All your Twitter are belong to us

All your Twitter are belong to us

No one can predict a hit, online even more so. For every internet startup that catches the wave of user-behaviour, there are hundreds that smash against the rocks of indifference. Success or failure is often beyond the control of the developers behind the original vision. How their idea is used and adapted by the masses may surprise and baffle them once it is released to the world.

When Twitter originally launched – with its question “what are you doing?” – no one, and certainly not the developers, understood how it would eventually be used by millions of people around the world. Twitter’s evolution from trivial micro-blogging platform to powerful communication and content-sharing tool goes far beyond the original concepts dreamed up in San Francisco. The mob took Twitter and moulded it into something they wanted to use, pooling ideas and creating new ways of working within the limitations of 140 characters, to build a flexible tool with huge implications.That isn’t to say the developers weren’t exceptionally clever in understanding how simple concepts are more valuable than complex ones, but that the potential was greater than the idea.

Giving control away

How many other supposedly hot online services slowly faded away, unloved and failing to capture that user imagination? Plurk failed to make a dent in Twitter’s market share purely because it wasn’t as adaptable to the desires of the users. Plurk was too rigid, preventing users from moulding and shaping their own behaviours. By straightjacketing users into a rigid timeline and forcing certain behaviours in order to get value from the service, Plurk pushed users away. Twitter ceded control to the user and won, Plurk was inflexible and lost.

Yet, there are still those trying to interpret the immense success of Twitter within the confines of that original vision, insisting that the value is in telling the world when you have a cup of coffee. The following video, circulated on YouTube, attempts to explain why Twitter is a useful tool for business without understanding how successful businesses have adapted that tool to achieve success.

It is a wonderfully constructed animation, but the script spectacularly misses the point. If a business decided the way to generate higher sales from customers was to know when they catch a taxi or are feeling under the weather, the business would be dead before long. The conversations that add value to a brand and generate growth and sales go a little deeper than what you are having for lunch. They offer value – whether by using links to great content, news and useful information or crowdsourcing opinion and generating feedback. Twitter is no longer about the question “What are you doing”, because the mob has turned it into something else.

Users worked out how to use hashtags to categorise tweets into an easily searchable form, enabling detailed conversation and an archive of discussion. Users developed retweeting behaviours that allowed influence and word of mouth to have a massive impact in reaching a wide audience. Users have shaped Twitter behaviour into a tool they can use, unencumbered by Twitter’s initial micro-blogging vision.

The plethora of Twitter applications and related web services demonstrates how users are bolting their own ideas onto Twitter. If Twitter doesn’t currently contain a feature, another developer will create a website or application that somehow creates that interaction — whether a link shortening service like tinyURL or highly flexible applications like Tweetdeck.

I am puzzled why Twitter inists on doggedly keeping the “What are you doing” question. If anything, it misrepresents the way most people use Twitter, encouraging a far more trivial idea of the potential within the service. Certainly, we all do sometimes tweet what we are watching or eating or where we are going – and that adds colour – but if that were all we did, would anyone really be interested? Tweets involving hashtags, @ replies, links and genuine information are far more influential – and therefore valuable – than any tweet about the average bus journey from Glebe to Balmain.

If that bus was hijacked or became the scene of a hilarious anecdote or prompted an insightful observation, then things might be different, but “On the bus – going to see Mum” is not going to change the world.

The mob has spoken. Twitter belongs to the masses, who took the concept further than could ever have been foreseen. The entire web belongs to the user – not corporations, businesses, developers or entrepreneurs. The web is a true democracy, where the users will collaborate and share to create the online environment they want to use. If your business model attempts to force behaviour and control content rather than ceding control to the user, expect to be another online has-been.


  1. Agree completely. Maybe “What will you share?” would be a better line than “What are you doing?”
    I use Twitter to share all kinds of info about myself and my writing as well as other people and their writing, and loads of other completely unrelated things that I find interesting.
    And you’re right – All your ARE belong to us.

  2. That should be “All your Twitter ARE belong to us”, obviously.