The Power of Twitter in Information Discovery

It surprises me how many really smart people I meet still doubt the power of Twitter.

It seems the urge to be a naysayer of Twitter is really strong for some. I think some of this stems from the early days of Twitter when it was presumed that it was a technology to tell people what you ate for lunch. Twitter never seemed to really take the offense in PR and marketing. I guess it wasn't in their DNA.

Right now the most important role to hire in Twitter would be a seasoned marketing professional who could proactively change the conversation about Twitter and educate people about its significance as an information sharing tool. They need a stronger campaign about consumption rather than sending Tweets. Consumption, consumption, consumption.

I've written extensively about Twitter's use cases, but it's biggest power is in information sharing.

1. First, A Primer: Portals, RSS, Feed Readers & Delicious - When the web started we needed directories to find information and thus Yahoo! was born. Actually, it was originally called "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web" (true story)--it was basically a way for newbies to find information that had been curated by experts. We went through portals to find information and thus those that ran the portals determined what we saw and were incredible valuable. They had a lock on "distribution" and were named AOL, Yahoo!, Excite, Netscape, and MSN.

When we found stuff we liked we "bookmarked" it so that we could come back to the website later. We visited portals or the handful of websites that we could remember. Then came RSS (Really Simple Syndication) widely credited to Dave Winer for driving the spec & adoption. The idea was that websites (think news, blogs) could push out a regular "feed" in an open, XML format that could be read by an RSS Reader otherwise known as a feed aggregator.

And the company that helped websites publish RSS? Feedburner, founded by now-Twitter-CEO Dick Costolo. As the standard gained popularity more people started "subscribing" to output of their favorite content--either as an email newsletter or as an XML feed into their RSS Reader such as Google Reader.

But this issue of "how to consistently find the good stuff" is such a hard problem. It's at the core of what Delicious was. As you traveled the web and found stuff you liked you could "bookmark" it (sound familiar) so that you could find it again. The delicious bookmarking was open so that anybody could see what you had bookmarked and commonly bookmarked things could rise to the top. That's why it was called "social bookmarking."

And because Delicious was bought by Yahoo! (a place where most innovation goes to die) the next round of innovation had to come from elsewhere--places like Instapaper, which is a beautiful service for ... bookmarking!

2. Twitter as Curated RSS--So what then is novel about Twitter? For all the people who tell me that they don't want to publish their status all the time I tell them that you get so much value out of Twitter even if you're just a "consumer" of information. As you know, Twitter restricts you to 140 characters so many people use it to publish links to other content. In the old days it was Jerry & David who curated our links--now it's anybody who YOU choose to curate your links. That's Twitter.

I still have my Google Reader and it brings me the news and content that I asked it to find. But on Twitter I have 609 people who send links out on a regular basis to articles that they find interesting or that they themselves wrote. I don't have to remember to log in to everybody's blogs--if I forget I see the best ones Tweeted and Retweeted on Twitter. In fact, one of my favorite things to do is to click on "Retweets by Others" and just see what things are getting retweeted a lot. It's serendipitous, "delicious" Twitter. It's way more valuable to me than "trending Tweets" which are mostly silly & meaningless.

So think about it--if I follow really smart people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests they tell me what to read. It's the ultimate "wisdom of the crowds." I find myself reading so many new sources of news than I had ever read in the past. I read all sorts of blogs that I never even knew existed. I pay attention to people I trust & respect and let them be my guides.

These people curate my content for me in the way that TechMeme does every day for tech news. Twitter curates even wider. Twitter is my curated RSS feed. It's how I widen my sources, widen my perspective and discover new people & topics. It's how I met Brian Sierakowski from the Greater Baltimore Tech Council who organized an entrepreneur lunch for me when I was passing through town last week. And how I met Tristan Walker as I chronicled in this post. It's how I met and became friends with Mike Duda, Keith Rabois (when he challenged me over Twitter that I was wrong about Facebook) and many others.

When I got in some public Wikileaks debates I was surprised that everybody didn't see the world the way I did. I've always respected Mike Alfred of BrightScope so I was surprised we didn't agree on the topic. I knew I must be missing something. I decided to understand the other side of the argument.

I didn't want to go to NYTimes, WaPo, HuffingtonPost or any other news site--I wanted to find out what my Twitter feed was telling me. I clicked on several links from people who didn't agree with me. Through this I really got to read both sides of the debate. I sent a DM to my friend Steve Raymond who always has better information sources than I do and asked what he was reading. He DM'd me back with an intellectual discussion of the issue. Ultimately I liked this short article from the Economist.

3. Twitter as a Generated of Back-Catalog Information - The other great thing about Twitter that isn't often talked about is its ability to surface up "back catalog" content. In the old publish & subscribe days of blogging people read your content when you wrote it and then it lay dormant until discovered by somebody performing a Google search. If they found it and read it things pretty much ended there.

Twitter resurfaces things and can drive old content viral. Tim Ferriss once read an old article that I had written about whether it's Time to Earn or Time to Learn and tweeted it. Suddenly I had thousands of people visiting a post I had written months before. In fact, every day when I look at ChartBeat I see old posts trending and can see a BackType link that somebody shared on Twitter.

Simply adding a Twitter share button on your blog or website can make your back catalog go viral.

4. Twitter & Real-Time Information--I think we all now know that Twitter serves up real-time information that is an order of magnitude quicker than traditional media. It's where I find out it when public figures die. It's where I find out the latest sports happenings (and I stay off it when I'm recording a game to watch later). It's where I found out that About.me was bought by AOL. In fact, it's where I find out about most M&A deals, most fund raising announcements, most airport delays, upcoming concerts and where all of my friends are traveling. Twitter is information discovery.

5. Twitter in Driving Application Distribution - Twitter has become the new source of driving viral adoption. Almost every application you see these days is trying to hook in Twitter as a viral feedback loop. Look at Quora. When you type in answers in Quora it not only pre populates a message to send to friends but it puts it into 140 characters or less and adds a short link. I now view more Quora messages through Twitter than through discovering them in Quora itself. Twitter has become application distribution.

Where do I find the most Instrgram pictures? Twitter. The most FourSquare check-ins? Twitter (people seem to mostly push their airport check-ins to Twitter and keep restaurants inside FourSquare). What reminds me that I haven't logged into NameSake in a few days? Twitter. Hackernews, new music, latest app I have to try: Twitter, Twitter, Twitter.

6. Twitter as a Discussion Board--And to those naysayers who don't want to post "what they ate for lunch"--I have to tell you just how valuable it is to be able to watch discussions on Twitter. While not always easy to see the entire thread of a conversation--I do often click to follow the whole Twitter conversation back-and-forth between two people. I get a sense for who are friends with each other. I find out when people disagree on a topic. I get a sense for what is being whispered around the water cooler. I dip in and out.

I'm not worried if I catch every last bit of information. The most beautiful thing about being a Twitter consumer to me is that just reading Twitter is now a new source of information and entertainment--even without clicking on the links. It is, in and of itself, news. And entertainment. When I'm stuck between meetings, at an airport, waiting for a movie to start--I pull out my mobile device and start flicking through the stream.

Reprinted from Both Sides of the Table

Mark Suster is a 2x entrepreneur who has gone to the Dark Side of VC. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a General Partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. Follow him at twitter.com/msuster.

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2 Comments

  • Tim Harrap

    Great post to overview the twittersphere. Working in the food sector I will say that all the messages of what people had for lunch IS a fantastic resource. Its through that channel you can see emerging trends or tranditional likes and dislikess. The opportunitiy for NPD is immense and legitimation for your ideas continues to be seen in real time to aid decisionmaking. Is that social media ROI or what? !!! :-)

  • Andrew Freedman

    Mark, thanks for the post.

    I look at Twitter as one of the many vehicles that provides me with a consistent (and searchable) flow of information. I can choose the types of connections and information that I find valuable (and much of what I find value in is the type of information that my community finds valuable- so I can help to give them what they need), and can turn the flow higher or lower at any time, as well as choose to let the information flow by.

    Interestingly enough, it seems that many non-adopters miss the point of letting others and the web do the work in creating, sending and even aggregating information - all people need to do is choose the filters, participate where needed, and decide when and how much of themselves they are prepared to give and share.

    Cheers,

    Andrew