Why Twitter Works

In the past three years Twitter has moved from a side community of technology focused people into the mainstream. Now there is Twitter hash tags presented as a part of the opening credits of television shows. This style of engaged public discussion is beyond what the more powerful competitors in Google and Facebook have achieved, and it is interesting to understand why.

To understand why Twitter works so well as a social engagement tool, it is first important to dissect what the service is and how it works. Those functions can each be examined individually. The outcome is to better understand how Twitter has been able to lead public discourse, so as to better affect a strategy of engagement over the network.

Twitter: a low definition message

Twitter is, in essence, a very low definition signal. It is only now starting to include media and other forms of content, but those are embedded in the tweet, rather than the tweet itself. This contrasts to Facebook or Google+, its main competitors, whose messages can carry much more information per message.

The simplicity of the Tweet is its very power. Twitter requires relatively low amounts of engagement per tweet. The individual tweets are limited in size and contain highly digestible amounts of information. The delivery method of these messages means that more individual messages can be consumed for a given time than where the 140 character constraint isn’t in place. The visual format that Twitter uses makes the messages very easy to scan.

A collection of conventions of use

On top of this simple message, some conventions were built. Most of these conventions are organic structures that were built and adopted by the community rather than implemented by Twitter. This is important, as they are not software solutions but rather tricks with the text – making them much more robust.

The two major conventions are the @username way of denoting identity, and the #hashtag for creating a common subject stream.

Usernames mean all people can converse

These conventions made it much easier to search and scan for the object required. The early Twitter software did not actually make these kinds of links, so they were added through these symbols. Later they became search queries and gradually became more of the software experience.

They are both very important to why Twitter works well. The Facebook way of adding names to messages is built into the software. When typing a name, Facebook starts to place people from your contact list that match that name in the message. However, those people are within your contact list.

In Twitter, you can refer to any Twitter user by typing their username after the ‘@’ symbol. This is really important as it makes the discussion much more interesting now that there are identities involved. People can actually make contact beyond their personal social group.

The hash tag brings the subject together

The hash tag is also very interesting. In this convention, the subject of the message is accentuated by precluding it with a hash symbol (#). This is a very clean solution that allows some of the sophisticated networking of ideas to actually take place. The common tag in tweets means that one search can bring up a live stream of global consciousness on the subject.

This is how Twitter has become a useful social media tool during various civil protest movements. It provides that important subject threading, but as the hashtag is so simple, it is really easy to invoke on all sorts of devices.

How this relates to marketing

If marketing is the delivery of a message, understanding the reasons why these two features work is interesting. Twitter became popular because it is relatively easy to post, to read a large amount of posts on, and to link between people and subjects. Marketers have to understand how to make their message genuinely fit within those parameters in order to best take advantage of this popular medium.