microblogging

You know something’s hit the mainstream when Phillip Schofield mentions it on This Morning. But Twitter‘s apparent overnight success took the best part of three years.

A prototype of the microblogging and social networking tool was built in two weeks in March 2006 and was launched publicly that August. A programmer called Jack Dorsey came up with the idea when he was writing software that provided realtime status updates for taxi companies. Twitter eventually became a company in May 2007. It’s estimated that over 1.78 million people are now signed up to the service, compared to just 100,000 a year ago. The company last year turned down a $500 million buyout offer from Facebook.

Its genius is in its simplicity. Users are able to publish messages of 140 characters or less via the web or mobile phones. Collectively, these form a microblog, such as this one from Zeta. Messages – or ‘tweets’ – are read by ‘followers’, who subscribe to your posts and have them delivered to their own Twitter homepage.

The result is a stream of updates on everything from what someone’s doing for lunch to the fact that they’ve just been elected US president.

Twitter may be the best-known microblogging tool but it’s far from being the only one. Facebook’s status updates and wall posts make unwitting microbloggers out of its users. Its recent redesign was a direct response to the growth of Twitter.

Tumblelogs such as tumblr and Soup extend the short-form format to include multimedia content. Yonkly is aimed at users who want to create niche microblogs. Plurk provides a quirky, timeline-based aesthetic. And Yammer, which won last year’s TechCrunch50, is specifically designed to provide an internal microblogging tool for businesses.

With email becoming an increasing burden on people’s time, microblogging offers a compelling business communication solution. “Web 2.0 evangelists… say it can facilitate an open-ended corporate culture that values transparency, collaboration and innovation,” says Forbes.com. “Most important, it can be an effective way to build a customer-centric organisation that not only communicates authentically but also listens to customers and learns from that interaction.”

A tool such as Twitter is ideal for following news on a specific topic or for asking questions of your peers. Meanwhile, being able to update your status on the move benefits employees who need to keep in regular contact with one another: a single text can generate an update that is immediately fed to an entire group of co-workers. With the wealth of access points that microblogs offer – from Firefox add-ons to iPhone applications – it’s an elegant way to keep people connected, irrespective of time zones or technology.

The business-focused Yammer allows companies to host the software themselves but this is the exception, not the rule. Most microblogging services live in the cloud, with all the benefits – and problems – that entails. Twitter, for instance, has grown so rapidly that its servers frequently keel over, resulting in the familiar Fail Whale screen.

It’s also worth considering that microblogging is, essentially, an extremely accessible form of publishing and that your posts can appear in Google search results and across the web. It’s something that this Twitter user resolutely failed to remember, with the result that it cost him his job. There’s also the risk that, if not managed correctly, microblogging serves only to add to your digital clutter – not reduce it.

For many of us, microblogs still have the novelty value of the latest web-based cultural phenomenon. But, like email, tools such as Twitter are destined to become a central part of our working lives. Even if you do use them to update colleagues on your lunch plans.

Coming soon to www.zeta.net: an exclusive interview with Yammer CEO David Sacks

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