A couple of weeks ago, Mark Drapeau wrote a post that alleged that Twitter was not a tool for conversation, but for broadcast. It’s a provocative point, and is clearly false. Twitter isn’t a very good medium for extended conversation – but it’s obviously used for both conversation and broadcast.
The article uses statistics about the number of posts per Twitter account to infer that most Twitter activity is publishing. This isn’t a good interpretation of the facts for a couple of reasons. The low number of posts per account is almost surely evidence of a high rate of “dabbler” use. People sign up for Twitter, look around, and go away. The data about number of posts per account doesn’t say anything about people who are active on Twitter but use it primarily to consume content produced by others. There isn’t any evidence about the relative ratio of reading vs writing.
The second misreading relies on the Pareto principle – the highest volume of posts comes from a few people. This is true but irrelevant. Let’s say CNN has a service that publishes 100 updates per day on news stories. And two people have a conversation consisting of 5 posts each. These are two different, valid use cases. The existence of high-volume broadcast messages doesn’t somehow negate the fact that some people are talking to each other.
Direct evidence that that Twitter is conversation can be seen in Tweet Tweet Retweet a research paper by danah boyd and fellow researchers studying the use of Twitter. According to the paper, “36% of tweets mention a user in the form ‘@user’; 86% of tweets with @user begin with @user and are presumably a directed @reply.” The data uses on “a random sample of 720,000 tweets captured at 5-minute intervals from the public timeline over the period 1/26/09-6/13/09 using the Twitter API. This sample includes tweets from 437,708 unique users.” Another study with over 1 million tweets shows the same pattern – 39% tweets have an @user mention and 19% contain questions. (Thanks, Juan Carlos Muriente, founder of )
That looks like conclusive proof of the conversational use of Twitter. This surely dovetails with my own experience. In the last week, I’ve had conversations on distributed social networks, music, and Bay Area public transit. In these conversations I learned new information, met new people, shared ideas, and set the stage for follow-on activity. Twitter works for conversation, and the open nature of twitter sparks conversations that might not occur otherwise. It is true that Twitter is a not a good medium for in-depth, extended conversations. Messages are restricted to 140 characters. There isn’t visible threading (although thread info is kept in the data, allowing for threaded views such as Tweetboard.) The richest conversations sparked by Twitter often take place on Friendfeed, where replies are threaded in FriendFeed.
Twitter is good for short, fun and/or productive conversations that bring in often-unexpected relevant people through the social network. Deeper conversation and deeper collaboration need to segue into other modes. The next frontier for development, being pushed in different ways Google Wave,Citability, and other tools and concepts, will be means to connect shorter, real-time conversations with more in depth conversation and collaboration.