Social Networks for Short Attention Spans?

Twitter, Pownce, and several other companies stand out as riders of the latest web 2.0 trend: microblogging. When coupled with other features, microblogging connects users in more ways than regular blogging or even instant messaging. If this is the social network of the future, what does it mean for you and your business?

The epitome of the company that’s all about microblogging is Twitter. Launched in March 2006, Twitter has been described as part blog, part social networking site and part cell phone/IM tool. Users typically answer the question “What are you doing?” in posts that are limited to 140 characters. These “tweets” can either go out to everyone or be sent as private messages. When they go out to everyone, they appear on Twitter’s web site in reverse chronological order, with the most recent posts first.

There are certain features that make Twitter more useful. You can make friends with users and follow their posts, rather like an RSS feed. You can send Twitter posts with your cell phone using its text messaging feature; you can also send them via instant message. And a convention has arisen of using the “at” sign and a user’s name to direct a comment to a particular person, to make conversations at least a little more possible.

Once you have at least one friend on Twitter, the home page for your own account shows not only your tweets, but also the tweets of your friends. You can still access the page that shows all tweets, of course, but the one that shows only your own friends is a little more personal; it’s more focused, and presumably easier to hold a conversation. There are tools for Twitter that let users add Twitter functionality to their desktops, add location information to tweets, and so on. More tools are probably in the works, since Twitter publishes its API.

Still, why would someone want to use an application that lets them announce to the world what they had for breakfast? Believe it or not, several researchers have already written a paper on the subject. “Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging” analyzed two months of Twitter data (1,348,543 posts from 76,177 unique users) ending May 30, 2007. The authors included researchers from the University of Maryland and NEC Laboratories America. While some of their discoveries were not surprising, others suggest interesting uses for the application.

The researchers discovered that users with similar intentions often connect with each other. That’s pretty normal for any social network. They also found that most of the posts on Twitter dealt with what users were currently doing – the daily, routine stuff. But about a fifth of users carried out some kind of conversation with the aid of the application, and these messages made up about an eighth of the tweets studied.

About 13 percent of tweets included URLs. Apparently Twitterers like to share cool sites and information that they find online. To make the most of the 140 character limit on tweets, most posters used TinyURL or some other URL shortening service. Continuing with the information sharing theme, some users like to Twitter about news, either reporting it or just commenting on it. There are even automated agents posting news items – weather reports and other information from RSS feeds.

Now that we have a better feeling for why people use Twitter, let’s take a quick look at the types of Twitter users. The paper broke them into three categories. The first is an information source. This kind of user has a large number of people who follow their posts. They may be frequent or infrequent posters; they may even be automated tools! But their posts are always valuable.

The second type of user is a friend. Friends may be of varying types of closeness, and there are many different sub-categories of friends, including family and co-workers. Finally, the third type of Twitter user is an information seeker. This is someone who posts only rarely, but follows a number of other users regularly.

The authors concluded that Twitter is somewhat useful the way it is now, but it could benefit from additional features. The ones they mentioned included the ability to categorize friends into groups and more features to allow greater sharing between users. It sounds like they would like to see Twitter turn into more of a social network – which brings us to Pownce.

Pownce went live in late July. It is the latest baby of Kevin Rose, the man behind Digg. The big difference between Twitter and Pownce is that Pownce allows its users to share files. Another important difference between the two services is that Pownce can only be tried by those with an invitation. So you have to wait for an invitation from a friend, or request an invitation through Pownce’s home page.

Stan Schroeder, a self-confessed IM junkie, noted that Pownce’s killer feature is the way you can divvy up your friends and decide who receives information. “Send files to one person, everyone, or a group of people – we’ve been waiting for this feature for all our online lives,” he says in a review for Mashable. In addition to this flexibility, Pownce has other great features: themes to liven up your profile, good filtering options for your messages, and a desktop-based version of the application.

In a New York Times article about Pownce, Jason Pontin noted that the service might raise the hackles of media companies. Because users can carefully calibrate the people to whom they send files – including copyrighted files such as songs and film clips – “File sharing on Pownce would be difficult to police,” according to Pontin.

If so, then media companies have a lot to worry about, because Pownce is hardly the only company offering this kind of service. Not long after Pownce came on the scene, Plaxo began offering Pulse. Up until early August, Plaxo was a simple address and calendar organizer site with several million users. Now Plaxo’s users can share more than just address information.

One reviewer described Pulse as “one part microblogging platform and one part RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader.” It doesn’t quite work the same way as Pownce, in that you can’t directly share (send) files or event invitations. You have a set of friends, and based on what they publish online and how they choose to share it, their new activity shows up in the Pulse tab of your Plaxo account. Plaxo users that want to share their online activity with their friends need to tell the company where they are posting and how they want to share their posts.

You’re probably wondering how this is relevant to your SEO efforts. Well, social networking – when harnessed correctly – has been one of the tools in an SEO’s bag of tricks for quite some time now. Therefore, any change in the social networking landscape, or mutation to its form, is of interest. But there may be more going on than meets the eye.

David Berlind recently wrote a piece for ZDNet about the “Twitterization” of mainstream media. He saw firsthand how many magazines gave way to their online versions when they ceased to be profitable, and how the Internet turned into “a way to deliver blogged content to our audience members any way they like it – as text, still images, audio (podcasted or streamed), and/or video.” He sees Twitter, Pownce, and similar services as the next wave.

That’s all well and good, but what exactly does he mean by this? Berlind compares Twitter to blogging, in the sense that blogging made it easier for lots of people to publish content on the web without having to be computer programmers or even technologically savvy. He then explained how investors subscribe to services offered by Bloomberg or Reuters that give them one-line bits of news that are of interest to them. “In other words, if there is a reporter at a financial briefing for some public company and an executive of that company makes an important forward looking statement, that statement will appear on the consoles of thousands of investors within seconds of it being uttered,” Berlind elaborated.

How hard would it be for a savvy Twitter user – or a bunch of them – to start publishing “useful, timely, and material information” that investors might choose to follow as RSS feeds in the same way that they follow these subscription-only services? Before you say that this is absurd, consider the fact that bloggers have stolen a march on more traditional media more than once. For content producers, especially old media, this means being prepared to repackage your content so that it fits into a one-liner format.

It could be something as simple as a teaser for an article with a URL to the full piece. Or if you have an item that is too short to turn into a full article, you could sum it up as a one-liner and send it out to interested people as a sort of feed through Twitter or some other service. Any reporter gets far more press releases through email than he or she can use. Microblogging can be a way to capitalize on these items that would otherwise be lost. It’s another opportunity to give your audience the kind of content they want, and keep them engaged with your brand.

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