of the social world? Maybe extroverts like updating their status? Maybe the impermanence of the Twitter status has some allure to others that I find lacking?

It turns out, the trick is that Twitter is not a status update website. I mean, it may have been initially, but it’s been co-opted for something altogether entirely different.

Twitter is the world’s largest chatroom.

Imagine for a minute that you have a chatroom interface. On the bottom is where you type your messages. The main area is where you can see things you’ve said, and what others have said. Pretty standard. On the right, though, is traditionally a list of users in the room, and you can see the messages that any of them type in your main message box. This does not scale to the size of the internet. Imagine being in a crowded room and everyone had a microphone connected to the speaker system. Yeah, that doesn’t work with auditoriums full of people. Or internets.

Instead, in large rooms, typically there is a sphere of communication to which you are privy. Loud people you can hear from far away, and most of your friends are all sort of clustered around you. You can hear things some other people say, and some people can hear what you say. But not everyone can hear everyone.

This is Twitter. Same chat room interface, but instead of just a list of everyone in the room, there’s two lists: people you can hear, and people who can hear you. Want to take something you heard and make sure everyone who can hear you heard it? That’s a retweet. The things you say? Those are your twitter statuses. Your followers? People who can hear you. The people you follow? People you can hear. It’s a perfect analogy, and the perfect way to design a large scale chatroom.

Except Twitter isn’t perfect. They designed it for what I initially thought it was for, though everyone uses it for this other thing. So it’s slow. It gets overwhelmed. There’s much higher latency than a typical chatroom. And, as far as I know, no one has actually made the interface I’ve described.

So, I think my next project will be this Twitter interface, and who knows, maybe I’ll start using Twitter. It shouldn’t be too hard, just some Javascript on top of Twitter APIs. Further down the road, a better idea would be to design a better-Twitter: an internet scale chatroom like the one Twitter is being used for, only designed for that purpose.

So, now that I get it, I might not be so crusty and curmudgeonly about current uses of Twitter. Yay.

1. Not entirely true. I mean, it looked over anyway. John wasn’t interested.

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