Why Twitter Matters

It’s quite common for me to hear people grump: “Twitter is so stupid – I don’t care what flavor of Latte someone is drinking RIGHT NOW.” The grumpers inevitably go on to add their disdain for the amount of time people spend on Facebook, and how crazy kids are to post pictures of themselves on MySpace. Yep, Yep, and Yep, I reply.

But there is much more to the story, and those of us from the pre-text generation (we use phones to talk, not text!) would do ourselves a favor to see where things are going, what good can be found, and why it all matters.

First off, an apologia – I don’t care about people’s latte flavor either. I don’t care about much of what comes across my social networks. But I’m committed to the baby, and I’m learning how to efficiently deal with the bath water. This isn’t much different than a newspaper though, is it? Does anyone read a whole newspaper anymore. Heck, does anyone read a newspaper at all anymore?!? No, we skim the headlines and read the interesting bits. Sites like Facebook do that one better – they have the option to Hide content you don’t want to read. I have Facebook “friends” who are actually just high school buddies that I haven’t seen for years. I have no qualms against “hiding” their daily (hourly!) posts about how long the line is at the bank.

But what good comes from all this stuff anyway? I’m going to skip all the obvious stuff – catching up with old friends, staying connected, yada, yada. What about the cool stuff going on!??! Here’s a scattering of ways that social networking is impacting real life and business…

Kogi – This is a “virtual” restaurant in the L.A. area. They serve Korean fusion food from a group of taco trucks – that are deployed through Twitter. They tweet where they’re going to be and at what time, and a loyal following is waiting when they arrive. On the other side, if there are a bunch of hungry people at some sort of gathering, like a street fair, the Kogi folks pick up on the temporary emerging market by following their fan’s tweets, and get a truck over there.

Facebook vs. Simon Cowell – It’s a recent British tradition that the winner of X-Factor TV show(similar to American Idol) handily wins the coveted spot of #1 single during the Christmas season. Some kid on Facebook decided that he was sick of the X Factor telling him what to listen to, and started a group on Facebook to stop it. He asked people to join the cause and purchase a (7 year old) song from the group Rage Against the Machine. Within a week or two, over 500,000 copies of the song had been purchased, knocking the X Factor guy into second place. Cost: $0.00, Impact: over half a million participants, Time: weeks. And this wasn’t all about something as visible as Haiti relief, it was about someone finding something that people felt strongly about, and giving them an opportunity to jump in and impact the world (in a small way).

Google Flu – Google is in a unique position of being able to determine, right now, what’s going on. And while they’ve been able to parlay that knowledge into some serious dinero ($1.9 Billion in profits in Q4 of 2009 – yes, that’s “B” billion, and “p” for profit!), they also do some good with it. Google tracks searches for “tamiflu”, “aches”, oh, and probably “flu”, and maps those searches by location (which they can determine from a variety of methods). Out pops a map of pockets of people seeking flu related information. I heard an interview that observed that the US Centers for Disease Control takes advantage of Google Flu Trends to anticipate where the next outbreak of flu will be, since Google typically knows a week before they do. Yipes!

Earthquake tracking – While Google is looking for flu, the US Geological Survey is looking for earthquakes…on Twitter. It costs A LOT of money to put seismological sensors all over the country in places that aren’t susceptible to being fooled by human influences (big trucks, fireworks, etc). But within minutes of an earthquake, Twitter lights up with people reporting their experience. The USGS uses this data to very quickly map out the extent of an earthquake’s impact and to help locate the epicenter. Sure it’s still experimental, but it’s off the hook cool.

And that’s just a sampling, and there’s surely more to come. In this morning’s paper there was an<a href="http://www.mercurynews.com/search/ci_14242473?IADID=Search-www.mercurynews.com-www.mercurynews.com“> article about a team at Microsoft trying to do real-time search: not looking at stale indexed web pages, but sifting through live, dynamic social media feeds for up-to-the-second search. A month or two back there was talk of Google buying Twitter to achieve the same goal.

Yes, much of what goes across these social networks is mundane crap. But there’s also some gold in all that dirt – if you know how to look.

And since I’m sure you’re dying to know, while I typed this I was enjoying a refreshing tangerine Italian Soda, mmmmmm.