What is Twitter?
Twitter is a social messaging service. It is free, and designed for sending and receiving short messages in real time. The messages (tweets) are limited to 140 characters. Communications on Twitter leverage common functions. Some common functions are the use of the @ symbol in front of a user name. This is used to primarily get another’s attention, direct message (DM) a user, and sometimes simply to associate with a particular user. A second, is the use of hashtags (#) in front of phrases. These are used to index keywords or topics. It allows people to easily follow topics they are interested in. Analytics are done on these phrases so that popular ones bubble up as “trending”. Users can also retweet messages that they find interesting. All three of these functions were organically driven by the early users of the service, and eventually incorporated into the platform itself; @ symbol to identify others, # to track topics, and the use of RT in front of a message to indicate a retweet.
Communication is enabled by users creating a profile, then following other users. Any messages tweeted by someone you follow will be sent to you via whatever Twitter client you are using. So, a user with multiple followers is really sending (and likely receiving) group messages. But the technology is not reciprocal, so anyone that you follow does not have to follow you. This is a one reason for the use of the @ symbol.
The platform has been characterized in other ways. It has been called a social network, and since it is based on profiles, connections and communications, this is arguable. It has also been called a micro-blogging service, and since it about information updates, albeit very small, this is arguable as well. But Twitter is really just an incredibly powerful and popular instant messaging medium. Originally, Twitter was imagined as a SMS-based communications method for friends to keep track of each other, based on status updates (like group texting). The 140 character limit actually came from the design to be a SMS mobile phone-based platform (140 characters was the phone carrier limit on SMS messages). Although the current web platform could easily exceed that limit, it has remained the boundary of the platform; this has been termed a “creative constraint”.
One important characteristic of Tweets is that they are, by default, public. This means that anyone on the platform can search, and read, and retweet, your posts. It is possible to use the DM feature noted above, but this severely limits the functionality and vision for the platform; you might as well simply text then. This point leads into the limitations discussions regarding Twitter.
Limitations of the Twitter platform:
As just noted, it is a public platform. As a public platform, anything that you post on the platform is available indefinitely, for anyone that wants to read it. This means that smart employers now have access to much more information on potential employees – which could be used for good and bad. What might be youthful exuberance to some, may be serious character flaws to others.
Another downside would be its 140 character limitation. I was not a Tweeter (ergo the title of the blog), but when I started experimenting with my first Tweets, I quickly ran into the constraint. For my Doctoral work, this is actually a healthy exercise, as “economy of words” is a necessary requirement for good writing. But 140 characters severely limits the messages that can be sent.
Many of these platforms have been proven to be quite powerful. Twitter is certainly one of them. It has provided a valuable platform for celebrities and politicians. But the public nature, and short message format has also facilitated digital spats that often resemble kindergartners hurling one-liners back and forth in a schoolyard. “My daddy is tougher than your daddy” could never be proved, but when the DIGITAL school bell rings, the peacemaking that was provided by the homeroom teacher comforts and protects nobody in the digital ether – which leads to the leadership question.
How might leaders use Twitter?
My position as a leader (I am a senior individual contributor versus manager) is mostly about influence. Leading without explicit authority is a greater measure of a good leader, rather than having an explicitly defined chain of command. Twitter would likely prove a good tool in that situation. I could communicate domain knowledge to followers, and promote them through the medium.
Reflecting on the use of the tool as a general leader would lead to a much longer blog than is allowed for these posts. We are living in a natural experiment, seeing the transformation that is occurring for, and to, leadership due to technologies such as Twitter. We see this with President Trump (as of tomorrow) leveraging the Twittersphere as a vehicle to communicate directly to the electorate. By my math, 10% of those who actually vote follow him (20.4 million). But the nature of the platform means that his tweets are likely seen by many more folks due to retweets (trolls or not). He is changing the way Presidents will communicate with their electorate.
But this is also a platform that transforms how leaders can interface, and interpret the world. A study from MIT noted that the Egyptian coup d’état of 2013 could be predicted by early Tweets, and the recent coup attempt in Turkey was averted (good or bad) by Twitter communications. For company leaders, it provides a new method to communicate with customers and market products, but an unlikely tool for internal leadership communications.
Web sources leveraged for this blog: