What are we doing when we Twitter?

I came across a post by J.P. Rangaswami, whose blog I quite like, and he was talking about Twitter and what he gets out of it. You can read the full post, but in essence he says that he gets something different from the people he follows on Twitter than he does by following them through Facebook feeds or through blog RSS feeds and other methods.

The example he uses is a link that Halley Suitt posted to Twitter (I’m sorry, but I refuse to say “tweeted”), which led him to an interesting article at The New Yorker. At first, this seemed like kind of a dumb example to me — couldn’t Halley have just emailed him the link, or posted it to her blog? But the more I thought about it, the more it confirmed something about Twitter and why it works (and sometimes doesn’t work), and in part it has to do with what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties.”

This reminds me of David Weinberger’s “small pieces, loosely joined” principle, and I think the idea is the same: information can flow in different ways through weak links, such as the kind Twitter encourages, and different things happen as a result. Maybe Halley Suitt wouldn’t have emailed that New Yorker link to JP because it didn’t seem important enough, or she doesn’t know him well enough (I don’t know); and maybe she wouldn’t blog it because it didn’t seem worth a blog post.

But posting it to Twitter gives it a kind of life, and exposes it to a whole range of people who might not otherwise have seen it. It’s not a cure for cancer, I will admit — but that’s still something. Some people I follow on Twitter may not be “friends” in the strictest sense, but they are still people I want to remain connected to in some way, even loosely. Dan York has a great list of the different ways Twitter can be used here.

To me, Twitter is just another example of what I think is becoming a continuum of communication on the Web. Sometimes the things we are doing or thinking are worth an email, sometimes maybe just a quick instant message chat, sometimes it’s worth a Twitter post, sometimes a blog post, and sometimes a Facebook status update. Twitter is also an interesting form of group chat/micro-blog, as was noted in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination and other news events.

Yes, Twitter can be a big waste of time, as Scott Karp noted in a recent post (my response at the time is here). But then, as more than one person has noted, the Internet can be a big waste of time too. And yes, I have had to turn off notifications for certain people I follow on Twitter — no offense, Scoble — and others post a few too many personal details for my liking. But I think we’re still finding out how to use some of these tools, and there are going to be different methods for different people.

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