Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trying the Twitter Ticker Tape

I've been experimenting with Twitter.

As best I can tell, the experience is similar to the old days when people watched ticker tape machines, only the data is about your friends' lives, rather than stock prices.

The process is similar. It starts with a symbol (user name) followed by a brief update (140 characters or less). It's somewhat interesting to watch any live data feed, but it doesn't take too long before you realize it's a fairly stupid waste of time.

Back when I was a kid, First National Bank (now Trustmark) had a ticker tape machine in their lobby. It was pretty interesting to watch the machine work, but even as a kid I noticed that most of the people watching it were old men who were probably retired and didn't have a lot else to do.

I suspect the benefit most people get from Twitter is not the reading of other posts, but whatever psychological boost they get from entering their own posts.

People are social animals. We spend our entire lives trying to create and maintain our desired position in society. Since Twitter only allows you to post short bursts of data, I suspected people might use it to try and broadcast their social status, and after watching it for a few weeks, that's exactly what I found.

Mary is a Mommy. Tom is a politician. Alecia is a struggling actress. Bob is a sports fan. I follow them on Twitter and when I read their posts, they're almost entirely devoted to broadcasting and maintaining these memes. Mary is picking up the boys at soccer. Tom is driving to Biloxi for a speech. Alecia is getting dressed for an audition. Bob is excited about the Yankee's new short-stop.

So great is this need to maintain the illusion of status, that we probably really do derive some benefit from broadcasting our status out into cyberspace, even if nobody ever reads it. If you ever do take the time to read the posts, it seems pretty natural because we've spent our whole lives receiving this exact type of information in a thousand different ways.

We create a kind of social map in our heads and we use this data to locate our friends and acquaintances on the map so we'll always know where they are in relation to us. It's particularly helpful for competitive types who use the map to determine their social position amongst the other people competing for similar spots.

Another interesting thing I discovered about Twitter is that nobody seems to know how they do now or how they plan on making money in the future. Since their site has no ads and it's a free service, they appear to have no income, and when bloggers and other writers speculate on how they might be making money, they're pretty quick to deny the speculation.

It may be that at this stage of the game, Twitter has no plan to make money. A common business model on the web seems to be coming up with a neat idea and building a large user base, then trying to figure out how to make money off it. That's exactly what Facebook and Google did.

That's how newspapers started too. In the beginning they didn't charge for the papers or take advertising. After people got used to reading newspapers and desiring more of them, the people printing the papers realized they had to make some money off them to continue so they began selling advertising space and charging subscription fees.

If you're thinking of trying Twitter, let me warn you about using it with your handheld devices. Most services charge a fee for data transfers and a lot of new Twitter users report some sticker shock when they get their first month's bill for using twitter on their Iphone or Crackberry. Twitter swears they're not getting a piece of that money, and they're probably telling the truth, but, boy, you gotta think Verision and Cingular and the other cellular services are loving twitter since the rates they charge for data transfers amounts to something like 5000% percent gross profit.

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