Why Twitter maybe at the vanguard of a tectonic shift?

Updated Aug 15, 2009 10 PM – Here is a recent techmemed post that contemplates some similar ideas about Twitter.

Updated May 16, 2009 6:15PM – Mark Cuban says most of his traffic is now coming from Twitter/Facebook and less and less from Google!


We restarted this series in my previous post.  First, Nancy Dixon, a top expert in Organizational Learning has a brilliant post on the history of KM.  Hal Sperlich will be proud of this – 619,284.5 Miles on a 1971 Mustang and still going strong. Sean Platt has a great post on Creative Inspiration. SP Rajeshwaran has a great post on being a Code Monkey .  Brilliant article on what goes on inside a baby’s brain by Jonah Lehrer in the Boston Globe.


I have been on Twitter for the past 1.5 years and I have been smitten. Given my interest in social technologies, i have been thinking about why Twitter is an important development. There have been several rah rah posts about Twitter recently, but i am not satisfied with the inferences.  Like all series starter posts i have done in the past, this post has some thoughts from me to get the community started. I promise to analyze and publish the wisdom of the community, as always.


To really understand the power of something, i believe that we should delve into the history a bit. There have been several perspectives of the Web including the highly popular 1.0/2.0 view.  In my view, that classification does not help us understand the Twitter phenomenon adequately.

Therefore, i decided to categorize the web into 3 eras as captured by the diagram below:


In the first Algorithmic Era, most of the focus was on using algorithms to tame the web, Google’s brilliant citations-based (or incoming links-based) algorithm being the chief amongst them.

Then came the Crowd Era, which saw the launch of several crowd platforms like Digg, Flickr, Youtube etc. which allowed us to use the crowds to make sense of the web content as well as to add fresh content.  I included Blogs also in this era because it is very difficult to tame the massive base of 40+ million blogs.  Though bloggers do have an identity, the massive size of the blogosphere reduced bloggers to a crowd [Inside the firewall, we have managed to create a powerful community using blogs  which is difficult to do on the internet due to the crowd effect].  Even the highly popular Wikipedia is a crowd phenomenon – you still don’t have an easy means to understand who the top contributors are, their reputation etc.

In the next era, which i decided to call the Community Era, we have 2 major categories – Facebook, Linkedin, Orkut  etc in what i would term a closed category and Twitter in an entirely new open category. The open category i think models the real world better and that is why it is very powerful.

Three Real World Parallels

1. Asynchronous Friending

If you look at Facebook or Orkut (i use both of them), you need to friend someone first and only then can you exchange anything.  In fact, Facebook won’t even allow you to look at someone’s profile before friending them.  Whereas on Twitter, you can follow anyone and if they like they can follow you back  and if they don’t like you at all, they can block you.  The twitter model is more akin to what we do in the real world.

2. Fine-grained Relationships Dominate

In the real world, all of us participate in many communities  – our neighborhood, our relatives, our coworkers etc.  We have relationships in these communities of varying degrees of strength.  Most relationships are built over time based on a number of fine-grained interactions (low amount of time per interaction) over time – meetings, get-togethers, parties, games, religious/social gatherings etc.  We also have coarse-grained (high amount of time per interaction)  interactions with a few people like our immediate coworkers, supervisors, immediate family/close friends  & close relatives. But most of our network growth comes from the fine-grained relationships. You can analogize a tweet to a fine-grained interaction with your followers.  Additionally, a tweet is very simple and consumes little effort. This is why using blogs or youtube or flickr to build networks is harder because to produce a good blog post or a good photo or a good video takes significantly more effort.  Additionally, the followers also need more effort to appreciate a blog post or a photo or a video.  The problem with Facebook or Orkut or Linkedin is the lack of a tweet-like simple fine-grained interaction mode (although lately Facebook has been copying twitter heavily).

2. Asymmetric relationships

In the real world also, we have asymmetric relationships – the strength of the relationship with someone that we perceive maybe different from the strength of the relationship perceived by that someone.

To make some sense of a large number of relationships – Orkut allows you to grade the relationships. But that is not how we do it in the real world –  our perception of the strength of the relationship is subconscious and is based on perceived quality of  interactions and the frequency of interactions we have.

In Twitter, you can do the same thing, the Twitterers you interact with subconsciously grow on you over time, which could lead to a mutually rewarding relationship. In most

Are there other ways in which Twitter resembles real world community-building?


Do you agree that Twitter marks a fundamental tectonic shift? If  so, what impact is it going to have on the web?  That is what i am trying to contemplate. I have some thoughts. Look forward to yours. I would also like your views on Facebook, Linkedin, Orkut etc.


  1. Quote

    Excellent post Sukumar

    Great theory about relationships and social media. Your coarse-grained Vs fine-grained relationship can be translated to inner circle Vs outer circle of people to us. For outer circle of people, Twitter/orkut/facebook are the gift to this mankind to keep in touch. When i visit india i feel some distance with someone who is outer to me because i may not meet them for 5 years or so, but nowadays i don’t feel that way, because we regularly interact with tweeter and i knew all the happening in his/her world. I believe facebook and orkut kinda become fat client for social media but tweeter is light weight for social media, great open API to anybody can use it.

    I seen a History channel program “200 years after”, a stimulated graphical program that explains what will happen to Sears tower, and other marvelous wonders of this world after 200 years, that triggers me what will happen to Twitter, facebook and orkut etc after 20 years. Actually i imagine a “telephone concept” that is you can contact any body (at least 80% of population ??) thru telephone line if you know the number. The same going to happen for web 2.0 social media, if you know a screen name you can locate anybody in this world thru twitter/facebook/orkut. It is going to be a interesting time.


  2. Quote

    Thanks Subba. Orkut/Facebook/Linkedin do serve that outer circle purpose you mention. That is a great way to think about it. I have also found some long lost friends through that.

    But Twitter is the one i believe is better suited to building new relationships. You are right the simplicity of it is a big factor and the easy to use API being another.

  3. Quote
    Arvind said May 14, 2009, 10:28 pm:

    Interesting analysis Sukumar! I am new to twitter…..But i think there is something more that is refreshing here….the simplicity of the application and the simplicity of the end product….I dont have to do anything other than type in a few words……in fact this is the ONLY thing that I have to do….I can choose which links to open and read…..I need not do loads of things like checking out a dozen new updates in half a dozen categories like in orkut/linkedin/facebook…..I think thats very focussed attention in twitter being given on the primary objective……no games..no diversions….

    Freedom is another thing…..I cant wait to try out the limitless possibilities in this single but powerful aspect of twitter…..somehow I get the feeling that we are at the doorway of the next big revolution…..something probably related to RSS feeds……

  4. Quote
    Ganesh said May 14, 2009, 10:46 pm:


    I am a recent user of twitter, and to be candid, I do not see much value in it for me – atleast not yet. As other enlightened folks have said, it seems to be a glorified text messaging platform with broadcast capability instead of peer-peer texting. It is also not conversational, but rather interrupt driven.

    I also do not see value in how some folks have used it in terms of giving a minute to minute of their daily life – sort of a real-time diary of their life.

    It does provide networking facility and perhaps a starting point for a friendship that should then be handled offline.

    Just my gut thoughts at this point in time. Could change as I use it more.


  5. Quote

    Thanks Arvind. Yes, the freedom & simplicity are major factors in the success of twitter. I am trying to look at it at a more fundamental level about relationships, communities, crowds etc which have not been brought out in the discourse about Twitter so far.

  6. Quote

    Thanks. This is exactly the same thing, i thought about blogging because in the initial days it was also more about what you had for lunch or what your cat had for lunch etc. Later it turned out to be one of the major communication revolutions.

    I think Twitter represents a fundamental shift as i said above.

    You are right Twitter would be a starting point for a relationship which can be strengthened using some other channels. You can also continue to build your relationship using twitter itself.

    The fact that it is not conversational (it is optionally when you use the @ replies or a DM) is a key strength. I don’t see it as interrupt driven at all. Why do you say that?

    I dive into my twitter stream, whenever i have time, see what is going on, react to things i find interesting and go away. So, i see it as the opposite completely based on free will. I would characterize email as interrupt driven because it forces you to respond. Here you don’t need to. You can ignore other’s tweets to your heart’s content (that won’t win you friends, but if that is not your objective, why bother?).

  7. Quote

    Great point Sukumar. Couple of months ago when Basket ball trade deadline approached, lot of players openly tweets about their stance on trade agreements and player’s likes and dislikes, as a fan we got the real thought process of player but some old style media criticized it. Any way players wants to touch with fans directly, just imagine what would happen if players communicate thru a agent, agent might come a top expensive TV channel and say “XYZ really like to play for ABC but due to some family issue he is not interested to move east”. The same message tweeted by player “damn man…i’m not kinda player to play with that sucker dominated team”. Nowadays everybody likes candid comments and candid stance on any issue. So i disagree with Ganesh’s points. But i hope Ganash might change his points after he really use Twitter more.

    One more example is, a regular hard core tweeter got a job offer from well known Bay Area company, as a sudden reaction he tweets ” f*** i got a job offer from XYZ(note he didn’t mask the company name) but who is gonna pay my weekly commute from (his state) to Bay area, i reject” then after couple weeks he got a higher offer with his job location was closest to his home. As you said we are maturing,flexible enough to understand other’s emotions and if possible we adjust something for them. For those kinda of communications Twitter is best.

  8. Quote

    Great post Sukumar.

    Twitter has changed the way I think of relationships. Before, to ask for any general advice I would consult people around me. Now the first thing I do is go to Twitter and ask for suggestions and I am guaranteed that I will get a reply within 10-15 minutes right from sharing my personal life to getting suggestions on technology.

    Also a great place to form “communities”. Like I felt the power of Twitter the most during the Mumbai attacks when almost everyone “became a community” angered by the attacks.

    In orkut/facebook I do not get a feel of the day-to-day life of a person. Whereas on twitter, when I read about the day-to-day life of people, I feel much closer to them. Esp following people you admire (like a famous blogger or entrepreneur) and reading their tweets on a day to day basis is a great joy.

    Right now, I am moving to a new city and the first thing that came to my mind is to follow “tweeps” from the new city so that I can form a friends circle even before I go to a new place.

  9. Quote

    This time I tried not to read other comments before I put my thoughts. So, you may find another comment from me after I get the collective knowledge.

    First of all, brilliant model capture Sukumar.

    To understand Twitter’s impact from Social Networking POV, we may have to keep it isolated and not compare with anything else. But I have to for some too obvious points.

    First, it is community driven platform which changed it’s course from what the creators originally intended to let your network know “What are you doing?” Today when I analyze all my messages less than 5% of those I follow have that answer. It is more like a statement/ expression of thought in a simple manner. In my opinion Twitter is more like an SMS where as anything else can be compared with Email.

    Next it has personal touch, any body from the Presidento to a student can feel approachable and put their thought. If they choose to, they can even follow their fan. If the follower is interesting, you can unfollow in the most impersonal manner. Their lack of notifying if someone unfollows is a classic move.

    Then comes it’s viral nature. Re-Tweeting can be equivalent of Word Of Mouth publicity. One of the cheapest and effective forms of communication.

    Next, it’s model has money written all over it. Being an open platform, it allows businesses to interject their message along with your message where the scope for cheap and effective ad space is enormous. So that drives the media like publishing houses and TV to adapt it and give the push it deserves.

    Of course, I like it better than all other social sites. I am still struggling to understand Facebook phenomenon. Orkut seemed to me more natural for my taste than Facebook. Twitter, once I build my community, I am addicted. You hit on the nail regarding lots of fine grained interactions make up the relationship. This is a very original thought. Awesome.

    Some more after I read our community comments

  10. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 15, 2009, 11:06 pm:

    Thanks Subba. Those are excellent examples. Great point about Candor. Candor is also an aspect of sharing some of your personality which can help you build relationships. Of course, you should not over do it, because it can come across as self-absorbed.

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 15, 2009, 11:08 pm:

    Thanks Saraswathi. You put it very well – forming communities. Yes, it is a joy to watch what smart people are doing. Best of luck with your move to a new city.

  12. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 15, 2009, 11:14 pm:

    Thanks for the kind words Vamsi. You have brought out 3 important points –

    1. because it is simple, the community has evolved many uses for it – this is crucial and sets it apart from Facebook, where there is a certain type of control being exerted which is preventing the evolution of Facebook.

    2. Personal touch – yes, it allows you to share some candid things which can show the personal touch. Subba has also pointed the same thing with some good examples.

    3. Viral – yes, the RT resembles the real world’s word of mouth effect. Excellent point.

    The only part i haven’t understood is your last point on commercial. I am not able to see how Twitter will make money? can you please give some specific examples other than advertising?

    To me both Facebook and Orkut seem outdated. Facebook seems to survive because it has a large community and also it is feverishly copying Twitter.

    Look forward to your comment after reading the other comments.

  13. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar. Other than ads, I am not able to think much as of now.
    Here each tweet with < 140 characters is concise (better than a single search word yet not overwhelming as a large blog or email) and can be linguistically analyzed with algorithms and target the ads.

    Other thing is paid users. For example, I can create a twitter account where my followers pay me for getting my tweets. I can be a consultant or stock adviser or a guru in my field. I can be a service that is usually niche and needs research for creating my bits of knowledge as tweets. Twitter gets a cut.

    Then of course we can make the content rich. If we can make twitter multimedia, it can be richer content than it is now. That way twitter will become one to many notification platform.

  14. Quote
    Ganesh said May 16, 2009, 5:10 am:


    Based on the comments, it looks like I am the only odd one out about Twitter. The comment about it being interrupt driven, was based on my feeling that it is a platform broadcasting text messaging, though you can chose to ignore a text message. Hindsight – since you can chose to follow your tweets at your pace and time, I have to take that strong statement back quite a bit

    I had a much more positive feeling about blogs, because it gave one an opportunity to present a cogent point of view and not hide in 140 chars limitation. Agreed, blogs are not always conversational, (though this blog certainly is), but it make one think before presenting a case.

    In normal conversations, there is real-time interaction. For me, strength of a relationship comes in two people managing to have a conversation going (not restricted by number of characters ;), kind of a back and forth in real-time. If you want such a real-time interaction with twitter, it becomes interrupt driven.

    Where is the conversation in twitter? I see just one-liners without any substantiation of data. I see a twitter from you that says – “look at this site, interesting thoughts on management”. I do not see any evidence as to why you like it, any pieces you disagree with and your important takeaways. And your followers say “me too!!” or “I disliked it” without any reasoning.

    Having said all of the above, I am still a novice at this and will have an open mind. Perhaps, I will be enlightened as you all have been when I am really helped by twitter!!

    The conversation about monetization for folks using twitter and twitter itself is interesting – one that I have been thinking about a bit with no firm answers. If people find a way to monetize in twitter, does twitter get a pie of the chunk? Does twitter become ad based or will people have to pay for more characters?

    About revenue generation, I do not know if I agree with this one point of Vamsi – “For example, I can create a twitter account where my followers pay me for getting my tweets. I can be a consultant or stock adviser or a guru in my field.”. In this case, I would rather subscribe to the guru’s blog, site in street.com where he/she will explain more about why I should listen to her – backed by data.

  15. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 16, 2009, 6:19 pm:

    Thanks Vamsi. I have not contemplated that much on how Twitter will make money. i am sure the company staff are working on that.

    As Ganesh says below, i am not sure i will pay to follow an expert because Tweets don’t give sufficient room to share real advice.

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 16, 2009, 6:27 pm:

    Thanks Ganesh. What is your handle on Twitter? I searched for your name and i could not find it.

    You are right, Blogs are a better way to have a more meaningful conversation.

    Now, i see your point on conversations potentially become interrupt driven. But even in that scenario, you are not required to respond immediately. I check my @replies whenever i goto Twitter and respond. Granted, that may not help me appear as responsive, but this is all i can do. In other words, all i am saying is, whether it is interrupt driven or not is under your control. On the contrary, an IM chat which is the closest to Twitter is highly interrupt driven.

    Hope that makes sense?

    In my post, i had analogized Twitter to “fine-grained interactions” which allow you to build relationships. In the same way, i see blogs as a “coarse-grained interaction” which requires the investment of more time.

    Let me give an example – The fact that most SAST Wingees still don’t visit/comment on the blog shows that they are not willing to invest the time and that may be due to the “coarse grained” nature of this medium.

    Will the SAST Wingees be amenable to trying Twitter? I think we may have better success. I am the eternal optimist, you see 🙂

  17. Quote
    Ganesan said May 24, 2009, 9:46 pm:

    Twitter’s founders are named as ‘Worlds’s 100 Most influential people’ by TIME magazine recetly.


    Among oher notables, A R Rahman and Nandan Nilekani are from India

  18. Quote
    Nimmy (subscribed) said May 27, 2009, 11:07 am:

    I haven’t done a lot of thinking on this topic…but your post motivates me to say a few things. It just occurred to me that we could label the three eras as follows: Information-based, Knowledge-based (increased subjectivity and larger number of perspectives), and Relationship-based.

    I definitely think Twitter is changing a lot of things but I am not sure I understand the complete consequences as yet. When I started blogging, I discovered a lot of people I could learn from and vice versa. My social networks, however, are restricted to people I already know. I don’t send or accept a friend request to/from people I do not already know. Twitter, though, is changing a lot of things for me. I have met a lot more people on Twitter than via my blog…and I personally connect with people in my profession and people who have similar interests or are fun/good to read. Twitter, basically, does not require you to spend a lot of time to connect with others. There is no commitment that you have to make. Even if people don’t read your blog, they may have the time to read your one-liners and links to blog posts that are really worth it. Moreover, when people get to read your one-liners over a period of time, they begin to probably understand you as a person and get to peek into many of the aspects that you think about/ponder over. Blog posts are slightly different – you don’t end up blogging about every thing you are doing/thinking of…you only pick up the topics you want to analyze at length. But, yes, the extent to which I understand a person’s views and perceptions on a specific topic from her blog post is much more than what I’d gather from a one-liner (most of the time). So Twitter cannot take that away! But, all said and done, people are lazy and will respond to a Tweet rather than a blog post. So, Twitter is a relationship builder while blogs are more of a thinking/knowledge creation tool.

    Let me talk about something that happened recently…to demonstrate how Twitter can make a difference….someone asked me a question on Spidergrams via Twitter. I had no answer and said so. But another person in my Twitter network noticed my response and decided to help by pointing me to his post on Spidergrams which I then forwarded to the person who posed the question. Now, I myself know a thing or two about Spidegrams! So, the quick question, followed by a response from someone else in my network has not only helped me learn something new but also make a mental note of the people who contributed to this learning exercise. And, increasingly, (I don’t know whether this is good or bad) I find myself relying on links to good blog posts via Twitter rather than spend time reading all the blogs that I subscribe to….(priorities!)

  19. Quote

    Thanks Nimmy. It is not clear why you want to change the names of the eras?

    Your example of spidergrams is one that most twitterers will resonate with. I have had several learnings like that as well.

    Yes i have also started picking up interesting articles from twitter than most other sources. That is one of the big shifts taking place. It is one of the things that made me say that Twitter is making a tectonic shift. More on this in my next post.

    Not sure i agree with your categorization that Twitter is mainly for relatioship building. By that token Blogging also is a relationship building thing. Only no one thinks of it that way. Inside the company, blogs have become the social networking platform for people. So it does build relationships. The diff seems to be the coarse-grained and fine-grained i mentioned. Blogging is more coarse-grained and Twitter is fine-grained.

    The tectonic shift in my view is due to the fact that Twitter has a lot more uses than relationships alone. What are those? Finding stuff to read you mentioned is one such. But there is more.

    Hope to cover it in my future posts.

  20. Quote
    Nimmy (subscribed) said May 29, 2009, 9:22 am:

    Hello Sukumar,

    Well, sorry if my comment gave you the feeling that I want to CHANGE the names of the era. I was just mentioning that when I saw the contents of each of the boxes, it occurred to me that they reflected utilities that revolved around information, knowledge and relationships respectively! Was just a perception that I wanted to share…

    Regarding Twitter being a relationship building tool, I guess I am only speaking from personal experience because I have ended up meeting new people and hobnobbing with them through quick one-liners – and understanding them better. Not that I have not exchanged thoughts via blog posts as well….but I am beginning to believe that it is easier to get to know a person via something like Twitter as you need not set aside a separate amount of time to read and respond like in the case of blog posts. Twitter just happens (more often than not). And yes, Twitter is definitely not ONLY a relationship builder…!

    There are so many Twitter tools out there that the mind boggles. I’ve not tried everything but twitter alerts based on keywords is a great way to find information and people, twitter trends are great to feel the pulse of the online world….and then we have people finding you because of your tweets and then letting you know something you wouldn’t have otherwise known (PULL mechanisms).

    Waiting to read your subsequent posts so my own thoughts on Twitter and its consequences are further developed!

  21. Quote

    Thanks Nimmy. The reason i chose to name the eras in this way may become clearer with my future posts.

    Yes Twitter is clearly good at relationships (that is what i tried to explain via my fine-grained and coarse-grained stuff). You are right, it is also good discovering new content and trends.

    Are there other uses? I think yes.

  22. Quote
    Ganesh said May 30, 2009, 4:41 am:


    It has been quite some time since I visited this post. About twitter enabling one to form fine grained relationships, I would term them more as acquaintances (though . It may look like I am talking semantics and nit-picking, but I believe it is important. The interaction I have with certain neighbors are not relationship building (though in some cases it can be). They are important for me to co-exist with others in a normal civil society that involves a certain give and take.

    Perhaps a better example would be someone I meet in a train. If I am traveling from Chennai to Bangalore, I would give a polite nod to my immediate co-passengers, perhaps strike up a conversation with a few, get acquainted with them and share some anecdotes. Perhaps, if I am lucky I may find someone with my same wavelength and end up forming a bond and life-long friendship. Now I have built a relationship.

    With Twitter and it being what I would term as being open-ended, the focus on relationship forming is not that heavy (atleast IMHO). Yes – if you are lucky, you may end up finding a few people with potentially the same wavelength, but again with it limitation of 140 chars, you are forced to talk in short hand unable to have a back and forth that solidifies the relationship.

    While I was looking at Twitter and the ways I can exploit it (a few months back), I came across this site – http://www.doshdosh.com/ways-you-can-use-twitter/. Sorry if I am stealing some thunder from your next post. I agree with some of the benefits, such as networking, branding, feedback etc.

  23. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 30, 2009, 8:56 pm:

    Thanks for your insights. Yes, you are right it is about picking up acquaintances. But that is what it seems like at first. Over time, as the interactions increase, the persons thoughts sort of grow on you, you can choose to expand the relationship using other channels as well. That is what happens to us in the real world. Taking your train example, yes i have made some friends via train journeys, but then they became real friends only over time using other methods of interactions.

    In sum, what i am saying is this, twitter can help you build relationships over time. I see the 140 chars as a strength rather than a weakness. It is a relatively effortless way of listening to someone’s thoughts and determining whether you want to continue or not. Speed dating comes to my mind (i have not done it, but i have heard about it) as an useful analogy. But unlike speed dating where you only get a couple of minutes to decide, here you can listen to a stream of tweets and then decide. Hope that makes sense?

    Thanks for the link. i had not read this particular one, but there are several such articles on what one can do with twitter. i hope i can add some more value to the conversation around twitter than what has already been said. Could be wishful thinking 🙂

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