Twitter is dead. Long live the microblog!

by Jon Thompson on April 4, 2009

TwitterYesterday I referred to Twitter as a bloated, rotting corpse.  Ok, now that’s a bit over the top but more and more Twitter has begun to mean less and less to me.  Perhaps a better analogy is to an overripe fruit that will soon burst spewing forth it’s seeds far and wide.

I think Twitter is an absolutely genius application that has reshaped the communication terrain.  However, Twitter offers limited fare for those of us in the aid community.  Aside from the military and perhaps a few members of the intelligence community there are not many people who are as security conscious as we are.  We share close to nothing and anyone who thinks they are going to open up the flood gates and get us to all join in some sort of communication love in are utterly lost.  It will never happen.  Also, aside from being somewhat paranoid we are hyper competitive and sharing all sorts of information will simply hasten our own demise.

I have a Twitter account and each day I attract new followers.  I am thrilled that someone wants to read what I have to write but I have to admit that they are probably really just looking for a nugget of humanitarian news to supplement the more mainstream fare.  One thing I have noticed is that most of my followers are interested in humanitarian issues but don’t actually hail from the humanitarian community.  There is some overlap but more or less my audience are caring listeners according to their bios.  That is all well and good but a bit disheartening when I realize that my Tweets might just fade into the landscape rather than be picked up and recycled for the greater good of the active humanitarian community.

By feeding Twitter we are creating one of the largest databases of searchable material the world has ever known.  Just think how you can parse that data and track trends!  News agencies are clearly the big winners here hence Rick Sanchez constantly pumping his Twitter link on CNN.  Now it seems Google wants to buy all that info for some unholy amount of money and according to TechCrunch the two are in late stage talks.  I don’t have a problem feeding the Twitter machine as long as it feeds me back and while I have found a few crumbs to peck at I don’t feel very full.

One reason for this is that as a result of our paranoia we tend to lock valuable data out of the mainstream and cycle it only within the organizational email structure.  Our constant planning and staging runs at a frenetic, break-neck pace until someone forgets to hit Reply All and the conversation is lost.  When I first started looking at what lay below the surface of Twitter (see links below) I noticed that while the concept was sound it didn’t hold a lot for our agencies.  We would never accede to having our data pumped through someone elses server unless it was for demonstration purposes.  So, naturally, Twitter had a limited life cycle for us and it was only matter of time before we crawled back into our nest of emails, Skype calls and Excel spreadsheets.

Now, with Laconica rising and iPhone apps like Nambu and Nokia apps like Gravity beginning to be pumped out by developers I think it is only a matter of time before the tinder ignites and microblogs light up the communications structures of some of the worlds largest aid organizations.  By running microblogs within their walled gardens that can reach out to every handset aid agencies are going to level their own playing fields and will soon enjoy an information flow like none they’ve ever experienced before.

Obviously this concept is not going to get much free advertising since the people who stand to lose the most are the harvesters like CNN and Google but some outfits are beginning to churn out stories about the benefits of in-house microblogs.  Certainly, Google doesn’t want to see this data go under the radar but since they already have so much do they really need ours as well?  God knows we don’t want our conversations floating out there in the public domain.

While one of the greatest strengths of the microblogs are their ability to reach out to the field level there are limitations as to just how far they can reach.  While we live and breathe data services in the US and here in Italy the same cannot be said for all of Africa.  However, during my last trip to Indo in 2007 almost everywhere you went there was substantial data coverage and as my coworker commented just yesterday the data coverage is often better in Uganda than it is elsewhere.  As data networks continue to spring up around the globe our reach constantly expands and consequently the argument for establishing and expanding organizational microblogs grows.  The early adopters of this technology will be the clear winners and since most of the tools are free and open source there is very little standing in their way.

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April 8, 2009 at 6:49 am

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