Using Twitter to value online information

I have recently noticed an interesting trend among the people I follow on Twitter. It appears that my network is dividing itself neatly into 2 camps: those who care deeply about the content they publish, and those who use it more casually. Let me explain…

Saying “good night” to everyone you know

Twitter users who casually update their status without thinking about it too much continuously say things like “Yep,” “Good night tweeple,” and “Banging my head against the desk.” Cryptic information that can be quite difficult to figure out. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just clear that some people view Twitter as a broadcast medium mainly meant for people they know in the real world, and that’s fine (I tend to think that’s what Facebook is for, but let’s not split hairs about this).

I’m also not suggesting that all tweets should be serious — the odd random or exasperated update can be interesting, enlightening, and often very funny, and it also shows that there’s a real person at the other end. I do follow a lot of these casual users, but I know all of them personally so their updates are meaningful to me. And of course there is always the option to stop following someone, so you only have yourself to blame for the content you receive on Twitter.

But then there are those who care a lot about what they say…

Sharing content via Twitter

People who care see Twitter not just as an outlet for random thoughts, but also a valuable tool to learn and share and expand their knowledge about issues they care about. I follow a bunch of people who clearly care about the content they put on Twitter, and it adds enormous value to my work life and personal life (people like @jontyfisher, @adamnash, @SmithInAfrica, and @TheONECampain, just to name a small and diverse subset of folks).

Sharing interesting information on Twitter makes you a good citizen of the web for a very important reason. It allows the best content to rise to the top. What makes content sharing on Twitter powerful is that humans are involved, not just technology. The difference between going through your RSS feeds and learning about something through your Twitter network is that on Twitter, someone read the content and decided that it is good enough to share. And if you follow people with similar interests, chances are you will find it interesting too. As Justin Basini (@justinbasini) put it in a recent post: “Twitter users aggregate, edit, filter and share better than any technology.”

But what if the content isn’t interesting to anyone else? Well, then it will just die in the constant stream of tweets that go by every day. If the content is good, it will be retweeted, and spread rapidly not just through your own network but the networks of others.

In sociology the phenomenon of information spreading through multiple networks is known as The strength of weak ties. In a 1973 paper, Mark Granovetter developed his theory of weak ties. The theory states that because a person with strong ties in a network more or less knows what the other people in the network know (e.g. in close friendships or within your closely-guarded Facebook network), the effective spread of information relies on the weak ties between people in separate networks.

And this is of course one of the main strengths of Twitter — that not all connections have to be mutual (when you follow someone they don’t have to follow you back, like on Facebook). In other words, retweeting allows information to jump from one tightly-knit network to the next, allowing for the rapid spread of valuable information throughout the entire network, not just your own.

A new way to value information on the web

There are still a lot of people who feel that Twitter is a waste of time and adds no value. That might be true for them, but I think we are seeing a very interesting phenomenon here, and that is a new way to value information on the web and separate what’s worthy of reading from what’s not.

RSS feeds allow us to see content we might be interested in (but not every article will be good). Digg and similar services allow us to see what other people find interesting. But only Twitter puts those features together and lets us see content that people with similar interests than ours find valuable. And there is real power in that.

Oh, and you can follow me on Twitter if you’d like.