Most of my readers (all 5 of you) know that I’ve been using Twitter for a while, as @ColenMcA. I signed up mostly so I could try and figure out what this thing was all about – why was everyone talking about twitter? What made it so interesting and cool?
(Dear me, I’m blogging about twitter. This must mean I’ve reached some higher level of nerdery.)
I’ve been on email, IRC, ICQ and MSN Messenger for over a decade, so the concept of communicating with other people over the internet isn’t exactly new to me. But this week, Twitter did a new round of financing, which apparently valued them at $1 billion (yes, billion with a b). Why isn’t IRC worth a billion dollars? Why isn’t MSN messenger worth a billion dollars?
This was all rather a mystery to me. However, today, I read this blog post by e-famous blogger Robert Scoble, a man who twitters and blogs a lot more than I do:
He suggests the following:
Right now I’m staring at an IV machine in the hospital room where our next son will be born. Why couldn’t a doctor Tweet that machine? Using a message that looks something like this:
@sequoia_iv_0451 set level to 1 pt per hour
That would change the drip rate on her machine to 1 pint per hour.
(I’ll ignore the obvious problems with this, such as “can the doctor actually operate a computer”, “what if he makes a typo”, “what if someone sends fake messages to the machine as a joke”, and “what if someone else looks at the twitter feed, thus violating doctor/patient confidentiality”.)
Now, I am totally cool with the idea of people electronically commanding machines. I want to be able to drink 13 double-vodka-and-lemonades at the bar, then message my car to come and pick me up and drive me home. I want to message my air conditioner to turn on before I get there, to cool my apartment down. I want to message my water heater to turn on in the morning, so that I can sit in a hot shower with a splitting headache.
But why Twitter, specifically? Were we mysteriously incapable of electronic communication before it existed? Why couldn’t the doctor have simply used MSN messenger, or IRC, or hell, even ICQ to contact the IV machine? We could have done that 10 years ago. (Imagine being in a hospital ward and hearing all the “uh-oh” noises as the IVs received their new instructions over ICQ, that would be AWESOME.)
Maybe the cool thing about twitter is that all you need is a web browser. You simply go to twitter.com, click in the textbox, and roll your face over the keyboard to send a message to everyone in the entire world. For better or for worse, it’s trivial for you to post something, and it’s trivial for someone else to see that post *instantly*, even if they know nothing about you. That is kinda cool.
But maybe it’s not just interesting because it’s accessible for users. What about software developers?
Let’s say I’m writing some piece of software that needs to communicate with other people, or even other pieces of software. I don’t want to write my own communications protocol, because I’m lazy, so I need to use someone else’s. What are my options?
- I could use a pre-existing instant messenging protocol like MSN Messenger or AIM, or even email. But IM protocols are pretty complicated at best, and anything involving email is going to get spammed to hell sooner or later. Not a good idea.
- I might set up my own web site and upload files to it with FTP. But then I have to manage the web site, and manage the files on it, and pay for web hosting, and ugh, too much like work.
- Or, I could send messages on twitter, by telling my program to visit a URL like “http://twitter.com/statuses/update.xml?user=bilbobaggins&pass=hobbitonrocks&status=OMW to Mordor w/ Sam and the Ring. Wish me luck, guys!”
Which of these is the average developer most likely to do? 90% of his/her day is spent consuming huge amounts of coffee, being screamed at by a manager about “why the HELL this application is late, you’d damn well better be working 100-hour weeks until it gets back on schedule, get this feature in NOW or so help me I’m going to downsize you”, and sending vindictive emails to QA about why the problem they found is a “feature”, not a bug, and so it doesn’t need to be fixed before they release, so GET OFF MY BACK, dammit.
Is John Developer going to implement some sort of horrendous IM protocol into his application? Is he going to spend an hour submitting an expense report for $25 so he can set up a web site, then write the code to upload files to it? Or is he simply going to write one line of code that visits a URL to post a message?
(Hell, based on the research I just did to make this post, I’m now thinking about ways I can use twitter in our own applications.)
So, twitter is easy for users, and it’s easy for developers. It all runs off a single web site, so there’s no need for any other infrastructure – just a working, low-bandwidth internet connection. If you want to do the simplest thing that works, you use twitter.
Perhaps that’s what makes it special – these days, anything that simple should be treasured.