How useful is Twitter?
I’ve been thinking about Twitter a lot recently — wondering if it’s any bloody good. It has certainly been receiving a lot of hype from some key people — Robert Scoble, Steve Rubel, Marshall Kirkpatrick — though they’re all techies.
For those who don’t know: Twitter is a microblogging service that particularly targets mobile but can also be viewed on your computer. It lets you post brief messages such as “Just took a dump — wiping”, to a network, or to the general public.
Beyond a test post, I have never used Twitter. I recently signed up but soon realised I didn’t want a stream of messages inundating my mobile phone and computer by the minute, and that I don’t feel the need to share brief and frequent messages to the masses.
Others do. Scoble in particular has been rabbiting on about how wonderful it is, particularly because it was such a grand source of information soon after the earthquake in northern California on Wednesday night. The information rolled in immediately, ‘reported’ by people around the region who apparently described the effects of the quake where they were. The government website, Scoble pointed out, didn’t have information about the quake up until minutes later.
All well and good. But let’s take a look at an example of some of the earthquake intelligence that rolled in via Brian McNitt’s Twitter stream.
Hardly enlightening stuff. Meanwhile, while the the government department laboured for tedious minutes to upload its information, it did provide very detailed and useful data, such as exact times, co-ordinates, depths, an indication of potential damage, and maps.
Scoble argued that Twitter could be a saviour in disaster situations by being able to quickly transmit information to mobile devices at crucial speed. Except, that is, if the mobile phone network happens to be down, or your phone isn’t working, or you can’t reach your phone because your arms are trapped under rubble…
And there’s the flotsam. As one astute commenter on Scoble’s blog said, “As long as people have to sift between ‘having a sandwich at Panera’ and ‘help help I’m stuck under a bus’, the system just isn’t going to help save lives.”
Scoble, who has a remarkably thin skin, quickly retorted: “Sifting through all the ‘what do you have for lunch’ stuff is VERY EASY and can be done WITHIN MINUTES.” But isn’t the chief advantage of Twitter that it would save those minutes in the first place?
My suspicion is that Twitter actually isn’t very useful at all. Okay, so tech bloggers who want to beat the pack might find it a useful source of news leads. But that’s hardly a huge crowd. And in disaster scenarios, will people really be turning to Twitter, or might they be more inclined to use the mobile’s quaint voice function in what could be their last moments?
For people who get kicks out of sharing short, inane messages, Twitter will be a fun way of keeping in touch with friends, family, and respected others. It might even be thought of as a toy. Trying to force it to fit a label any grander than that is, at least at this stage, a bit much.
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