These days, the most popular question I get asked is "What is Twitter good for?"
It's been asked by clients, colleagues, and friends alike, usually right after someone has taken the five minutes required to sign up for Twitter and start poking around. And it's a perfectly valid question, especially since on its face, Twitter doesn't seem like much. There's not a heck of a lot to it -- a bunch of people posting seemingly random, quick thoughts that sort of disappear into the internet ether.
The common currency in Twitter is followers, which can make the whole thing seem narcissistic and dumb, and therefore easily dismissed.
When I first encountered Twitter, I didn't get it either. Mentally, I filed it under a new category in my social media taxonomy that I decided to call "microblogging" and dismissed it as something for people who were too busy to blog. I relegated it to the role of updating my Facebook status and moved on to more interesting things.
As Twitter grew, though, a new paradigm emerged. (Yes, I hate the word "paradigm" too, but I couldn't find another word for "new way of understanding things.") I started to recognize Twitter's true value when I stopped thinking about it as a microblogging service and started thinking about it as a huge driver of the real-time web.
Twitter is about what is going on that very minute -- what people think about something they just experienced or are about to. It's about everything that happens before Google indexes and organizes information. In fact, it's when I learned to think of the internet landscape in terms of the real-time web versus everything else that I started to really understand Twitter's true impact.
The usual paradigm involves the deployment of content to web pages, followed by a process of organizing the information within that content by Google and others. The process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on a variety of technical and semantic factors. The real-time web, to which Twitter is a significant contributor, exists within the time period between right now and the time Google organizes information and makes it easily findable.
With all the emphasis that has been placed on new marketing methods that are largely dependent on leveraging groundswells of activity around products, brands, and ideas, marketers need to understand what is going on right now.
By way of example, if I deploy a clever new ad campaign that I hope will enjoy some viral success, I can't afford to wait until Google indexes new content to find out how well I'm doing. I need to look at what's going on right now, in order to gauge what sort of commentary the ads are generating. Seeing a tweet posted an hour ago that says "Saw the new Acme ads. Hilarious stuff..." is more valuable to me than seeing an in-depth blog post from two weeks ago about the true meaning of the Acme ads. The real-time data are more actionable.
So Twitter gives us a peek into what's taking up mindshare, just as things are making an impact on us. That's valuable, especially in a world where enthusiasm for a product or a brand can build or wane in the space of a few hours or days. Google left a wide opening, and Twitter and its real-time web compatriots filled it.