< The Point of Twitter


Friday, November 26, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: Sarah Palin uses Twitter to reach her peeps without mediation by the media filter. In the spring of 2009, the Moldovan Diaspora used Twitter to keep track of an incipient uprising in their capital. Justin Bieber used it to forge his path to a sweep at the American Music Awards. Twitter is currently the tenth most visited site on the Internet and is now so ubiquitous that comedians have stopped making fun of it the way they did way back in – 2009.


JON STEWART: This week, Twitter!

[DRUMBEAT/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] For the uninitiated, here's how Twitter works. I have no [BLEEP]-in’ idea.

[LAUGHTER] I have no idea how it works.

[LAUGHTER] Or why it is.


BOB GARFIELD: Well, that was then, when it seemed nonsensical for folks to interrupt their lives to transmit 140-character factoids and random banal thoughts to people who must interrupt their own lives to receive them. A year later, there are nearly 200 million Twitterers, about 20 million of them active ones, sending out more than two billion tweets per month. Last spring in New York City, some of them gathered at the 140 Character Conference to consider how all this chirping is changing their lives, and ours too. I went over there, mainly to find out if Twitter’s utility would ever translate into an ongoing business. But first, I wanted to check with this guy I know who is a very satisfied Twitter bug.

DAVID CARR: It’s a way that people use to make sense of a very complicated world.

BOB GARFIELD: David Carr, who covers media for The New York Times, says one advantage is keeping attuned to the things that others are keeping attuned to, the Zeitgeist, in other words.

DAVID CARR: Well, Zeitgeist plus information. It can get you ahead of the news cycle, which is a pretty handy thing when you’re a reporter. You know, things go up on Twitter frequently before they show up in the media.

BOB GARFIELD: Because even the vaunted 24-hour news cycle is slower than right now. Furthermore, Carr has often sent out a tweet asking if anybody knows anything about such-and-such and gathered sources - just like that. The brief annals of Twitter, in fact, are full of “just like thats.”

JEFF PULVER: When Haiti happened, my friend Ann Curry was down there reporting for NBC, and she had noticed that Doctors Without Borders had a plane that - with supplies and the U.S. Air Force wasn't, wasn’t letting it land.

BOB GARFIELD: Internet entrepreneur and Twitter evangelist Jeff Pulver hosts the 140 Character Conference.

JEFF PULVER: So she put out a tweet at U.S. Air Force, “Help Doctors without Borders land their plane.” I saw that, so I simply re-tweeted, “@U.S. Air Force, help Doctors without Borders land their plane.” Well -

BOB GARFIELD: You and your how many followers?

JEFF PULVER: Three hundred and fifty thousand, and the crazy thing was a minute after I tweeted it, the @U.S. Air Force tweets me back, “We’re on it.” I was like, mm, okay. When was the last time a [LAUGHS] government agency responded to you?

BOB GARFIELD: But by no means is Twitter just a headline service for earthquakes or revolutions. It’s also increasingly the world’s most expansive heads-up engine. As the blogosphere and YouTube and Facebook have long since discovered, people simply like to share. Consider Leigh Ferreira, a digital specialist for TED Conferences. She uses Twitter mainly to stay on top of technology news and the world at large and is discouraged that the trending topics of the most twittered subjects are extremely heavy on teen idols, sadly light on World Malaria Day.

LEIGH FERREIRA: Millions of people are dying from a disease that I think 20 dollars could save their lives. So why do people care more and tweet more about Justin Bieber than malaria? I don't know.

BOB GARFIELD: But then I asked her to tell me the subject of her most recent tweet.

LEIGH FERREIRA: We were just at lunch. We went for sushi, so I just tweeted that out.

BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, wait, you tweeted your sushi?

LEIGH FERREIRA: Yes. It was a sushi tweet.

BOB GARFIELD: I've got a question.

Who cares?

LEIGH FERREIRA: I don't know that anyone - cares. It just, it was a beautiful tray. We were having a fun lunch. We've been at the conference yesterday and today, so it just seemed like a fun thing - to tweet.

BOB GARFIELD: Hm, malaria angst and lunch orders - the terrible and the trivial. What do they have in common? Well, what they have in common is that they are variously in Ferreira’s thoughts, and sharing thoughts is something people do, fulfilling a primal human need for keeping in touch, even virtual touch, with other humans. Conference organizer, Jeff Pulver:

JEFF PULVER: When I was nine years old I was a very lonely person, and I – maybe I’m always lonely forever. But my - I went to my uncle’s office one day and he had this strange radio and he turned it on, and he says, “CQ, CQ, this is K2QQM calling CQ.” And all of a sudden these squeaky voices started responding to my uncle. And I thought, this is pretty cool [LAUGHS], that these strangers are now talking to my uncle. And I became obsessed between the time I was nine to about twelve and a half. I taught myself Morse Code, electronic theory, I taught myself the rules and regulations all about amateur radio. In high school, junior high school, I would spend 40, 60 hours a week on the radio. And that was my lifeline. That was where I connected. And all I had to say is I was Jeff from New York, and it didn't matter how old I was, it didn't matter what I did for a living. I had this. And now all these years later, 6 o'clock in the morning to 7 o'clock in the morning, every day, wherever I am in the world, I'm online. But instead of saying, CQ, CQ, I say, good morning. And a magical thing happens every day.

BOB GARFIELD: It sure does, totally free of charge, which is swell for everybody, except the venture capitalists bankrolling the magic. At some point, investors will need a return to keep those tweets flowing. At the moment, Twitter is generating a few bucks in two ways. One is by selling ads to pop up against relevant searches of the Twittersphere, a la Google. The other revenue stream is the so-called sponsored tweet, calling special attention to a sponsor’s voice lest it be drowned in the two billion tweets per month din. The goal: to be a cash cow in the same 10-billion-dollar pasture as Google Search. But, as Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research points out, Twitter had better get busy somehow because neither utility nor even ubiquity guarantees keeping the lights on.

JOSH BERNOFF: There’s only a limited supply of venture capital that’s willing to subsidize things that don't have any business model.


Maybe somebody needs to tweet not the U.S. Air Force but the Fortune 500: “Help yourself by helping us save Twitter now.”