140 Characters – Random Thoughts on Twitter

1. SMS
140 characters limit starts with SMS.

My first encounter with SMS was at Beijing, China, 2006. Sister was visiting China a few months earlier. She loved the SMS experience so much that she bought a cheap Nokia GMS phone and told me to use it when i was there.  After she returned to the States, she tried very hard to figure out a way to SMS Chinese back to her friends in the Mainland from the US. But it didn’t work. (even today, we still can’t SMS Chinese from ATT to T-Mobile, US Carriers are so awful!)

SMS in Chinese totally rocks! Not only that everyone there SMS each other (cuz SMS is so much cheaper than a voice call, you rarely hear people yapping on their cell in public like in the US. Instead everyone was heads down doing the finger dance on the phone), but also the fact that you could pack in so much more information in 140 Chinese characters than in 140 English characters. It also helps that cellphone coverage is truly ubiquitous in China, no matter how remote you are, you are bound to have cell coverage, very unlike our experience with ATT here in the US.

I remember visiting the forbidden palace on a snowy day. Maybe because of the bad weather, the enormous palace ground was mostly desolate, hardly any visitors in sight. It was such a rarity to find oneself all alone in a place so famous! I Texted a friend in Shanghai about the atmospheric experience as i was wondering from empty courtyard to empty courtyard. She texted back her agreement that winter time is the most romantic to visit Northern China; while the south is much better during Spring time. The texting experience made that trip a lot more interesting because i could have a real time discussion with someone who was not physically present but totally understood how i felt.

Later when i met up with a friend of my sister, she showed me some SMS she saved, the ones my sister sent her while she were in Beijing during previous summer. Some were beautifully written, some were hilarious. Together they added another dimension to sister’s trip. It was like pieces of jewels in the form of words. The best part about SMS was they were spontaneous, and you often get real time response/reactions from the recipients. And the convenience of sending one SMS to a group of friends made it even more interesting.

Organizing group outings, which is almost a daily event in beijing, is also incredibly easy with SMS. Instead of yelling at your cellphone to give the address of a place 15 times, you just text it to everyone needs to be there. Piece of cake.

When i got back to the US, the SMS favor sorta just died. I couldn’t convince any of my friends or family to pay more money for SMS service. They all thought why not just pick up the phone and call? And SMS in English is not quite the same either. The ROI is drastically lower because you couldn’t pack in as many meaning to 140 characters. Also the fact most people don’t use public transportation cut down the time you really can use SMS. Because it is harder to type a msg while driving. and when you are not driving, you often have access to a computer, where you could Email or IM.

Later when i heard of twitter, my first reaction was, ah, that’s like public SMS.Since i can’t convince my friends/family to join SMS, twitter is also out of the question.

2. small groups of think-alike vs. the masses
i read about Jason Byrne’s ah-ha moments on twitter(http://isaa.ch/1b). One of his major points was revolved around getting to know a small group of people who has similar taste. he is worried that as subscription size grow, that intimacy and dynamic will be lost. a trendy place can remain trendy only when it is relatively less known. once your granny heard of it and started going, then it is no longer cool.

i knew exactly what he meant, because i have already experienced the full cycle of elation to disappointment on a different site, where i joined during its initial launch, met quite a few like minded people from all kinds of geo/profession, the percentage of high quality people was really astonishing. What’s more, most of them were content creators, and they generated interesting/original content. then the word got out, the site became popular, the average quality of people dropped, most of these new comers were pure consumers. Dilution of people’s quality and interests changed the dynamic, most of the old-timers remained subscribers, except they are now less active, and become consumers too. The only difference is whenever they do create something, they are still of higher quality than the masses. It is a pity that somehow facing the massive incoming consumers made originally active creators dormant.

I don’t think this is a unique problem to twitter. All the web 2.0 sites face the same issue. I wonder if there is a way to keep these small active group’s spirit intact within a massive popular site, kinda like keeping a small community/neighborhood intact within a metropolitan. Both are hard problems that currently dont’ seem to present a solution.

In the physical city, once a neighborhood becomes interesting, say after a group of artists moved in, yuppies will follow and the housing price rise and the original artists got priced out while they were the ones who made the place interesting in the first place. i.e. Gentrification.

On the web, it is not housing price that forced out the original voices. It was more like the “noise” or the “clutter” of less-interesting voices that silenced people.

3. Local news
This is what i find Twitter so unique: “Real Time Search-Twitter FTW“. It is a new form of media platform for the masses to report news around them. Things that major news outlets aren’t interested, and local news outlet doesn’t have enough bandwidth to cover 24/7.

That’s also why i think of twitter less like a social platform.