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April 08, 2009


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I'll grant you most of this post except that "direct message" is the exact opposite of "opaque". It's a message that goes directly to another user. What more do you want?

Granted, I think this ties in with my own observation that much of the frustration and bewilderment surrounding Twitter comes (for better or worse) from people who have little or no experience with older forms of internet communication. In this case, "direct message" is borrowed from the terminology of message boards and chat rooms, some of which software allows users to communicate privately in a form similar to email but without having to divulge email addresses. This is exactly what the makers of Twitter have adopted here; except that they have imposed the ubiquitous character limit, it's a direct lift.

So, really, it's "private tweet" that would be opaque. To echo a thousand technophobic journalists, what the heck's a tweet? "Message" is an established part of the internet's vocabulary -- witness message boards and instant messaging, and users of MySpace and Facebook can send messages to one another as well. Twitter's proper context isn't just social media or networking; it's the whole spectrum of internet communications that came before it. Twitter simply infuses the new identity sensibility of social media into an older type of activity.

@jfount Your point is well taken. Speaking for myself, although I've been online since the early Pleistocene, I've had limited experience with chat rooms and bulletin boards. My understanding, however, is that Twitter was modeled on SMS (short message service) and texting, which accounts for the 140-character limit (allowing up to 20 characters for the Twitter "handle," to arrive at the SMS limit of 160). I have very limited experience with IM and texting, too, but I don't see why I should need to understand these legacy platforms and their lingo in order to understand and enjoy Twitter. Clearly, a lot of people are coming to Twitter as social-media virgins.

Two things I learned from interviews/articles:
1. Biz & Ev came up with the whole idea of Twitter when they noticed that people were being creative with their IM status messages -- instead of just "away" or "available," it might say "out getting sushi" or "cranking out this report" or "back at 3pm." That's why it's called "status," and also why it was originally meant to answer the question "What are you doing?" It's obviously grown way beyond that.
Biz & Ev never included the @ part in their original conception of Twitter. Users more versed in online chat life started implementing it on their own, so it was added later. (Same with hashtags, for the record.)

@Karen: Thanks for that very helpful background! For those of you not versed in Twitter lore, Biz (Stone) and Ev (Williams) are co-founders of Twitter; the third co-founder, Jack Dorsey, created Twitter while he was a student at Cornell. Biz's full name is Christopher Isaac Stone.

Just dropping in really, to say thanks for the link to my article and I hope people find it useful.

If you find one or two discrepancies between what it says and the quotes here, that's just because I've done a little editing to make the language more concise.

I think one of Twitter's practical problems has been that it's grown so unexpectedly fast and seems to be permanently on the edge of overload (or just over the edge, as evidenced by the Fail Whale). Result: all available effort has to go into keeping the servers functioning, and not nearly enough into making twitter.com more usable.

Thanks for explaining the wider usage of Twitter - I am one of the people who went to the web site expecting to want to sign up, and then after reading about how it's for telling my "friends and family" my "status", deciding, why bother. Now I know the real reasons people sign up!

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



I like how Laura Fitton says in her Webinar on Twitter [http://pistachioconsulting.com/twitter-for-business-101-webinar/], "Twitter is the stupidest application you’re ever going to see." Because it's true -- if you take Twitter's self-description at face value, it does sound eye-rollingly dumb. When I talk to people who know about Twitter but don't use it, inevitably their reason is some variation on "I don't care what a bunch of people are doing right now."

Of course, the name of the application itself doesn't help.

I notice that Tim is using the term "feed," which has been my tendency (influenced by blog feeds, I suppose), but I think "stream" is better.

To (mildly) defend the site's originators, probably the vocabulary made a lot more sense in their original conception of Twitter as, as noted, an expansion of something like IM status. It's an interesting issue ... if you create an application with one use in mind, but its user base sort of takes it over for something different than what you conceived, do you change the application to accommodate this? In shrink-wrapped software you do, but it's not so clear for Web-based applications, perhaps.

Brilliant insight, Nancy. You captured many grievances I hadn't articulated, but harbored.

That is exactly what i wanted to say. I googled "twitter language" in hopes to get more of an insight into the different tasks we can perform. I came across your blog and felt relief that I am not a total moron. The truth is, i am usually quite good at figuring out most websites but twitter - not so easy. Thanks for your perspective. Also you are a great writer... my new twitter page is @storyexperiment. Would love it if you could follow it. Every week, we will make a new story, 1 comment at a time. Would love to have you involved!

Twitter's original "what are you doing now" focus does seem to have gotten last somewhere. I notice they've shortened their slogan to "what are you doing" and I predict they'll eventually drop even this part. Maybe they should call it "Twitter: We have no clue what it's for, but everyone's using it!"

I'm very interested in the use of language on Twitter and other microblogging services. You might be interested in checking out FillUs.in - http://fillus.in (disclaimer: I'm the developer of this service).

It's a microblogging service like Twitter, with a twist: instead of typing in complete sentences, you just fill in the blanks in answer to a couple of questions. I'm interested in recapturing the "what are you doing now" purpose, but in a more focused way, with specific questions about things you might be doing now.

Most of the comments cover what I myself would have said. One thing to add: Tivo once suffered from this exact same problem. "Why do I need Tivo when I have a VCR?!" Look at it now!

Really I agree with you completely, and you're exactly right about the need for Twitter to fix its language.

People think that this stuff doesn't matter, but I've noticed when I'm in a foreign country I all of a sudden don't know whether to push or pull the door to open because the little sign that tells me (many doors have them!) does not register in my subconscious.

Why oh why after so many books have been written and we've gone through so much Internet failure do companies still get it wrong?! I would love to study this, and perhaps some day shall.

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