Lots of people just Don't Get(tm) social networking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, and especially Twitter. On the face of it, Twitter doesn't seem to make much sense: 140 character updates. But those of us who use Twitter a lot (I'm @neal4d, BTW) know that it's much more than that. Twitter engenders so much puzzlement because it's so restrictive, but the restriction is the genius of Twitter.
In this and the next two blog entries, I'm going to explore why Twitter is a Good Thing(tm) and some surprising ways it can insinuate itself into a useful workstream. The first of these observations is around links.
Andrew McAfee of Harvard has done a lot of research on how social networking intersects with the enterprise (soon to be captured in a book I can't wait to read, Enterprise 2.0). I saw him talk recently about why social networking is a valuable resource left barren by most companies. He defines 3 kinds of social links: strong, weak, and potential, shown in a bulls-eye layout:
Your strong links are the people you see regularly, either at the office or during the normal course of your life. There's a good chance you know what these people had for lunch, or at least one of their meals in the last week. The next layer represents your weak links. These are people you see intermittently (perhaps once a year). They are your friends that you don't get to see on a regular basis (because of geography, for example). A good example for me is my friend Hadi Hariri, who lives in Malaga, Spain. He & I see each other perhaps once a year (generally at conferences) and always have good fun & conversation. It's this group that social networking sites support. This is a valuable link because you are more likely to get novel ideas from this group than from your strong group. Before social networks, how did you keep up with your weak links? The Christmas Letter, summarizing a year's events? You are wasting an important link if you can't reach out to your weak links sometimes. You see your strong group all the time, so they hold few surprises. However, your larger and more diverse weak links provide novelty. The potential links are those who you'll form weak & strong links with, but you haven't met them yet. You're also more likely to be introduced to a potential links through your weak links.
Twitter provides a strong connectivity to your weak link. Here's an example of how weak links can lead down interesting paths. I met someone at the erubycon conference last year who's a well known figure in the Rails world and subsequently started follow his Twitter feed. He had very recently gone vegan for health reasons, and he tweeted a reference to an astounding book called The China Study. I read this book (and several other referenced in it) and have since been strictly vegetarian, at least for the time being. It's worth reading: it lays out the case against animal protein in your diet, and backs up the claims with real science. It's a profound book, enough to convince me to change my eating habits. I don't know if I'll stay this way forever, but I've been there for about 6 weeks and it has been quite pleasant. He was very much a weak link; I would have a hard time spotting him in a room. Yet we share enough context in the Ruby community for me to use him as a source of ideas, which sometimes lead to interesting places. In this case, I wouldn't currently be vegetarian if it wasn't for Twitter.
Finding a good mechanism for maintaining weak links and finding (and exploring) potential links allows you to work smarter because you have a broader arena for ideation. The combination of links, constraint, and meme ooze make Twitter very useful to me. I explore these other two aspects in the next two installments.